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ARGENTINA | 04-04-2024 18:51

Milei reopens debate about Argentina's dictatorship, Armed Forces

President enrages human rights groups by questioning estimate of those disappeared by junta’s security forces and calls for “reconciliation” of the military in Argentina.

As he hinted during last year’s presidential campaign, Javier Milei has reopened the debate about Argentina’s brutal 1976-1983 military dictatorship and the role of the Armed Forces.

He has done so by questioning the estimates from human rights groups as to the number of disappeared and proposing that the military assist internal security operations in the country.

At a remembrance ceremony on Tuesday with Malvinas war veterans, the far-right leader claimed that the Armed Forces had been “harassed and humiliated” by politicians since the return of democracy. He vowed to clean the military’s name.

 

Controversy

On March 24, the anniversary of the coup that brought the dictatorship to power, Milei’s government disseminated a video questioning the figure of 30,000 disappeared people during the dictatorship, an estimate agreed by several human rights organisations. The real figure is impossible to establish, given how many remain missing from those dark days.

Last month, the President announced his intention to alter legislation to allow the military to intervene in domestic security operations.

The move is intended to combat the growth of “narcoterrorism” that is battering Rosario, a city which has been the setting of striking violence from criminal drug gangs.

Since 1991, Argentina’s Armed Forces have only been allowed to provide equipment and technical support to the police and other security forces, without intervening directly in domestic operations.

The idea of having the military in charge of internal security issues brings back painful memories from the past for many. It comes at a time when Milei’s government is reopening the wounds of what happened in the 1970s, an era marked by thousands of disappearances, exiled people and executions at hundreds of clandestine detention centres across the country.

Even some in the military are uncomfortable with the idea of internal operations. Large sectors of society, both from the left and the right, reject the idea.

Even Vice-President Victoria Villarruel, a fierce defender of the military whose father served in the Army, has voiced concerns. “The role of the Armed Forces is not to combat civilians,” she stated on television.

Villarruel is an outspoken defender of the Armed Forces and has tried to equate the state terrorism of the era with the terrorism of left-wing guerrillas.

“In the 1970s, terrorism was combatted,” she said in the same interview. “And where are those who combated them? In jail.”

 

'Heal its own wounds'

Defending the use of the Armed Forces to combat so-called “narcoterrorism,” Security Minister Patricia Bullrich says that “the country has to be able to heal its own wounds and look to the future.”

“The Armed Forces today are an integral part of our democracy,” she argues.

Some experts are concerned about proportionality, since many of the violent crimes committed in Rosario are perpetrated by gangs that do not have a large national profile.

“You have to wonder if the level of narco violence in Rosario warrants the use of the armed forces. We’re talking about drug-dealers in flip-flops here,” sarcastically remarked Jorge Luis Vidal, a specialist in public security and the approaches to drug-dealing and narco-trafficking. 

Ariel Larroude, director of the Criminal Policy Observatory, was even more categorical: “If the Armed Forces intervene in security conflicts and fail, these criminal devices will definitely lose respect for the State … that is why the response has to be gradual and with the security forces.”

The repositioning of the Armed Forces in the face of fierce public criticism includes the review of its actions during the dictatorship and the number of victims it murdered.

Human rights organisations and a large part of the political spectrum, from the centre-right to the far-left, claim they were 30,000, but other sectors which until recently were marginal, assert that the real figure is around 8,000.

Milei claims the dictatorship left 8,753 disappeared, a number much closer to the 8,961 recorded by the report published by the CONADEP National Commission on People’s Disappearance in 1984. The organisation also clarified that it was “an open figure,” which was even slightly modified in 2015.

Declassified documents by the US government, published in 2016, indicated that in the late 1970s, military officers were admitting that at least 22,000 had been killed by that point.

“It’s not a new discussion, this has happened in another political periods; not for the sake of getting to know the truth but to accuse the victims of an information deficit, which at any rate is the responsibility of the State and is part of victimisation,” explained Marcela Perelman, director of the research team of CELS human rights group.

In the short documentary disseminated by Milei’s government on March 24, on the 48th anniversary of the coup, the administration flatly denied the figure of 30,000 was true and called for the “full story” of “complete memory” to be known.

The same day, tens of thousands of people marched across the country with signs carrying the 30,000 figure. It was one of the largest demonstrations commemorating the coup of recent years, underlining the extent of opposition to the President’s move.

 

– TIMES/AFP

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