Jorge Rafael Videla: the dictator who died in jail

He led the cruelest years of Argentina’s last dictatorship

It was a chilly early morning in the Marcos Paz penitentiary when Jorge Rafael Videla, the infamous dictator, was found dead in his cell at age 87. He had died of a cardiac arrest. 

News traveled quickly across the world: one of the faces of Argentina’s cruelest dictatorship, dead in the cell of a common prison. 

The human rights organizations and survivors of the dictatorship era fought long and hard for the dictators to be tried and sentenced to jail. They asked for them to go through a process their victims never had: being properly investigated and judged. 

To this day many questions and gaps about Videla’s role during those dark years of Argentine history remain unsolved. As he died, he took with him the truth about many of his victims’ fates. 

The first five years of horror

On March 24, 1976, Videla sat before six microphones and a camera to read a 45-minute statement announcing the military coup against Isabel Perón’s government and the start of what he called a “national reorganization process”. 

“Our country is undergoing one of the hardest phases in its history, the intervention of the armed forces is the only alternative,” he said 

He was proclaimed president by the military junta that led the coup, and stayed in charge for five years. 

Originally from Mercedes, a town in Buenos Aires province, Jorge Rafael Videla was a military man who built a long career between 1944 and 1975. He held various roles during the Argentine Revolution, a dictatorship that lasted from 1966 to 1973, and was, by 1976, the head of the armed forces. His designation in 1975 was announced by Antonio Cafiero, a member of Perón’s government at the time. He described Videla as “an apolitical, absolutely professional man, who could never carry out a coup.”

Although Videla was considered part of the “soft” wing of the junta, reportedly pushing for a quick transition back to democracy, those five years were the cruelest of the military dictatorship. They were tainted by an orchestrated and silent annihilation system against those labeled “subversive”: of the 30,000 kidnapped, tortured, murdered and disappeared, most were abducted during the Videla years. 

Over 500 babies born in captivity were stolen by the military, some of whom have not recovered their true histories and identities to this day. A network of clandestine detention centers was set up across the country. There was a climate of terror that kept many from speaking out, while thousands fled the country in order to avoid being kidnapped. 

It was also in 1976 that the Operation Condor, a scheme hatched by the armies of eight South American countries to capture and kill leftist militants, had Argentina as its epicenter. 

During his years as de facto president, and those that came after, Videla insisted that the disappeareances, tortures, murders, rapes and abductions carried out by the armed forces during those years were the result of defending the interests of the country. 

In a Casa Rosada press conference in 1979, Videla made one of his most notorious public statements when asked about claims of human rights violations in Argentina. 

“We Argentines should not be ashamed, because what happened was a defense of human rights, threatened by terrorism,” he said. “The disappeared are an incognita (…) as long as they remain disappeared, they can’t have special treatment, for they are disappeared; they’ve no entity, they’re neither dead nor alive, they’re disappeared: we can’t do anything about it.”

During a TV interview in 1980, he said that the so-called “war” had “left an amount of dead, prisoners and disappeared that was painful,” but that he felt proud that the armed forces had “won”, because “today, the country enjoys peace, freedom, respect.”

“It came at a high cost,” he said, “but the people agreed that we had to do it in order to achieve peace.” 

The military junta referred to the crimes against humanity perpetrated during the dictatorship as the “dirty war”, implying that its atrocities were a necessary evil to win a war between foes of equal standing. Today, it is considered an offensive and denialist term by Argentina’s human rights movement because it portrays victims of state terrorism as combatants.

At that point, the Mothers and Grandmothers of Plaza de Mayo, alongside other human rights organizations, were working incessantly to find information about the fate of their loved ones. Videla and his associates targeted them as “crazy”. 

After the return of democracy in 1983, a growing number of victims summoned the strength to speak out about what had happened to them.

Videla was tried in the historic Trial of the Juntas (portrayed recently in the film Argentina, 1985 by Santiago Mitre), where he was sentenced to life in prison for 469 crimes against humanity. 

He was later pardoned in 1990 by President Carlos Menem alongside other Junta members and guerrilla activists, in what the president considered an attempt to “reconcile” the military with those who had fought against it. 

Videla went back to prison briefly in 1998 when a Federal Judge ordered his pre-trial detention for the crime of child appropriation. After 38 days, he was placed under house arrest until 2008, when Federal Judge Norberto Oyarbide ordered his detention due to the gravity of his crimes. He spent the last five years of his life in prison.

With time, Videla would be convicted twice more: to another life sentence in 2010 for the killing of 29 political prisoners in San Martín in 1976, and to 50 years in prison in 2012 for the systematic plan that led to the abduction of twenty children under the age of 10. 

In a document called “The dimension of impunity”, the Public Prosecution Ministry organized information about Videla’s court cases, showing that he was accused in 24 cases that encompassed more than 1,200 victims. He died before being tried for many of his crimes, including those under Operation Condor.

Jorge Rafael Videla never revealed the fate of those who remain missing, nor what happened to the babies abducted in captivity, among other questions. The victims’ families are still searching for answers to this day. 

The Herald’s archive

On September 5, 1977, Videla traveled to the United States to take part in the signing of the Panama Canal Agreement at the OAS. During his weeklong trip, he held meetings with U.S. President Jimmy Carter. Carter expressed concern over human rights violations in Argentina, but Videla stood by his administration’s actions.

Several other Latin American leaders traveled to Washington those days – including dictators Alfredo Stroessner in Paraguay and Augusto Pinochet in Chile. 

The Herald reported at the time that “when the two touched on the sensitive human rights issue, Carter expressed his concern for the number of people who are jailed in Argentina, the need for them to be quickly brought to trial, and the need for Argentina to let the rest of the world know the situation of the prisoners.” 

Simultaneously, the Herald published an editorial by Robert Cox that said that, as Videla was in the US making commitments to improve the transparency of the detentions, Alfredo Bravo, the founder of the Education Workers’ Confederation (CTERA), had been kidnapped. “This incident,” wrote Cox, “calls for just the kind of action that President Videla has been promising in Washington. Unless the words that have, apparently, won over President Carter are followed by action, the country’s unfortunate image will become even blacker in foreign eyes – and with justice.” 

As with the Deutsch’s family case in Córdoba, Cox’s views and the Herald’s coverage would become, once again, bold and necessary. Bravo would spend 10 days captive, being tortured by Miguel Etchecolatz, one of the dictatorship’s most violent repressors. His testimony before the US embassy’s officials in 1978 would become the grounds for a memorandum in which the U.S. government’s Latin America advisor Robert Pastor would recommend working on “a new strategy with Argentina.” 

President Carter’s comments did not, however, alter the course of Videla and the Junta’s actions. Videla would be replaced as dictator by Roberto Viola in 1981. After being tried and pardoned, he spent most of the nineties avoiding the public eye. He was seen occasionally going to church and in a small number of media appearances. 

Every day for the last 47 years, the families of the victims of his coup, civil society and human rights advocates across the world have worked to register, testify and tell the stories of the years when Videla and the Junta suspended Argentine democracy and inaugurated some of the darkest years in the country´s history. Videla is remembered in Argentina today not as a monster, but as the result of what authoritarianism, violence, and hatred can provoke. 

Thanks to the efforts of those who sought truth and justice from the very beginning, he is also remembered as a dictator that underwent due trial, was sentenced, and died in a common prison cell ten years ago today. 


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