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Dirty War

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Alternate titles: El Proceso; Guerra Sucia; Proceso de Reorganización Nacional; Process of National Reorganization
Written by The Editors of Encyclopædia Britannica
Last Updated

Dirty War, Spanish Guerra Sucia, also known as Process of National Reorganization, Spanish Proceso de Reorganización Nacional or El Proceso,  infamous campaign waged from 1976 to 1983 by Argentina’s military dictatorship against suspected left-wing political opponents. It is estimated that between 10,000 and 30,000 citizens were killed; many of them were “disappeared”—seized by the authorities and never heard from again.

On March 29, 1976, five days after Argentine Pres. Isabel Perón was deposed, a three-man military junta filled the presidency with Lieut. Gen. Jorge Rafaél Videla. The junta closed the National Congress, imposed censorship, banned trade unions, and brought state and municipal government under military control. Meanwhile, Videla initiated a campaign against suspected dissidents. Throughout the country the regime set up hundreds of clandestine detention camps, where thousands of people were jailed and persecuted. Because leftist guerrillas had been widely active in the country beginning in the late 1960s, the Argentine government, which maintained that it was fighting a civil war, initially faced little public opposition, but this began to change in the late 1970s, with growing evidence of civil rights violations. The Mothers of the Plaza de Mayo, an association of women who had lost children and grandchildren to the Dirty War, began calling international attention to the plight of the desaparecidos (“disappeared persons”) through weekly Thursday afternoon vigils in the Plaza de Mayo, fronting the presidential palace; the vigils continued until 2006. A particularly vocal critic of both left- and right-wing violence was Adolfo Pérez Esquivel, who was arrested and tortured in 1977 and received the Nobel Peace Prize in 1980. For the most part, however, opposition was choked off by rigorous censorship, strict curfews, and fear of the secret police.

Videla was succeeded in March 1981 by Gen. Roberto Viola, who, with the Dirty War near its end, was quite unable to control his military allies. In December he was shouldered aside by Lieut. Gen. Leopoldo Galtieri. Galtieri faced a slumping economy and increased civil opposition to military rule. After he launched Argentina’s disastrous invasion of the Falkland (Malvinas) Islands (see Falkland Islands War), he was removed from office on June 17, 1982, three days after the conflict ended. Gen. Reynaldo Bignone was installed as president on July 1, 1982. Under Bignone political parties were allowed to resume activities, and general elections were announced; meanwhile, elements of the armed forces worked to conceal evidence of crimes committed during the Dirty War.

Democracy was restored to Argentina when Raúl Alfonsín of the Radical Civic Union, a major centre-left political party, won the presidential election of 1983. Shortly after his inauguration, he reversed legislation passed under Bignone by announcing plans to prosecute several members of the defunct military government, including former presidents Videla, Viola, and Galtieri. He also repealed a law granting amnesty to those accused of crimes and human rights violations during the Dirty War, and hundreds of military personnel were prosecuted. In the trial of nine former junta members in 1985, five were convicted, including Videla and Viola. Galtieri was acquitted in that trial, but in 1986 he was convicted, along with two other officers, of incompetency in the Falkland Islands War.

Later, however, under increased pressure from the military, President Alfonsín pushed two amnesty laws through the National Congress: the full stop law and the due obedience law, passed in 1986 and 1987, respectively. The former set a deadline for introducing new prosecutions, while the latter granted immunity to hundreds of military officers below the rank of colonel who were determined to have been following orders. (Exceptions were made for cases of rape or the abduction of babies.) Nevertheless, rebellion broke out within the military in the spring of 1987. There were more revolts in 1988, as the military remained discontented over wages, inadequate equipment, and the trials of its members stemming from the Dirty War.

Alfonsín resigned in mid-1989 and was succeeded by Carlos Menem (served 1989–99), who in 1989 and 1990 pardoned Videla and other top officers convicted of abuses during the Dirty War. However, Videla later was charged with kidnapping babies and giving them to childless military couples during his regime. He was placed under house arrest in 1998 and sent to prison in 2008 after a judge revoked his house arrest status. Viola and Galtieri died before 2005, the year that Argentina’s Supreme Court voted to repeal the amnesty laws passed by Alfonsín. Afterward hundreds of military officers were tried, and several were convicted. In 2007 Bignone was charged with human rights abuses and taken into custody; he was convicted in 2010 and received a 25-year sentence. In 2012 Videla, Bignone, and seven others were found guilty of the systematic abduction of babies born to political prisoners; Videla was given a 50-year sentence, while Bignone received 15 years.

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