Over 1,000 Convicted in Argentina for Crimes during the Dictatorship

Photo of a mosaic today with the faces of persons at the infamous ESMA clandestine detention center in Buenos Aires, Argentina. By EFE

Eight officials who participated in the violent repression of 1976-1983 were convicted on February 18th. They were found guilty of crimes against humanity, and sentenced to prison terms ranging from 6 years to life.

By Rodrigo Garcia (EFE)

HAVANA TIMES – On Thursday, February 18th, the Argentine courts declared eight agents of repression guilty of crimes against humanity. They were sentenced to prison terms ranging from 6 years to life.

The crimes were committed between 1976 and 1983, within the Argentine military’s largest illegal center for detention and torture. The years of this dictatorship were marked by State terrorism. Over 1,000 persons who participated in the violent repression of the period have already been sentenced.

The trial was conducted in Buenos Aires’ Federal Criminal Court and lasted two and a half years. The Oral Tribunal’s sentence finalized the fourth large-scale trial held up until now for crimes committed during this era. The crimes had all taken place in the former Navy School for Mechanics (ESMA). Estimates indicate that some 5,000 people passed through this center. These prisoners were kidnapped and tortured; many were thrown live into the sea in a practice called “flights of death”.

The trial’s final hearing with the verdict and sentencing, was held virtually.  Three of the accused received life sentences: retired official Carlos Mario Castellvi; former Police agent Raul Armando Cabral; and Army civilian intelligence official Miguel Conde. Conde had been born in Madrid, Spain, but was a nationalized Argentine.

Four former petty officers of the military were sentenced to 15 years each. These were Carlos Nestor Carrillo, Ramon Roque Zanabria, Jorge Luis Ocaranza and Jose Angel Iturri. Claudio Vallejos, a draftee doing his obligatory military service at the time, received a sentence of six years in prison.

All eight were judged to be guilty of crimes against some 800 victims. Zanabria and Carrillo were already in preventive detention, according to sources from the Public Prosecutor’s Office. Castellvi, Conde, Cabral, Iturri and Ocaranza had been under house arrest, and Vallejos has been free for two years. His sentence was declared served, due to the time he already spent in jail. All of them received guilty verdicts for the first time, the source told EFE.

During the trial, the Prosecution requested life sentences for all the accused, except Vallejos. In his case, the prosecution had asked for a six-year sentence. Vallejos was accused of participating in the 1977 kidnapping and subsequent disappearance of Hector Hidalgo Sola. Hidalgo was an Argentine diplomat and leader of the Radical Civic Union. He was seen at the time by other victims in the ESMA center, but his eventual whereabouts and fate were never determined.

The Public Prosecutor’s office determined that the rest of the accused were carrying out duties within an ESMA task force. That task force was responsible for kidnappings, tortures and homicides against political dissenters. They later chose to “hush up” their responsibility and the victims’ fates.

Crimes against humanity committed in the ESRA installations

“These crimes were committed against humanity. Those committing them are enemies of humanity,” prosecutor Felix Crous declared during the trial. He termed the ESMA an “industrial apparatus for human destruction”.

Crous explained that most of the Navy group was made up of students and low-level personnel. These functionaries called the kidnapped by their numbers, to form a line and be taken to the bathrooms. They also distributed food and guarded the prisoners.

“The Green”, as that group was called, had free rein to torment the victims and commit sexual abuses. The Prosecutor recalled the story of one of the victims. That person had testified that members of the group “mounted motorcycles and rode over the bodies of the victims in the [ESMA] basement.

A prior trial – the third for crimes committed in the ESMA – finalized in November 2019. It ended with 29 people condemned to life, while another 19 received lesser sentences. Six of them were absolved.

During Argentina’s military dictatorship, militants from both armed and unarmed revolutionary groups passed through the ESMA building. These installations had formerly held a social club for ESMA officers. Along with the politically committed, workers, students, artists and religious figures were kidnapped and taken to this center.

The prisoners were first taken to the basement, where they were tortured in order to extract information. The dictators sought information on their political organizations, as well as names of other active members.

Next, victims went to the third-floor, known as “the hooded area”, where most of the prisoners were held. The same area held pregnant women waiting to give birth. These children were later taken from their mothers and given to families aligned with the regime.

For the “flights of death”, the drugged victims were lined up, put on an airplane, and thrown into the sea.

According to human rights organizations, the seven years of state terrorism in Argentina produced the disappearance of nearly 30,000 people.

In 2004, the government of Nestor Kirchner (2003 – 2007) announced the creation of the Space for Memory and for the Defense and Promotion of Human Rights. This is located in the ample courtyard of the complex once belonging to the ESMA. The Argentine Armed Forces definitively abandoned the installations in 2007.

Thirty-eight years of attempts at justice

The Trial of the Juntas in 1985 resulted in guilty verdicts for the regime’s highest leaders. Following that, hundreds of cases were opened to judge the lower command structure. These trials were interrupted by two laws: the Full Stop Law and the Law of Due Obedience. These laws were passed during the presidential term of Raul Alfonsin (1983-1989).

Later, President Carlos Menem (1989-1999) pardoned the members of the military who had participated in the dictatorship, together with pardons for leaders of the leftist guerilla movements.

Then, in 2005, During the Kirshner presidency, Argentina’s Supreme Court declared the Full Stop and Due Obedience Laws to be unconstitutional. The trials were renewed.

Argentina’s Special Prosecutor for Crimes against Humanity published new data on December 30, 2020. According to this, since 2005, 3,448 people have been accused and 250 sentences have been issued. These sentences found 1,013 people guilty, 276 of them with at least one firm verdict. One hundred sixty-four defendants were acquitted.

Of those under investigation, 904 died during the 14 years of legal processes. A total of 692 passed away before they were sentenced, and 212 died after the court verdict of guilty or innocent.

Twenty-five of the people accused of crimes against humanity have fled. These people have a price on their head. The Argentine government is offering between US $5,573 and US $11,147 for their capture.

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