The Agony of the Open Market
Gen. Jorge Videla, head of the military government that supplanted Isabel Perón, was Argentina's twenty-first president since 1930. His task was to restore order to a political economy in which violence and chaos had become endemic. Terrorism had reached the point where political assassinations were happening on the average of one every eighteen hours. At the same time, the economic picture could not have been more dismal. The annual rate of inflation had reached 920 percent; gross domestic production was down by 4.4 percent in the first quarter of 1976; and fixed gross investment was down by 16.7 percent. The budget deficit was enormous (equaling 13.5 percent of the GDP), and a balance of payments deficit of around $600 million exceeded the treasury's exchange reserves, making a default quite possible.
The government's answer to terrorism was the so-called dirty war, or counterterrorism, whose aim was to isolate and root out the urban guerrillas by creating a climate of fear that would paralyze their support network. The strategy of urban guerrilla warfare was based on small nuclei, or focos, operating in the anonymity of a great metropolis but supported by many sympathizers who furnished money, information, and hideouts. The most effective countermeasures for dealing with this network were death squads manned by policemen, military intelligence personnel, and even criminals who kidnapped and interrogated anyone suspected of having knowledge of the guerrillas' whereabouts. Such kidnappings were frequent, often occurring in broad daylight and carried out by men wearing civilian clothes. The victims were taken to police or military installations; sometimes any friends or relatives who were with them were also taken. Torture was routine for anyone unlucky enough to fall into this net. Afterward, the victims disappeared into special detention camps where many of them were killed. The actual number of desaparecidos is a matter of guesswork: estimates range from 6,000 (the OAS Inter-American Human Rights Commission) to 20,000 (Amnesty International, based on various exile sources).