Until the 1976 coup, and for months afterwards, the United States relied to a large extent on the armed forces as its main interlocutors in Argentina's turbulent politics. Unlike in Chile and Uruguay, where the U.S had backed reformist parties (at least until the emergence of a serious left-wing challenge in the early 1970s), it was consistently hostile to the most popular political movement in Argentina, Peronism. In the face of Peron's populist rhetoric, economic nationalism, and fascist sympathies, the military seemed to provide a moderate alternative, favorable to American investment, and just as staunchly anti-communist. Not only did it seem to offer the best hope of ending the country's chaotic violence: the military promised, as it had in Chile, to deal effectively with marxist subversion. Itself a cauldron of political violence during the mid-1970s, Argentina was home to hundreds of leftists exiled by the military coups in Chile and Uruguay.
The declassification of thousands of secret U.S. government documents on the Pinochet regime during the Clinton Administration has shed some light on Washington's relations with the Argentine juntas in the 1970s, as has additional information released earlier. Relatives of victims, Argentine human rights groups, European and Argentine judges, and members of the U.S. Congress have called on the U.S. government to authorize the declassification of more documents. In August, 2000, then-Secretary of State Madeleine Albright met representatives of the Abuelas and CELS during a visit to Buenos Aires, and in November she promised to declassify State Department documents on "disappearances," stolen children, and Operation Condor. At this writing (November 2001), the release of some 5,000 documents was shortly expected, unfortunately not including material from CIA or Department of Defense archives.
Previously declassified telegrams from the U.S. Embassy in Buenos Aires suggest that for most of 1976 a pro-military bias blinded officials from grasping the seriousness of the abuses that began within days of the coup.120 In a cable to Secretary of State Henry Kissinger, Ambassador Robert C. Hill described the March 24 coup as " probably the best executed and most civilized coup in Argentine history."121 For months, Ambassador Hill and his aides continued to describe junta chief Jorge Videla, now under arrest for crimes against humanity, as a "moderate." As reports of abductions and killings of leftists increased, the ambassador's reluctance to blame the military held firm, while his comments gave a hint of what was to come:
Latest acts have sent a collective shiver through population which had hoped coup would bring some measure of tranquility from violence from both right and left. At present there is no, repeat, no evidence to support charges that right-wing style violence is officially inspired. However, if acts continue without either an effective crackdown against them or strong statements of condemnation from authorities, new government's reputation for moderation and lawful behavior could be severely tarnished.122
Even four months later, with state repression undeniable, Ambassador Hill still gave credence to the official junta version that the violence was the product of out-of-control right wing groups. But he was now much less optimistic that Videla would or could intervene against them:
If anything, the actions of paramilitary or parapolice groups have increased since March 24. The same unmarked Ford Falcons are being used and reportedly many of the same "off-duty" federal policemen who participated in the Triple-A123 remain active in today's vigilante-style operations. Estimates of those who have been illegally detained run into the thousands and many have been tortured and murdered . . . . [Videla] does not wish to see his government's image damaged by human rights abuses. But, at the same, time his primary interest is the same as that of the hardliners: to defeat the left-wing terrorists. That will take precedence over everything. Including human rights. Videla will almost certainly not, repeat, not make an issue out of the latter if he believes that would risk bringing about ruptures within the armed forces, police rebellions, etc. He will tolerate excesses on the part of the security forces because he has to depend on them.124
So far, the public has not had access to memos and briefings from the CIA and other U.S. intelligence branches on the aftermath of the 1976 coup. However, it has been known for years that in May 1976, a bare two months after the coup, army commander Roberto Viola issued a secret order giving the armed forces a monopoly of counterterrorism operations, officially dissolving right-wing paramilitary groups with which the army had previously collaborated. This did not lead to an effective centralization of the repression, since local zonal commanders continued to act with great autonomy and without central oversight. It did, however, mean that the bulk of the abductions and killings were directly attributable to the state.125
With regard to Operation Condor, recently declassified documents show that, by August 1976, the U.S. Department of State was informed of "government-planned and directed political assassinations carrried out within and outside the territory of Condor members." In a telegram sent to U.S. embassies in Condor member states on August 16, 1976, Secretary of State Kissinger instructed the ambassadors to bring these concerns to the attention of "the highest appropriate official, preferably the chief of state." The ambassadors were to point out that "if these rumors were to have any shred of truth, they would create a most serious moral and political problem. Counterterrorist activity of this type would further exacerbate public world criticism of governments involved." Kissinger suggested offering "periodic exchanges of information with host governments on "communist and other terrorist activity in the region," while making it clear that such information should not include intelligence on individuals. "It is essential that we in no way finger individuals who might be candidates for assassination attempts."126
The U.S. did not explicitly denounce the systematic nature of the abuses until the beginning of the Carter Administration in January 1977. Thanks largely to two officials, Assistant Secretary of State for Human Rights Patricia Derian, and a political officer at the embassy in Buenos Aires, Franklin "Tex" Harris, Washington's policy changed from one of tacit support for the junta to a far more critical stance. Derian and Harris maintained closecontact with people directly affected by the repression, including relatives of the victims. Not only did the administration's information notably improve, but the contact with U.S. officials was a lifeline to human rights groups at constant risk of government reprisal. Secretary of State Cyrus Vance announced plans to cut in half military aid to Argentina (from U.S. $32 million recommended by the Ford Administration to $15.7 million), explicitly due to Argentina's human rights record.
In 1978, Congress passed the Humphrey-Kennedy Amendment to the Foreign Assistance Act, which prohibited all military sales, aid, loans or training to Argentina. The administration voted against or abstained from twenty-three loans to Argentina from international financial institutions.127
Unfortunately, this policy ended with the Carter Administration. In the late 1970's the security concerns of the United States shifted to the Central American arena following the overthrow of the Somoza dictatorship in Nicaragua in 1979, and the feared export of the Sandinista revolution to El Salvador. The incoming government of President Ronald Reagan was quick to mend fences with the Argentine junta. In February 1981, it ordered its representatives before international financial institutions to stop opposing loans on human rights grounds to Argentina and other Southern Cone countries. It began a long certification battle in Congress to resume military sales, loans, and training programs to Argentina, arguing that human rights conditions had dramatically improved. It was true that "disappearances" had declined, but more than a thousand political prisoners were still being held without charges, and temporary "disappearances," arbitrary arrests, and torture continued.
In March 1981, the Reagan Administration invited the head of the junta, Gen. Roberto Viola, to Washington. His successor, Gen. Leopoldo Galtieri, made two visits in the same year, reciprocated by high-ranking officers of the U.S. armed forces. Yet this brief honeymoon, sealed by Argentina's committment to open trade and investment and to help the U.S. counterinsurgency effort in Central America, was brought to an abrupt end by Argentina's invasion of the Falkland/ Malvinas islands in 1982. After Secretary of State Alexander Haig's efforts to mediate between the "two friends" of the United States came to nothing and war became inevitable, the United States sided with the United Kingdom, confounding Galtieri's expectations.128
After Argentina's humiliating defeat in the war, the United States lost a vital opportunity to back the country's democratic forces and press for a transition in which the rule of law and the principle of accountability would be respected. Instead, in its eagerness to mend fences once more, the administration did not oppose the departing junta's efforts to draw a veil over the abuses of the past and exculpate its officers of responsibility. In its 1982 Country Reports on Human Rights Practices, the State Department stated erroneously that the Argentine government had provided information to family members on 1,450 "disappearances," whereas the information related, in fact, to victims listed as killed, not "disappeared."129 The administration's criticism of the junta's exculpatory "Final Document on the Struggle Against Subversion and Terrorism" was shamefully lukewarm compared with the outright condemnation of other democratic countries. When the junta decreed a self-amnesty law three weeks before the elections that brought Alfonsin to power, the Reagan Administration was silent.130
In the U.S. courts, the story was quite different. Horror at the atrocities of Argentina's "dirty war" helped shape the evolution of U.S. jurisprudence on torture as a universal crime and the limits of sovereignty.
The landmark Filartiga v. Pena-Irala ruling of 1980 made history by awarding the first criminal damages against a torturer (a Paraguayan police agent) found to be in the United States.131 The Court of Appeals for the Second Circuit established that, under the 1789 Aliens Tort Claims Act, U.S. courts have jurisdiction over claims for torture brought by aliens against torturers found to be in the United States. In 1992, Congress codified these legal advances in the Torture Victims Protection Act, which holds liable for damages any "individual who, under actual or apparent authority, or color of law, of any foreign nation . . . subjects an individual to torture." During the decade between these important events, U.S. jurisprudence was largely shaped by Argentine cases.
Amerada Hess Shipping Corp. v. Argentine Republic (1987), Forti v. Suárez Mason (1987), Martínez Baca v. Suárez Mason (1988), Ouiros de Rapaport v. Suárez Mason, (1989), and Siderman de Blake v. Republic of Argentina (1992) followed in the steps of Filartiga. The defendant in all but one of the cases was Gen. Carlos Guillermo Suárez Mason, whose clandestine presence in the U.S after fleeing prosecution in Argentina triggered lawsuits from several of his victims. As commander of the First Army Corps, Suárez Mason participated in the preparation of the 1976 coup, oversaw the operations of task forces, and was ultimately responsible for secret detention camps in the densely populated region comprising Buenos Aires and its suburbs, La Plata, Mar del Plata, and smaller cities. In four separate rulings, U.S courts awarded multi-million dollar punitive damages against him for torture or extrajudicial execution.132
Suárez Mason had left Argentina in early 1984 after a federal judge ordered his arrest for the "disappearance"of a young scientist in late 1978. For the next three years he lived in secrecy in the United States, where he spent periods in Miami, New York, and San Francisco. He was finally captured in Foster City, California, in January 1987, and extradited after eighteen months in prison to Argentina, to stand trial on thirty-nine counts of murder and one count of forgery. The United States complied with its obligation to extradite Suárez or try him in the United States. Yet justice was denied when President Menem pardoned Suárez Mason before his trial was completed.
The other face of U.S. policy toward Argentina at this time was shown by the sympathetic treatment Suárez Mason received from certain U.S. authorites. President Reagan's national security advisor, Oliver North, is reported to have arranged a false visa for Suárez to enter the United States. North had reportedly been discussing with him the possible establishment of a pan-american counterinsurgency force, a proposal that emerged out of ongoing cooperation between the CIA and the Argentine military, in which Suárez Mason was an important actor.133
Beginning in 1980, Argentine army intelligence officers implicated in human rights violations during the "dirty war" played a key role in the U.S. anti-communist campaign in Central America. Following the overthrow ofthe Somoza dictatorship in Nicaragua, these officers oversaw an Argentine program of training and assistance to the Honduran army and the Nicaraguan contras, a U.S.-sponsored and funded guerrilla force notorious for its human rights abuses. The Argentine advisors trained both former members of the Somoza National Guard, in their new role as contra leaders, as well as the 3-16 Battalion, a Honduran death squad responsible for numerous "disappearances."134
The program was coordinated by an Extra-Territorial Task Force (Grupo de Tareas Exteriores, GTE) attached to Army Intelligence Battalion 601, in Buenos Aires. It was headed by José Osvaldo Ribeiro, a Battalion 601 member who had previously helped organize a clandestine detention center at the Campo de Mayo military base outside Buenos Aires, and had been an army intelligence chief in Mendoza and Bahía Blanca provinces. Some of its officers were former members of the AAA, such as Raúl Antonio Guglielminetti, who had operated in clandestine detention centers in Buenos Aires and Neuquen. Another Battalion 601 intelligence agent, Leandro Sánchez Reisse, accused in a kidnapping case in Argentina, testified in the U.S. Congress in 1987 that the group operated from Miami and Fort Lauderdale, Florida, under the cover of front businesses, and with the authorization of the CIA.135 Both Guglielminetti and Sánchez Reisse were reported to have received intelligence training in the U.S. in 1976.136 These covert CIA activities began during the Carter Administration, ostensibly without the approval of the White House or Congress.
Altogether, about 184 Hondurans "disappeared"from 1979-1989 at the hands of the Honduran police and army. While "disappearances" had been sporadic before, the practice became systematic between 1981 and 1984, coinciding with the arrival of the Argentines.137 A preliminary report by the Honduran National Commissioner on Human Rights, Leo Valladares, published in 1993, listed fifteen Argentine officers involved in training Battalion 3-16.138 Valladares's persistent efforts to obtain details of the Argentine connection from declassified official sources in the United States and Argentina brought meager results. During an official visit to Tegucigalpa, in May 1996, President Menem agreed to provide information on Argentine military operations in Honduras. Valladares travelled to Buenos Aires in October of that year, but "he was told by the Argentinian under-secretary for human rights, Alicia Pierini, that no official documents exist about past repressive military operations in Honduras. Pierini emphasized that `we also seek to reconstruct the historical truth about the tragic National Security Doctrine.'"139
The declassification of U.S. State and Defense Department and CIA documents ordered by President Clinton in response to requests from Valladares, beginning in 1993, also threw little light on the Argentine connection. The bulk of the information provided concerned specific "disappearance" cases raised by Valladares. The heavily exciseddocuments contained almost no information on the CIA's involvement in training the Hondurans and the contras, or on the role of the Argentines. The declassified CIA Inspector General's report, published on August 27, 1997, admitted for the first time that the CIA had known about the systematic human rights abuses committed by 3-16 Battalion, but had failed to report on them.140 How the United States allowed Argentine officers with a known track record of appalling human rights abuse to have taken the lead in training their Honduran counterparts, is a question that remains to be answered.
Human Rights Watch
Human Rights Watch is dedicated to protecting the human rights of people around the world.
We stand with victims and activists to bring offenders to justice, to prevent discrimination, to uphold political freedom and to protect people from inhumane conduct in wartime.
We investigate and expose human rights violations and hold abusers accountable.
We challenge governments and those holding power to end abusive practices and respect international human rights law.
We enlist the public and the international community to support the cause of human rights for all.
The staff includes Kenneth Roth, executive director; Michele Alexander, development director; Reed Brody, advocacy director; Carroll Bogert, communications director; John Green, operations director; Barbara Guglielmo, finance director; Lotte Leicht, Brussels office director; Michael McClintock, deputy program director; Patrick Minges, publications director; Maria Pignataro Nielsen, human resources director; Jemera Rone, counsel; Malcolm Smart, program director; Wilder Tayler, general counsel; and Joanna Weschler, United Nations representative. Jonathan Fanton is the chair of the board. Robert L. Bernstein is the founding chair.
Its Americas division was established in 1981 to monitor human rights in Latin America and the Caribbean. José Miguel Vivanco is executive director; Joanne Mariner is deputy director; Sebastian Brett, Robin Kirk and Carol Pier are researchers; Daniel Wilkinson is the Orville Schell Fellow; Jonathan Balcom and Marijke Conklin are associates. Stephen L. Kass is chair of the advisory committee; Marina Pinto Kaufman and David E. Nachman are vice chairs.
Web Site Address: http://www.hrw.org
131 Amerada Hess Shipping Corp. v. Argentine Republic, 830 F. 2d 421 (2d Cir. 1987); Forti v. Suárez Mason, 672 F. Supp. 1531 (N.D. Cal. 1987); Martinez Baca v. Suárez Mason, No. C-87-2057-SC (N.D. Cal. Apr. 22, 1988); Quiros de Rapaport v. Suárez Mason, No. C-87-2266-JPV (N.D. Cal. Apr. 11, 1989); Siderman de Blake v. Republic of Argentina, 965 F.2d 699 (9th Cir. 1992).
132 Americas Watch (as the Americas division of Human Rights Watch was then known) the Center for Constitutional Rights, the Southern California chapter of the American Council for Civil Liberties, and the San Francisco-based law firm of Morrison & Foester, litigated three civil suits for damages against Suarez Mason on behalf of the victims under the Alien Tort Claims Act. The information gathered for the lawsuits assisted in securing Suárez Mason's later extradition to Argentina.
134 In May 1983, Héctor Francés García, a former agent of Argentine army intelligence's 601 Battalion, testified in a video shown to journalists in Mexico City that, beginning in 1980, he and other intelligence officers from the battalion travelled to Honduras and worked alongside the Honduran army and police, and the CIA. Miguel Bonasso, "El arrepentido del 601," 3 Puntos, June 28, 2001; Norberto Bermúdez y Juan Gasparini, El Testigo Secreto (Buenos Aires: Verlap, S.A., 1999), pp. 40-42.
137 See Americas Watch, Human Rights in Honduras: Signs of the "Argentine Method," December 1982; Human Rights in Honduras: Central America's "Sideshow," May, 1987; Amnesty International, Honduras: Civilian Authority: Military Power (AMR 37/02/88).
138 Center for Justice and International Law (CEJIL) and Human Rights Watch/Americas, The Facts Speak for Themselves: The Preliminary Report on Disappearances of the National Commissioner for the Protection of Human Rights in Honduras (New York: Human Rights Watch, 1993), p. 208-211.
139 Leo Valladares Lanza and Susan C. Peacock: In Search of Hidden Truths, An Interim Report on Declassification by the National Commissioner for Human Rights (Tegucigalpa, Honduras, 1998), chapter II.
140 CIA Inspectorate General "Selected Issues Relating to CIA Activities in Honduras in the 1980's (96-0125-IG),"August 27, 1997 (available at http://www.gwu.edu/~nsarchiv/latin_america/honduras/cia_ig_report/). See also National Security Archive, "Secret CIA report admits: `Honduran military committed hundreds of human rights abuses'and `inaccurate' reporting to Congress," Washington, D.C., October 1998 (available at http://www.gwu.edu/~nsarchiv/news/19981023.htm.