An “homage to the victims of terrorism” organized by Victoria Villarruel, vice presidential candidate of Javier Milei’s La Libertad Avanza (LLA) and known defender of military officers convicted of crimes against humanity, has sparked public outrage in recent days.
Human rights activists heavily criticized the event on the grounds that it will deny state-sponsored terrorism in a public building, as the event is being planned for the Buenos Aires City Legislature on Monday.
The homage, which follows the August 21 International Day of Remembrance and Tribute to the Victims of Terrorism, would allow the family members of those killed in guerrilla operations to “retell the horror they suffered at the hands of the Montoneros and the ERP,” two of the largest left-wing militant groups in Argentina during the dictatorship.
LLA’s Buenos Aires City Legislator Lucía Montenegro and members of Villarruel’s Center for the Legal Studies of Terrorism and its Victims (CELTYV, by its Spanish acronym) will also participate. Villarruel has asked for “truth, justice, and reparation for terrorism victims,” a phrase that seems to mock the “memory, truth, and justice” used by such human rights organizations as the Madres and Abuelas de Plaza de Mayo.
“They want to revive the ‘two demons’ theory, something inconceivable after 40 years of democracy,” Madres de Plaza de Mayo member Taty Almeida told Télam news agency. Human rights organizations will march to the Legislature on Monday ahead of the tribute to protest the event.
The ‘two-demons theory’
Villarruel’s position is based on a “dirty war” theory typically referred to as “the two demons.” The basic premise is that while the Argentine military committed abuses of power, it was acting to end political violence that left-wing guerrilla groups had initiated. Implicit in this argument is the idea that these were two equal and opposite forces, with the same capacity and willingness to torture, rape, and kill.
Proponents of the “two-demons” theory also contend that the extrajudicial killings of guerrillas were justified because of their political activism and involvement in acts of terror. Except that this was not the case for the overwhelming majority of the 30,000 people who disappeared during the dictatorship. These denialist claims were born shortly after Argentina’s return to democracy in 1983 and have survived to this day, mainly in conservative and far-right sectors.
As University College London (UCL) professor and researcher Francesca Lessa has told the Herald, this kind of rhetoric was part of a larger plan of systematic oppression across South America. Operation Condor was “a transnational criminal network that the regimes of Argentina, Bolivia, Chile, Paraguay, and Uruguay set up in November 1975 to more effectively coordinate the persecution of political exiles beyond borders, both in South America and beyond.”
Madres de Plaza de Mayo Association member Carmen Arias said Villarruel wants to legitimize the ‘two-demons’ theory. “We are not surprised by this,” she told Télam. “She knows what kinds of crimes against humanity were committed [by the dictatorship] from its inner circle.”
“We say there were no two demons, and the only terrorism carried out was by the genocidal state,” human rights organizations including Madres de Plaza de Mayo-Línea Fundadora, the Permanent Assembly for Human Rights (APDH, by its Spanish acronym), and the Argentine League for Human Rights said in a communiqué.
“We claim for all necessary measures to be taken to prevent this aggravation from taking place,” they continued. “It not only manipulates the historical truth but offends our collective memory.”
Members of the ruling coalition Unión por la Patria have expressed concern both about the demonstration and the discourse on which it stands. The event “contradicts the historic stances that this Legislature renews each year against the last military dictatorship,” said city Legislator Victoria Montenegro in a letter to Legislature Vice President Emmanuel Ferrario. Montenegro was appropriated as a baby by a military officer during the dictatorship and had her identity restored in 2001.
According to Télam, Ferrario denied her request to cancel the event, claiming the legislative body can’t censor the contents of any activities held in the building that are in compliance with the law.
Villaruel founded the Civil Association of the Victims of Argentine Terrorism (CELTYV, by its Spanish acronym) in 2006. Although it’s technically a civil organization, it has strong ties to the military sector and aims to seek reparations for those who died in actions carried out by guerrillas before and during the military government. As Roberto Noguera wrote in a 2019 academic paper, “The CELTYV claims victimization by co-opting the [language] of human rights organizations (from the 1980s to the present) and using it to criticize this notion of memory, which it classifies as sectarian.”
Villarruel has family ties to the military as well. “During the 70s, her father (Eduardo Villarruel) and great-uncle (Ernesto Villarruel) were two of the military officers who participated in illegal repression that included kidnapping, torture, murder, disappearances, and robbery of children,” the human rights non-profit Center for Legal and Social Studies (CELS, by its Spanish acronym) said in a video posted on social media on Friday.
Lieutenant Colonel Eduardo Villarruel was a member of the Army Independence Operation that took place during María Estela Martínez de Perón’s government in Tucumán in 1975, one year before the military coup. By that time, the military had already heavily infiltrated the democratic government. The Army Independence Operation aimed to neutralize or eliminate the ERP and Montoneros groups that had established themselves in the rural areas of Tucumán. Villaruel died in 2021.
The first clandestine center of detention and torture in Argentina, known as La Escuelita (‘The Little School’), was born in the city of Famaillá during the operation. Over three thousand people were held there against their will.
Villarruel’s uncle, Ernesto, was captain of the Third Regiment of La Tablada. He was arrested in 2015 and charged with crimes committed at the Buenos Aires province clandestine center of detention known as El Vesubio, but was unable to stand trial for health reasons. Eight other officers were tried and sentenced for 50 murders, as well asthe abduction, rape and torture of 370 people at El Vesubio.
Born in 1975, Villaruel has spent most of her adult life publicly defending military officers accused of crimes against humanity, most notably Miguel Etchecolatz. The investigations director for the Buenos Aires Province Police was one of the most infamous torturers of the last military government. He died in prison on July 2, 2022, before he could be tried.
“Villarruel has participated in the trials not as a lawyer but as a political and judicial lobbyist on behalf of genocidaires,” Guadalupe Godoy, a lawyer who represents the plaintiffs in crimes against humanity trials, told the Herald. “She has even been a ‘context witness’ in several trials to explain her point of view,” which is not just denialism but “an active effort to preserve the impunity of those who carried out the genocide in our country.”
On Thursday, Godoy shared a picture of the notebook Etchecolatz carried with him in 2006 when he was being tried for organizing kidnapping task groups for the 21 clandestine detention centers under his command. Villarruel’s name is listed as one of his contacts, along with Cecilia Pando, another military daughter who has publicly defended officers in the trials.
A document shared by Godoy on X, the website formerly known as Twitter, shows that Villarruel and Pando also visited repressor Norberto Cozzani in jail
Milei has said that if he wins the presidential election, Villarruel will be the new head of the Armed Forces and the Argentine Federal Police.
You may also be interested in: Analysis: The shadow of denialism, 40 years into our democracy