The sentencing this week of two dictators from that period on charges of stealing the babies of political prisoners serves perhaps as a small degree of justice for the many suffering families, but also as a grim reminder of the horrors that took place during that era.
The Argentine military took control of the country during a period of economic decline and political instability. Despite at first being welcomed by the people as a potential stabilizing factor in an otherwise chaotic society littered with terrorist attacks, workers’ strikes, and massive inflation, no one could have foreseen the terrible events that were soon to come.
Under the leadership of General Jorge Rafael Videla, the military embarked on a campaign to restore order which before long turned into a chilling offensive of state terrorism. The movement began as an attempt to suppress terrorist threats against the state emanating from the left and right, and also to suppress the threat of armed revolution which had taken place in numerous other Latin American countries recently. However, as has too often been the case in history, the junta (as it has since become infamously known) lacked the ability to control its newfound authority and before long innocent people became victims of the cruel and oppressive regime.
Estimates suggest that as many as 30,000 people simply disappeared during that era, suspected to have been tortured and killed after being snatched in the night by Videla’s death squads. Learning from the Nazis, the junta understood that leaving no evidence meant less chance of accountability for its actions.
People lived in daily fear, wondering if they might be the next to go. No one was immune to the terror. Men, women and children were all subject to treatment that would make any person reevaluate the very depths of human evil and depravity. All, that is, but those trained at special facilities to impose maximum suffering on innocent people.
One such group of victims was pregnant women — whether already expecting a child at the time of arrest or falling pregnant during incarceration, usually as a result of rape. Although it is known that a number of women did give birth while being held, the destiny of many of those children is only now being uncovered.
The suspected outcome, resulting in last week’s trial, is that some 500 babies were taken from their mothers and given to members of the military. In recent years, many have come to understand the circumstances of their upbringing, yet reconciliation with their birth mothers is not possible in most cases.
The trial is one of a number concerning the Dirty War in an attempt to finally bring justice for the families of the victims and to punish the countless human rights abuses that took place. While already serving life sentences for their roles in the atrocities, General Videla and General Reynaldo Bignone, both in their 80s now, were given sentences of 50 years and 15 years respectively.
There is still a long way to go. Of the more than 1,800 individuals named as being involved in the Dirty War, only 65 have been sentenced to date. Yet the trial serves as an important symbol of progress and ignites hope that the wounds of the past can in some way be healed.