The most important and longest trial in the whole history of Argentina came to an end on Thursday. After five years of hearings, involving 54 accused and 789 victims, 48 sentences were handed down: 29 life sentences, 19 convictions with jail sentences of between eight and 25 years, and six acquittals. The trial concerned human rights violations at the military dictatorship’s main concentration camp, the infamous “ESMA,” the Naval Mechanics School where people kidnapped by the regime were taken between 1976-1983.
The victims at ESMA numbered in the thousands, and the trial only involved the cases of some survivors and of the many who were killed during torture or thrown into the ocean from Navy airplanes in the infamous “death flights.” With these life sentences, an exemplary trial in the field of human rights has ended successfully, not only for Argentina but for all humanity.
It is now almost 40 years after the facts, but the trial of the leaders of the main illegal center for the detention, torture and killing of (presumed) political dissidents represents another step toward the edification of historical memory. The soldiers and officers now convicted have never repented, never collaborated with the judiciary, and, most egregiously, have never revealed the fate of thousands of desaparecidos (“disappeared”).
Now we know that many of the desaparecidos are at the bottom of the ocean. It is estimated that, on the ESMA “death flights” alone, more than 5,000 people were thrown alive into the ocean. Unfortunately, the blood pact of silence between the members of the military was not broken, and the relatives of the victims will never know exactly what happened to their loved ones. The unbroken silence of the killers was a constant in all the trials that have occurred in recent years. The impunity shown by the dictatorship, however, was made possible thanks to the complicity of many Argentines.
The arrogance of the military was on display in their two-pronged approach. On the one hand, they were hiding the existence of hundreds of concentration camps scattered throughout the country, estimated at more than 360. On the other hand, in front of the cameras, they feigned the normality of a military government supported by the highest authorities of the Catholic Church.
General Iberico Saint-Jean, governor of the province of Buenos Aires, unabashedly paraphrased Bertolt Brecht, saying: “First we will kill all the subversives; then we will kill their collaborators; then their sympathizers; then those who remain indifferent; and finally we will kill the timid.” These words were reported by Le Monde in France at the start of the dictatorship. This is how the complicity of a large sector of society and international indifference have made a genocide possible.
The process of historical reparations continues, as our memory is forgetful and must continually be reminded in order to not return to obliviousness. This long journey began in 1985 during the government of Raúl Alfonsín, who had the members of the military Juntas sentenced for crimes against humanity.
The harsh sentence, however, was not definitive. To calm the waters, the torturers benefited from a collective pardon in 1989 during the Carlos Menem government. But even before that, in 1986, Alfonsín himself reversed course and supported the “Full Stop” and “Due Obedience” laws to stop the avalanche of trials against the military. Further trials were not allowed, and the perpetrators of torture and murder were exonerated on the argument that those at the middle of the hierarchy had no decision-making power. Trials were impeded by the impunity laws until 2005, the year when the Supreme Court finally declared the laws unconstitutional.
Thanks to pressure from the government of Néstor Kirchner, hundreds of trials were reopened in Argentina and many defendants were convicted. General Jorge Videla himself died in prison in 2013 after admitting his “final disposition” that led to 30,000 desaparecidos. For the governments of Néstor and Cristina Kirchner, the promotion of human rights has remained at the center of policy concerns. The first time he joined the Assembly of the United Nations, Néstor Kirchner called himself a son of the Mothers of Plaza de Mayo.
The sentences have now arrived in an Argentina roiled by a return to the past with the policies of President Mauricio Macri.
The indigenous leader Milagro Sala remains in prison, even though the U.N. Human Rights Commission, Amnesty International and international public opinion consider his detention unjustified. The return of neoliberal policies is being accompanied by repressive policies of all types, which have gone to the point of causing the death of Nahuel Rafael last week, a man of indigenous heritage who was reclaiming the ancestral property rights over the Mapuche lands that are now owned by the Italian company Benetton.
It has been 40 years, but the wounds have never fully healed, and the difficult political climate brought by the Macri government shows how difficult it is, in the history of nations, to conclude that one has fully internalized that much-coveted “Never again!” the Nunca más that was proclaimed Thursday in the courtroom — a commitment to a future that will never be a return to the past.
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