Fear and Intimidation During the Dirty War in Argentina: Los Desaparecidos

2595 words (10 pages) Essay in History

23/09/19 History Reference this

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To What Extent Were ‘Los Desaparecidos’ The Main Factor In Spreading Fear And Intimidation During The Dirty War In Argentina?


Section 1: Identification and Evaluation of sources

       This investigation will explore the question: To What Extent Were ‘Los Desaparecidos’ The Main Factor In Spreading Fear And Intimidation During The Dirty War In Argentina? The years 1974 to 1983 will be the focus of this investigation, to allow for an analysis of the buildup of military junta control and their means of keeping their power.

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       The first source which will be evaluated in depth is Mark J. Osiel’s article “Constructing Subversion in Argentina’s Dirty War”, published in 2001. The origin of this source is valuable because Osiel is a professor at The University of Iowa, specializing in Criminal/Humanitarian Law. He has written extensively on how we may improve the law’s responses to mass atrocities, publishing over 6 books and many articles, indicating his knowledge on the matter. Furthermore, the publication date, 25 years after the military junta took initial control, allowed for many sources to come to light such as, interviews with survivors and the criminal trials investigating the military to occur. However, the origin of the source is limited in that Osiel is an American studying this event from an outsider’s perspective. He provides readers with a scholarly analysis of all sources, but could be amenable to false sources or events detailed in an incorrect manner.

       The purpose of Osiel’s article is to analyze how subversion in Argentina. Osiel’s motivation to write the article is valuable, for it indicates that he examined his sources to the greatest extent and made sure to find sources greatly supporting his thesis of subversion in Argentina. However, the fact that the author covered material of an event originating in a foreign country, limited his sources and restricted his paper to a great deal of analysis rather than a showcasing of sources with analysis following.

       The second source evaluated in depth is Suzie Dod Thomas and Olga Talamante’s “Dirty Wars: On the Unacceptability Of Torture—A Conversation with Olga Talamante”, an interview that took place in 2006. The origin of this source is valuable because the Olga Talamante, is a survivor and  a first hand account of the disappearances in Argentina. Additionally, the date of the interview, 2006, allows for reflection of the events after many of the officers have been convicted and laws such as the “McCain Amendment” have been passed (Talamante 121). However, this date is also a limitation, it is 30 years after the event and her memories of what occurred could be faulty. In terms of origin, the source is also limited in that Talamante was a foreigner in Argentina, this could have made her sentence less pronounced and allowed for her early release.
       The purpose of this source is to provide a first hand account of the torture in Argentina. The interview provides valuable insight into what was happening behind the scenes. The source is, however, limited in its purpose in that Talamante, an advocate for anti-torture and founder of many human right organizations can be exaggerating certain points in order to get her claim across.

Section 2: Investigation

It is March 29, 1976, a military junta has just taken control of Argentina’s state government. After imposing an exhaustive campaign of imposed censorship, banned trade unions, military controls over the government, and closing the National congress, Argentina’s new president Lieutenant General Jorge Rafaél Videla began a campaign against what were considered left-wing dissidents (O’Donnell). Calling themselves the National Reorganization Party, they had a goal of eliminating the political left and the Peronist party and instituting what they considered to be true democracy and returning the moral values to the country (Gomez 18). Over the next couple of years this “goal” led to civil rights violations so heinous it would impact the Argentina for decades to come and foster the creation of many human rights organizations such as Madres del Plaza de Mayo and Abuelas De Plaza de Mayo, the mothers and grandmothers of the disappeared who gather at the la Plaza de Mayo, the central plaza of Buenos Aires, to ask for justice. Furthermore, this campaign would lead to an estimated 30,000 disappeared persons many of which were students, professors, militants, trade unionists, writers, and artists. It is no question that this period of military dictatorship was based on of fear, intimidation, and suspicion and main way those in power made these fears rampant was through these kidnappings and disappearances. Although this was the main factor in spreading fear and intimidation during The Dirty War in Argentina, there was also the use of secret police and the Catholic Church that spread intimidation to a lesser extent.

During this period people who questioned or criticized the existing order were criminalized and made to be the “subversive other” (Osiel 120). Some officers still refer to the war as “the war against subversion” instead of as “ the Dirty War”.  Similar to Nazi Germany the subversive other was the one who was targeted during periods of genocide. During the Dirty War this was the political left, the Peronistas, and any political opposition to the dictatorship. Being a political dissident during the 1970s in Argentina meant that you might be put in the back of a van on a walk to the supermarket or school and never be seen by your family and friends again. Those that disappeared were often taken to clandestine detention centers called pozos (“pits”) and chopaderos (“black holes”) (Robben). Disguised as naval schools, athletic clubs, among others, these detention centers served to torture anyone that entered in a discrete manner. According to documentation form the United States Embassy, torture used to intimidate included “electric shock, the submarine (prolonged submersion under water), and severe beatings including El Telefono (simultaneous blows are delivered to both ears with cupped hands) (Grafeld).  Each center had its own forms of torture but a commonality was that when a desaparecido went in they would be forced to endure abhorrent conditions until the point of their death or, very rarely, their release. Whispers of what occured to the desaparecidos at these facilities petrified the Argentine people. According to Haydeé Gastelú, a Madre de Plaza de Mayo, “People were scared, If I talked about my kidnapped son at the hairdresser or supermarket they would run away. Even listening was dangerous” (Goñi). This shows how the military juntas had successfully instilled fear in the population, their goal was to terrorize the Argentine people so deeply that no one would consider opposing the government (Talamante 121). Many factors played a role in spreading fear amongst the Argentine people during this time period, but the most significant was the whispers and the rumors surrounding los desaparecidos and not knowing what happened to their sons, daughters, neighbors, and friends that disappeared. Los desaparecidos were the most significant factor in spreading intimidation and nipping political dissent at the bud during the Dirty War in Argentina.

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Although los desaparecidos were the most significant factor there was also a fear of secret police. In Argentina, ‘‘captors terrified the [detainees] by lecturing them on the boundless liberty of army of officers to torture and kill at will,’’ the terrorizing effect of their speeches was a paranoia that simmered in the Argentine people (Osiel 140). The police, military, guards, and captors of the period created an image around themselves of a fire that could not be tamed or touched. They shared inflated, exaggerated stories with the motive of inspiring fear in those around them and it worked. People lived in fear that they might be taken for any small thing that they did. For governments, repression is an instrument to achieve political goals (Scharpf 208).  This image they created around themselves only help fuel repression during the Dirty War. The stories they told inspired fear in the general population and made them too scared of the military and police to resist. Living in a society where everyone falls into the net of people that can be abducted, resistance was futile and the Argentine police, military, guards, and captors helped create this mentality amongst the populations.

In Argentina, the Catholic Church played an essential part of spreading fear during the Dirty War. Churchmen taught that the positive law of the secular state could be ignored when inconsistent with the higher morality of God’s law, this justified the government’s actions and actions (Morello 130). With 76.5% of Argentines being Roman Catholic and many Pope’s originating from the country, the church’s backings of the government’s action not only allowed the juntas to continue their crusades it also made the society less enticed to resist and go against the government.  Torturer Jacobo Timerman said, “Only God gives and takes life, but God is busy elsewhere, and were the ones who must undertake this task in Argentina” (Osiel 140). This testimony shows the justification the catholic church provided the juntas. Not only did they feel like what they were doing was correct, but they performed their actions with pride and vigor as the catholic nationalism promoted by the church allowed them to. Furthermore, the state protected the churches monopoly which explains some of the complicity of the church (Morello 6). Endorsement by the elites was extremely important for the church. On 15 April 2005, a human rights lawyer filed a criminal complaint accusing Pope Francis of conspiring with the junta in 1976 to kidnap two priests. The fact that corruption can reach someone as highly regarded as Pope Francis shows just how deep the junta’s influence went. As much as people disliked the military dictatorship, they feared it to the point that they felt like they had to do what they said. The catholic church helped spread fear and intimidation during the dirty war by reinforcing the actions of the juntas.

In conclusion, the Dirty War was an infamous campaign waged from 1976 to 1983  of national reorganization in Argentina where an estimated 10,000 to 30,000 people “disappeared” so the military dictatorship could eliminate political dissent and spread fear. Fear and intimidation was caused by many factors during this period such as the Catholic Church’s compliance and the actions of police and the military, but the most significant factor that spread this fear was the “desaparecidos”,  Argentine citizens kidnapped, tortured and murdered whose bodies mysteriously disappeared. They included who the military junta thought might be a political or ideological threat to Argentina, which in reality was anyone who held a differing opinions. It was an era of massive human right violations and political turmoil and what drove it the most were these desaparecidos.

Section 3: Reflection

         Due to this investigation, I have gained an insight into the challenges historians face when conducting a historical investigation and the methods that they use. I came to understand how a historian must gather a variety of sources in order to examine a period as thoroughly and accurately as possible. To ensure a successful investigation, I researched, examined, and analyzed and myriad of scholarly sources and authors, all tools used by a good historian. I learned a lot about looking into the past and ensuring you get information as accurate as possible, but I also encountered limitations as any historian would.

       Whether it be a first hand account, a poster, or a picture, there is no one type of proof that makes up our history. A historian’s job is to cross-check all their sources to insure the most accurate interpretation possible. As I began reading my research, I became aware of the difficulty of this task and quickly realized that it is up to a historian to make sure our interpretation is history is as accurate a possible.  Sources such as Olga Talamante and Suzie Dod Thomas’s “Dirty Wars: On the Unacceptability Of Torture—A Conversation with Olga Talamante.”, a first hand account of the events in Argentina provided detailed insight into the events of the day, however it could be subject to human error and manipulation. I cross-checked accounts like these with more reliable documents such as Margaret P. Grafield’s , director of the US Dept of State, official government memorandum detailing the atrocities occurring in Argentina. The combination of a first hand testimony and an official document is one way a historian can ensure the sources they examining are reliable.

        My constant encounter with the world “atrocity” led me to inquire about value judgements and if they should be used in history or not. One example is Antonius Robben’s “From Dirty War to Genocide: Argentina’s Resistance to National Reconciliation.” Robben’s use of value judgements allows the reader to feel the intensity of the event and connect the Argentine Dirty War to other events linked to the word atrocity such as the Holocaust. Furthermore, Mark J. Osiel’s “Constructing Subversion in Argentina’s Dirty War.” constructs a discourse, qualifying the war as an atrocity. I believe Argentina’s Dirty Wars classification as a genocide allows for it to be classified as an “atrocity”. In context, the use of value judgements allows the author or speaker to portray the impact of the historical event.

        In conclusion, this investigation has helped me understand the work and limitations of historians. I’ve come to appreciate the task they take on of assessing the reliability of sources and making judgements about sources.

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