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Echoes of an infamous Easter: the carapintada mutiny

Heavily armed carapintadas demonstrate their power seeking impunity for the perpetrators of state terrorism.
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By Juan Pablo Csipka
For the Herald
Thirty years ago, as Easter Week arrived, Argentina’s fledgling democracy faced its first military challenge. For once, people took to the streets to support a government yet the four-day crisis left many fearful. The consequence of the carapintada uprising was the Due Obedience Law, a bill that would reshape the country’s human rights landscape forever and allow torturers and abusers to get off scot-free. This is the story of what happened on a fateful — and unforgettable — Semana Santa.

“If a general shows confidence in his men but always insists on his orders being obeyed, the gain will be mutual.” — Sun-Tzu, The Art of War

On the night of Wednesday, April 15, 1987, president Raúl Alfonsín was in his hometown of Chascomús, unwinding at the beginning of Easter Week (or Semana Santa as it’s known locally). A phone-call put an end to his rest.

“This is more serious than we thought,” Horacio Jaunarena, the minister of Defence, told him ominously.

A military crisis was in progress. Alfonsín returned at once to Buenos Aires City to face what would end up being one of the most challenging moments for Argentina’s then-newly reborn democracy.

A few hours earlier, in Córdoba, major Ernesto Barreiro had refused to testify in court after being indicted in a trial looking into crimes that had taken place at La Perla, the province’s largest clandestine detention centre during the military dictatorship that ruled the country from 1976 to 1983.

Instead of appearing before the court, Barreiro went to the 14th Regiment, rallied the troops in support and started a rebellion that would soon spread beyond Córdoba. Three days later, lieutenant colonel Aldo Rico took over the Infantry School inside the Campo de Mayo military base in support of Barreiro.

The origin of a crisis

The military uprising had its genesis in the earliest days of democracy: how would the Alfonsín government face up to the crimes of the dictatorship?

In his campaign, Alfonsín had rejected an amnesty for the military and proposed what he called three levels of responsibility: those who ordered the repression, those who obeyed orders, and those who had exceeded them.

The first step was the Trial of the Juntas, in 1985. The judges included in their sentences what the government considered to be a controversial issue: the 30th point, which ordered the judgment of all officers involved in state terrorism.

The situation was unclear for all. Former Defence minister Jaunarena says that “in 1983, we had no agreement among lawyers as to the limits for disobeying a military order. No-one had ever studied whether an officer could consider that an order given to them was illegal.”

In 1983, Jaunarena was the right-hand of Raúl Borrás, the first Defence minister of the democracy. Then a lawyer aged 41, he disagreed with the ideas put forward by two of the president’s advisors, the prestigious jurists Carlos Nino and Jaime Malamud Goti. Both favoured punishing offenders on a case-by-case basis, without distinguishing levels of responsibility.

“In my view we needed a cut,” Jaunarena says to the Herald, looking back. “The chief officer would always be responsible except when the subordinate had overstepped his rank. The Nino-Malamud Goti thesis would drag out the trials, and that would be risky for the safety of democracy.”

Jaunarena and Borrás managed to get an appointment with Alfonsín to discuss the issue, before he took the presidential oath. It didn’t begin well — they arrived 30 minutes late.

“Punctuality will be important in this administration,” said Alfonsín, launching into his support of Malamud Goti and Nino. The three-level thesis would be a judicial, not political, question, the president-elect explained.

By early 1986, that was how things had played out. All the officers involved in human rights abuses would face justice after sentences were handed down to those who had ordered the kidnapping, torture, killing and disappearing of thousands of Argentines.

Instructions

By April, Jaunarena was already deputy minister, next in line behind Germán López, as they prepared a document called Instructions to the Prosecutors. Human rights organisations and a part of the Radical Party declared that it was to set an end for the trials.

The Radical opposition called for Lopez’s resignation. Jaunarena was to be his replacement.

“Nobody had even read the Instructions or understood the text. It was written according to the 30th point in the Trial of the Juntas, ordering military prosecutors to investigate responsibilities,” he says.

The main critique was that the Instructions to the Prosecutors would protect subordinate officers by making a cut in the chain of commmand. These low-ranking officers would face the judicial system only in case of “excesess.”

Jorge Torlasco, one of the judges who had sentenced former military dictators Jorge Videla and Emilio Massera to life imprisonment, resigned in order to underline his opposition to this plan.

“The main problem was that the Judiciary was extremely active. There were citations every day, and officers were extemely nervous,” recalls Jaunarena.

After the failure of the guiding document, Alfonsín sent Congress a new plan: the Full Stop Law. It was based on the notion of setting a time-table, in order not to over-extend the trials.

Facundo Suárez Lastra, the deputy Interior minister at the time, says today that “the Full Stop (Law) was going to end the feeling of permanent suspicion that hung over the officers. But it was a tactical mistake, and led us to the Easter Week crisis.”

For Carlos Lordkipanidse, a member of the Association for Ex-Detainees and Desaparecidos (AEDD), “the 1985 trial demonstrated (that there was) a systematic plan to eliminate the opposition and revealed the dimension of horror to the country.

“With the Instructions the idea was to get a statute of limitations, taking only the high command to court. We rejected that project and the Full Stop Law, which would have ended trials,” he says.

There was a large demonstration held against the Full Stop Law. Members of the AEDD marched, dressed in chains and hoods, as they had been in the camps.

“We presented the Justice Department with lists of officers’ names. They were all responsible for the genocide. We made those lists alone, without any state support,” adds Lordkipanidse.

The Full Stop Law established a 60-day deadline to prosecute officers involved in human rights violations, but — according to Jaunarena — “it backfired, because all the trials started to accelerate.”

Carapintadas

in the spotlight

After the defeat to the British forces in the 1982 Malvinas/Falklands War, Argentina’s own Armed Forces faced a double rupture. Officers who had been involved in political repression felt abandoned by their superiors once the investigations began. On the other hand, some officers extremely critical of the military leadership during the war in the South Atlantic. Many officers — most of them majors, captains and colonels — were part of one or both groups. Most of them were anti-liberal, far-right and ultra-Catholic. They started to deliberate on their options and what to do next, feeling that Alfonsín’s policies were unduly aggressive toward them.

Both Jaunarena and Suárez Lastra were aware of the sentiments. “We knew there was some kind of movement afoot in the Armed Forces, so something could happen in any moment,” Suárez Lastra told the Herald.

An explosive event occurred in Córdoba, in a regiment Alfonsín had visited in 1986. On April 2, 1987, the military chaplain there, José Miguel Medina, openly criticised Alfonsín to his face during a Mass for the fallen of the Malvinas/Falklands War, forcing the president to improvise a speech in reply to him some minutes later.

The AEED recalls that in those days, the Navy had refused to collaborate in cases investigating officers at the ESMA Navy Mechanics School. That summer of 1987, the first insubordinations after the assage of the Full Stop Law would appear.

Ernesto Barreiro knew he would be brought before the courts and he went to the capital in search of support. By February, after the 60-day deadline established by the Full Stop Law, with trials and citations accelerating, some of the officers took a kind of blood oath, swearing among themselves that they would stop the trials.

From a meeting with another officer, Barreiro would gather another ally, just days before the mutiny would take place. His comrade was a 42-year-old lieutenant colonel, a veteran of the Malvinas/Falklands War, who was serving at that time in a regiment in San Javier, Misiones. His name was Aldo Rico.

While Barreiro hid in Córdoba, Rico went from Misiones to the Campo de Mayo military base and took over the regiment with the help of other officers. Rico faced colonel Luis Pedrazzini, the man in charge of the Campo de Mayo, and declared to him that they were going to back Barreiro. He informed Pedrazzini of their objectives: an amnesty for all officers on trial, the resignation of Army Chief-of-Staff Héctor Ríos Ereñú and a higher budget for the Army. This was mutiny, plain and simple.

Until that moment, the problem was only in Córdoba. Alfonsín had gone to Chascomús, aware of what was going on in that province, and he returned inmediately to Buenos Aires City when Jaunarena delivered him the news from Campo de Mayo.

Once Barreiro started the mutiny, all the political parties began to mobilise in support of democracy. The Congress, which was to go into session on May 1, had a special meeting with a crowd on the streets. News from the Campo de Mayo reached Buenos Aires by midday of Thursday, April 16: a disorganised crowd, with no politician at its head, massed in front of the regiment.

Civil society was in the presence of what began to be known as the Carapintadas, due to the way the rebel commands of the Campo de Mayo painted their faces as if they were in action. Campo de Mayo was the epicentre of the crisis.

Tension was at its peak when Alfonsín arrived at the Congress that evening. Speaking before the congressmen and senators he dismissed the notion of a military coup.

“This is a well-thought-out action which seeks a law to benefit all military personnel accused of human rights violations. The time for coups is over, as is the time for pressures. There is nothing to negotiate.”

A lost patrol

That Friday, as on all Good Fridays, there were no newspapers. Radio and TV informed the people of what was going on. The crisis had given birth to a new element, one never seen before during a military rebellion in Argentina: people demonstrating support for the democratic system. It was one of the key elements of those days.

At 11an, Rico’s voice entered every home via Radio Mitre, as Juan Carlos Mareco, Néstor Ibarra and Rubén Corbacho spoke with the rebel colonel entrenched in the Campo de Mayo. In this 15-minute conversation, he put forth the idea of an amnesty to achieve what he called “a reconciliation among Argentines.”

For the govermnent, the interview was a scandal.

Juan Carlos Pugliese, the Speaker of the House, combined irony and criticism when he said: “In the end, we’ll have a coup by radio.”

Before the day was out, Colonel Pedrazzini had decided to leave the Army due to the loss of the Campo de Mayo. There would be another resignation too: Ríos Ereñú. The Army chief had decided to retire in the previous months, during the Instructions and Full Stop debates. The mutiny was too much for him. He was asked to stay on until the end of the crisis.

Meanwhile, all regiments in the country were asked about the situation. All declared their support for the Constitution of the Argentine Republic. Then, in a flash, the crisis seemed to be over. The news came from Córdoba: Barreiro had escaped from the 14th Regiment and the main officer in charge, Colonel Luis Polo, had surrendered.

At that point the possibility of military action in the Campo de Mayo was clear, so the government ordered a general to be ready to attack. This led to the most tragic-comic event in the crisis: general Ernesto Alais’ expedition.

Alais was in charge of the II Division in Rosario, and his troops were dispatched to the Campo de Mayo to force Rico’s surrender. But he never arrived. What had happened?

According to Jaunarena, the explanation is simple and banal: “It isn’t easy to get soldiers in 24 hours. Especially on holidays.”

The II Division’s tanks were on their way from Rosario, in an endless march that never finished, say the critics 30 years later. The situation showed that the Army wasn’t convinced as a whole about quashing Rico.

The whole of society was gripped in perpetual motion. Suárez Lastra, already the mayor of Buenos Aires, remembers that spending the days in City Hall.

“I spoke in front of a huge audience of our Radical Committee. People wanted to go to the Campo de Mayo. I had to convince them to stay put. ‘Our place is in the Plaza de Mayo,’ (those) were my words. Jesús Rodríguez and Marcelo Stubrin were in the Campo de Mayo making a big effort to control the people that wanted to advance (on the carapintadas).” There were many risks that ran concurrently. The rebels also used the demonstration in Campo de Mayo to pressure the government. At some point they threatened to shoot the crowd if anyone trespassed onto the military base.

Rico Meets Ríos Ereñú

and Jaunarena

Saturday, April 18, 1987, 7.15am. The Libertador Building, Army headquarters.

Héctor Ríos Ereñú has an appointment with Aldo Rico. The rebel lieutenant-colonel arrives with Captain Gustavo Breide Obeid. Still Army chief, he wants the surrender of the rebels and announces his resignation, declaring that he’ll leave the Army once the uprising is over. Rico refuses to accept his authority and considers that Ríos Ereñú is the one responsible for what is going on, as he couldn’t negotiate a political solution after the Trial of the Juntas.

Rico leaves the building; there is still no solution.

Then, it was decided that the lieutenant-colonel should be confronted by a figure of political authority. For the first time, the leader of the carapintadas would meet with Horacio Jaunarena.

“I went to the Campo de Mayo that Saturday evening. Rico repeated his conditions: amnesty, a new Army chief, and a bigger budget. The new chief had to come from a list prepared by his group,” Jaunarena remembers. “I rejected his conditions. I told him we would have a new law for the officers, Alfonsín would designate a new chief, and there would be no budget increase, simply because we didn’t have money. He went to talk to Breide Obeid and said he couldn’t get anything.”

Jaunarena left the meeting optimistic, with the sense that the rebellion would soon be over. But everything changed on Sunday morning, when Rico refused to hand back control of the regiment.

“You lied to me. I was told by Melchor Posse that we’d have an amnesty, not that law you promised,” said Rico.

“Can’t you distinguish between the Mayor of San Isidro and the minister of Defence?” responded Jaunarena, who quickly reached another conclusion: “They wanted Alfonsín in Campo de Mayo to finish it all.”

The public square

“Don’t let him go. It’s dangerous. They are armed, and after four days without sleeping, they’re very agitated. Stop the president, please.”

Suárez Lastra remembers the president’s aide begging. It was too late. Alfonsín anounced to the crowd in the Plaza de Mayo that he would go to the Campo de Mayo.

Ernesto Crespo, the Air Force chief-of-staff, went with him, travelling by helicopter. “Crespo told us he had the power to attack if necessary,” says Suárez Lastra, the former mayor of Buenos Aires. Jaunarena adds that “Crespo stayed by the helicopter; we didn’t want a conflict between the defence forces. Ríos Ereñú ordered the generals to guarantee Alfonsín’s safety.”

Alfonsín met Rico while the people stayed in the Plaza de Mayo. “It didn’t take too long, but there was uncertainty. Once he left the Campo de Mayo we knew everything was over,” said Jaunarena.

What happened there, in that meeting? Alfonsín promised Rico the law Jaunarena had spoken of to the lieutenant-colonel the day before: the Due Obedience Law. (In fact, the president had already spoken about this law in a speech in Las Perdices, Córdoba, on March 23.)

“Please, understand us. They made us do things we’d never imagined and after that we went to fight against the British. We were treated like lepers,” Breide Obeid told Alfonsín.

It was a touching moment for the president.

That comment may have been the reason the former president said: “Some of these men are Malvinas/ Falklands heroes,” to the Plaza de Mayo, after wishing everyone a “Happy Easter!” and declaring to the crowd: “Our house is in order, there is no bloodshed in Argentina.”

Alfonsín wasn’t alone that day either. Political figures like the Peronist leader Antonio Cafiero stood beside the then-president, later that day on the balcony of the Casa Rosada.

For the AEDD, “it was an act of sellout. Alfonsín had thousands on the streets, huge popular support, and (he) decided to negotiate.”

The expression, “Our house is in order,” would remain the hallmark of those days.

Jaunarena and Suárez Lastra insist on emphasising the peaceful resolution of events. “There was no blood. Which is how Alfonsín wanted it,” they say in agreement.

The law

In June, Congress approved the Due Obedience Law. Henceforth, all officers obeyed orders. The only excess the law contemplated was disappearance or the forged identities of snatched minors. Officers would elude justice until August 2003, when Congress repealed them.

General José Dante Caridi replaced Ríos Ereñú. He was not on Rico’s shortlist, but one of the generals on that list, Fausto González, was designated as Chief Deputy.

For Jaunarena, “everything would have been different with the Instructions or the Due Obedience Law (in place) before the uprising. We paid a political price for the way the law was approved.”

For Suárez Lastra, he believes the episode was a democratic triumph against authoritarianism. “We got the Army onto our side. Rico started a new mutiny in Monte Caseros and the Army didn’t hesitate when it was time to attack,” says the former minister, although he concedes the possiblity that there may have been some kind of backlash vote against the Radicals in the 1987 elections, when they suffered a big defeat.

“It is said that the end of the Alfonsín era began during Semana Santa. I would say economics was more important. Though it influenced people in the 1987 election, when Cafiero won Buenos Aires,” remarks Suárez Lastra.

The AAED, along with other human rights groups, denounced the Due Obedience Law. “After that, we looked to the judicial system in cases of babies born in captivity,” Lordkipanidse says.

Rico would lead another riot, in January 1988, in Monte Caseros, Corrientes. It was a failure.

Alfonsín would face another carapintada mutiny, led by Mohamed Alí Seineldín in late 1988 that would end in the officers’ surrender.

Two years later, Carlos Menem used force to end a fourth uprising. After that, he pardonned Videla, Massera and other military chiefs, who had gone to jail in 1985.

Rico began a political career as a Peronist and became the mayor of San Miguel.

Alfonsín would go full circle, supporting the Congressional annulment of both the Full Stop and Due Obedience laws in 2003.

Three decades on from the events that shook Argentina’s fledgling democracy, Ernesto Barreiro — the man who set off the Easter Week crisis — is now serving life in prison for his crimes at La Perla.

@jpcsipka
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