Daughter and defender of the military. Propagandist and provocateur. Vice president of Argentina.
Days after the run-off, Victoria Villarruel meets with incumbent Vice President Cristina Fernández de Kirchner to talk about the upcoming transition process. No photos are taken. A green Ford Falcon is parked outside, a marker of right-wing factions emboldened by Villarruel’s rise to prominence. Since winning alongside Javier Milei, she has been keeping a lower profile than during the frenzied electoral campaign — but working behind the scenes is Villarruel’s forte.
Villarruel has a long history of activism defending some of the core ideas of the dictatorship. In the 15 years before she joined Milei on La Libertad Avanza’s ticket, she expanded the reach of discourse that defended the National Reorganization Process [the junta’s name for the military dictatorship], developed precise arguments to that end, wrote two books about it, gave dozens of conferences, appeared on endless TV shows, toured high-schools, and thoughtfully produced content for her social media accounts.
During the early 2000s, as trials for crimes against humanity against dictatorship repression agents were reopened, Villarruel opened the toolbox of the human rights movement and grabbed a few of their tools. She created an organization that only blood relatives of the dead could join. She made a list, accounted for the dead, rewrote their biographies, quoted fragments of international law to use as a principle of authority, painted murals, toured branches of the United Nations. For years, non-stop.
She wasn’t alone: she was part of a political program driven by identifiable people and institutions, which aimed to value the state violence of the 1970s. She did, however, supply a specific contribution: she disputed the category of “victims.”
The history of the organizations that bring together former members of the security forces, their families, and the families of their deceased colleagues, began after the end of the dictatorship. They form acronyms that few Argentines would recognize apart from the military and some academic groups: FAMUS, UP, AAMC, AUNAR, AFyAPPA, AVTA, AFAVITA, ARPANA. There are lots of As, because Argentina has a leading role in their names. The rest include M for memory, C for complete, U for union, T for terrorism, P for prisoners, S for subversion, V for victims.
Generally, their figureheads are unknown even to people in the know, except Karina Mugica — a regular advocate of state terrorism on prime-time TV, who dated repressor Alfredo Astiz and led the NGO Memoria Completa until she resigned in 2006 — and Cecilia Pando, another military daughter who has publicly defended officers in the trials. These organizations’ goals changed with the times: get former military officers out of their trials, get members of guerrilla organizations on the stand, and get the military to serve their pre-trial imprisonment and conviction times at home instead of in jail.
The one constant thing in the last 40 years has been the effort to build up a memory of the war against subversion. For a long time, these debates were intense but barely public, although there were exceptions such as the one led by Ricardo Brinzoni, the Army Chief named by the Alianza government, who demanded “a complete truth.”
In 2006, when the human rights policies of early Kirchnerism began its golden age and the trials for kidnappings, tortures, killings and disappearances were restarted, Victoria Villarruel, who majored in Law in 2003, created the Center for Legal Studies on Terrorism and their Victims (Celtyv).
In 2014, Sudamericana publishing house released Los otros muertos: Las víctimas civiles del terrorismo guerrillero de los 70 [The Other Dead: The Civilian Victims of Guerrilla Terrorism in the 1970s], co-written by Villarruel and Carlos Manfroni.
In her book, Villarruel blames the Argentine guerrilla for 1010 deaths between 1969 and 1979, with their names, dates, and the organization responsible. The list was crafted with data that was published in newspapers. Her selection criteria was not entirely clear: while she claims they were civilians, several of those mentioned in the list were in the Army. Eighty-four are included as “N.N.” [the Argentine acronym for “John/Jane Doe”], and therefore their condition can’t be assessed, nor whether they are among the ones already identified.
With Los otros muertos in hand, Villarruel built the platform where she would speak: she designated herself as the spokesperson of a group of people who had rarely (if ever) played a lead role in public debates about the armed resistance. Neither militants nor military, these were people who hadn’t chosen to be part of the fighting. While it’s true there were many whose belonging to this group was debatable, there were others who carried (and still do) a greater complexity. Kids who died in attacks by revolutionary organizations before and after 1976, for example.
When Villarruel was in the starting position of her public career, victims were already key figures in the way public issues are created in Argentina. Also, there were already at least two currents connected around that figure. The victims of state violence (either by a dictatorship, or a constitutional regime) were usually represented by human rights or antirepression organizations. In parallel, Juan Carlos Blumberg — a textile businessman whose son Axel was killed after being kidnapped for ransom in 2004 — had emerged shortly before and was able to gather the victims of common crime around a widespread demand for harder policies on crime he managed to channel into Congress, which sanctioned a reform of the Penal Code. This trend was later picked up by Carolina Píparo, Buenos Aires province governor candidate for La Libertad Avanza who has been sidelined since the election. The history of how victimization ended up in the center of Argentine politics is gripping, but we should mention that a discourse that demanded rights for a group of victims and more imprisonment for perpetrators had a very fertile ground to grow in.
In an interview she gave to Cristian Palmiciano, author of a thesis about Celvyt, Villarruel said: “The focus is on the civilian victims, who were the most neglected of all”. With this plan, and for years, she has spent hours on TV. Who could argue against the victim status of this group of dead people? The only way to do so is to debate about armed resistance: what it was, what it meant, what was their rationale, what was their ethics. Prickly, difficult, impossible to do in a vociferous debate TV show like Intratables — there is no shortcut. Why play along with such a mise en scene? That is how Victoria Villarruel found space to recite a monologue that has spread to her social media. She doesn’t stop. She has found the sweet spot. She is deft. She jokes. She laughs.
You may also be interested in: Dictatorship-era threat: green Ford Falcon parked outside Senate
Victoria Villarruel is a member of the military family. Her father, Eduardo Villarruel was in the Argentine Army. He himself wrote about his work in the seventies: “I was part of the fight against subversion, both in the rural and urban scenarios and an active participant in the ‘Independencia Operation,’ for which I was granted an Honor Diploma”. After that stint in Tucumán in 1976, Villarruel’s father was stationed for several years in Campo de Mayo, the Army base where one of the most vicious clandestine centers of detention and torture used to operate. Then in 1982, he fought in the Malvinas War, where he seconded the Commando Company 602, led by Aldo Rico.
In May 1987, Defense Minister Horacio Jaunarena ordered his arrest as a sanction for refusing to take the oath all officials must take to abide by and defend the National Constitution, and for encouraging his subordinates to do the same. The episode trumped his career for years until his retirement in 1996. Later, he worked in building security and cleaning in the city of Rosario, where he created a company (Safety Argentina) that seems to be the one providing for this side of the family.
Victoria’s mother is Diana Destéfani, another military daughter, of Navy officer Lauro Destéfani in this case. Victoria often mentions her father and grandfather, thanking them for teaching her that “we had to fight for our values”. But she never mentions her uncle: Ernesto Guillermo Villarruel, a captain within the structure of the 3rd Regiment of La Tablada, which managed the clandestine detention center “El Vesubio.” Captain Villarruel was arrested during the 2015 elections when he went to vote. At the time, he was 71 and worked as an inspector in the Buenos Aires City’s Government Control Agency, an entity that enforces regulations. One year later, he was deemed unfit to stand trial for crimes against humanity due to health reasons. His wife worked for more than 30 years in the country’s Supreme Court, ever since her appointment during the dictatorship until 2014. The couple’s daughter and son are currently working in that Court as well.
Victoria Vilarruel resents being called a “denier.” A lawyer specializing in freedom of speech issues recalls a case: a few years ago she sued a journalist because she believed an article about “defendors of genocide agents” was detrimental to her image.
“She claimed that she was being treated as a young girl, as if she had organized a show, when she had actually worked her whole life organizing the fight for a complete memory, and for not being depicted as the article did,” he recalls. A few days before she would announce her candidacy in the 2021 PASO elections on the TV show “A dos voces,” on the Todo Noticias network. Villarruel had a long conversation with journalist Pablo Sirvén in La Nación+. He introduced her as “a human rights activist”.
—Sirvén: Are you a denier?
—S: Were there violations of human rights in the dictatorship?
—S: Is it right that those violations of human rights have been tried?
But the truth is Victoria Villarruel’s public discourse has oscillated, it changes to fit the time and the audience. In the beginning, she claimed that what happened in the seventies was a war, a clash between two sides in arms, an argument she still uses in her social media. For example, in April 2006, in a bulletin by the Union for Promotions (UP), a group created in 2005 to resist the reopening of the trials, she wrote: “in a context of war, killing your enemy is legal.” This initial statement is complicated in terms of facts because the content of “killing” and the definition of “enemy” used by the dictatorship is pretty far from what Villarruel tries to present as if it were an outdoor battle in World War I.
But let’s follow that logic. The core of her argument is that “the Argentine case” shouldn’t abide by the international laws on human rights, but the right of war emanating from the Geneva Convention. This way, the category of crimes against humanity — which determined the non-applicability of statutory limitations and enabled the trials — would no longer work. There is a significant distance between this way of reasoning and the answers she gave to Sirvén. But there is yet another step: since you cannot kill civilians in wars, the relatives of the other dead have a right to demand trial and punishment. It’s impossible to summarize the size of legal precedents around the issue of what kind of law applies to the different types of crimes committed in the seventies. Still, the military’s methods didn’t respect the Geneva Conventions, since one of its main points is that the people killed in an armed conflict must be identified and their bodies must be delivered to their families, and if that is not possible then they must be buried with dignity.
At the same time, Vilarruel developed a differentiated and insightful communication strategy at the Celtyv: the Center never mentions state violence, neither for nor against it. And they condense their communications, focusing on victims with a specific biographic style: short stories about how they died, almost always with pictures, set in family scenes, in their everyday lives.
In 2016, two years after the release of Los otros muertos, for the first time, an official of the Executive Power met with representatives of an organization that justified state violence in the seventies. Victoria Villarruel and other Celtyv members met at the Former ESMA with Claudio Avruj, the Secretary of Human Rights of Mauricio Macri’s administration. Following backlash for this decision, Avruj said the policies of memory, truth, and justice were not part of the agenda, and compared the meeting to the one he had with relatives of people who died in the fire of the nightclub Cromagnon.
The members of Celtyv didn’t see it that way, and spoke about a “change of paradigm”, of hope and joy, of “a turning point in our lives.” For the human rights organizations and the so-called progressive universe, the Cambiemos universe receded on policies related to memory and the punishment of state repression. But for Celtyv that wasn’t enough. They had gone to demand that the state would recognize the other dead as victims, and gave them that status through some kind of symbolism, like a monument. They didn’t succeed.
It’s September 2021 and the post-pandemic atmosphere hangs heavy. Victoria Villarruel walks onto a stage, there are thousands of people, many of them very young, very stylized and even more excited. Vicky, Vicky, they yell. She raises a hand and encourages them. She sings, the caste is afraid, the caste is afraid. And says: “They call me an agent of genocide, a fascist, a denier, the same ones who justify the crimes of communism around the world. So, I don’t care about labels and I’m not afraid of nicknames: if stealing everything in the name of the poor is to be left-wing, I am right-wing. If usurping land from the state and the people is left-wing, I am right-wing. If advocating for the impunity of terrorism is left-wing, gentlemen, I am right-wing. If voting in favor of laws like the Renting Law, the Micaela Law, the Yolanda Law, the law that sticks inclusive language in the media is left-wing: I am right-wing.”
Now, Villarruel’s agenda is about the present, but its aura emanates from well-established ideas. She is up on the stage and yells: “That is why, regardless if they label me or our front, I want an Argentina with life, liberty and property.” Vicky, Vicky. A few days later, during a rally in Parque Lezama, Villarruel was dressed in a furious red, receiving an even larger ovation, especially after thanking “everyone for being present at the end of the most rebellious political campaign in recent years.”
Two years later, September 2023. Villarruel takes the microphone in the Buenos Aires Legislature and leads an event commemorating those she calls the “victims of terrorism,” to general public outrage. In November as Argentines headed to the polls for the third time, she turned to cameras outside her polling station — a kindergarten in Caseros — to clap back at relatives of dictatorship victims protesting against her. She described a mural honoring the disappeared, saying it was as “out of place as painting [a picture of] Barney the bear [sic] in a cemetery.”
In the week preceding the presidential inauguration, the general understanding is that Villarruel did not get what she wanted, given that the Security and Defense ministries are in the hands of erstwhile presidential contender Patricia Bullrich. But that analysis examines a still image instead of the whole film: on December 10, the 40th anniversary of Argentina’s return to democracy, the pinnacle of institutional power will be taken by a daughter of the 1980s who has done nothing other than revindicate the clandestine repression. It took her more than 10 years to re-legitimize what the dictatorship did. She achieved it with 55.7% of the vote. Those who make up the La Libertad Avanza communications teams refer to that process as “the cultural battle.”
No daughter is born with the same values of her biological family. But it’s not about that. It’s about how the daughter of a certain time period can seize opportunities and be more effective than those who came before her.
You may also be interested in: Victoria Villarruel’s long and gruesome history of denying crimes against humanity
A long-form version of this piece originally appeared in Crisis magazine. Read the original here. Translation by Agustín Mango.