Argentine Cause for Celebration Goes Beyond Revolutionary Bicentennial as Dirty War Hearings Continue

Photo montage of desaparecidos from the Madres de la Plaza de Mayo exhibit, part of the official bicentennial celebrations in Buenos Aires. (Photo: Kurt Fernández)

By Kurt Fernández

Assassins, sons of 1,000 bitches, we hate you.” —Hebe de Bonafini, Madres de la Plaza de Mayo

BUENOS AIRES – Argentines glowed with pride last week as they swarmed the streets of their grand capital to celebrate 200 years since their revolt against Spain.

Music, food, parades, visiting dignitaries, the reopening of the world class Teatro Colón opera house, and the inauguration of a gallery of Latin American heroes at the presidential palace were enjoyed by millions as the country shut down for a long four-day weekend.

Not far from the festivities, the country’s judicial system is quietly giving Argentines another source of national pride as alleged criminals of the guerra sucia, or Dirty War, are being held accountable for the ruthless kidnapping, torture, and death of up to 30,000 opponents of the 1976-83 military dictatorship.

On June 1, just days after the last bleachers were dismantled on the 16-lane Avenida Nueve de Julio where the bicentennial celebrations were held, the Tribunal Oral No. 2, a federal court near the port, spent seven hours taking testimony from two victims of the Dirty War. The hearing is but one of thousands of judicial proceedings taking place across Argentina to bring justice to the war’s victims.

Present were seven of the accused, brought in handcuffed but allowed to sit for the testimony unshackled under the watch of armed guards.

Behind a glass barrier sat a sprinkling of human rights activists and family members.

The two witnesses—Mario César Villani (“El Flaco”) and Ada Cristina Marquat de Basile—recounted details of their sequestration and torture in what has become an all-too familiar nightmare.

Villani, who did time in five of Buenos Aires’ secret detention centers, delivered incredible testimony via videoconference from the Argentine consulate in Miami, Florida.

From his kidnapping at a traffic light blocks from his apartment on Nov. 18, 1977, until his release in 1981, Villani was accorded a special perch from which to observe the Dirty War. That is because his captors used his talents as a repairman to put him to work fixing everything from the pumps that kept the toilets working to televisions that captors routinely stole from their kidnapping victims’ apartments.

Villani, a retired physicist now 71 years of age, related the story of his secret internment in a string of painful anecdotes.

He told how his captors, to show they were “good guys,” let the prisoners watch the 1978 World Cup. But giving the detainees a window on the outside world only served as a more sinister form of torture, he said. As for forms of entertainment that kept the prisoners’ attention focused inward rather than outward, these included theatrical performances put on by the captors in which they assumed the roles of prisoners and guards.

Whatever relief may have been provided by the performances vanished, however, once screams from non-acting inmates resumed. Anticipating torture was yet another form of torture, Villani said.

Villani, like many others before him, testified to the special tortures reserved for Jews. In the intelligence offices of one of the centers where archives on Jews were kept, a photo of Hitler was prominently hung, he remembered.

But this, said Villani, was nothing compared to the punishment administered by “El Turco Julián” to a young Jewish teacher and Communist who was dragged in one day. Rather than using the customary cattle prod that limited the amount of voltage transmitted, El Turco put a cable carrying uncontrolled current directly up the man’s anus, killing him on the spot.

Higher-ups got wind of this and sent word back to go easy on Communists so as not to jeopardize grain exports to the Soviet Union. “Just as well, one less Jew,” was El Turco’s response when getting the order, Villani said.

Asked by one of the tribunal’s judges what was the difference between a prisoner being “moved” or “transferred,” Villani explained that moving meant being sent from one detention center to another whereas transferring meant being sent to death.

Detainees who were to be killed were not fed and were required to leave with only the barest of clothing, he testified. They were “vaccinated” with tranquilizers and taken to the airport for a vuelo de la muerte—or death flight—in which they were dropped from an aircraft into the Río de la Plata or the Atlantic Ocean, usually with cement weights on their legs.

In a bleak assessment of the situation faced by the detainees, Villani questioned why the torturers bothered trying to revive victims that had stopped breathing only so that they could be tortured again.

Villani’s internment in the detention centers of Atlético, Banco, Olimpo, and Quilmes, plus the ESMA, the notorious Navy Mechanics School, granted him familiarity with more captors than most survivors of the camps.

At the end of Villani’s testimony, he identified many of the captors through old fuzzy photos projected on a huge screen. Some of those identified—now in civilian rather than military or police clothes and looking remarkably like respectable grandparents rather than gangsters—were sitting in the hearing room, somber throughout. A burst of applause went up from behind the glass barrier when a captor was correctly identified.

Marquat, a handsome woman who looked older than her 57 years, meanwhile kept her testimony brief. It was obvious that she would rather not be talking to a room full of judges and attorneys and defendants about developing a vaginal infection while in detention and having to explain that it had been caused by a cattle prod being inserted inside her repeatedly as part of her torture.

As often happened, Marquat’s sequestration served mainly to lead the kidnappers to her husband Enrique, the real target of their interest.

In her 42 days in captivity, she went from 45 kilos to 22. When her husband was dragged in to join her, part of his torture was to observe her being tortured.

Enrique was 26 years old and a few courses shy of a law degree when he dropped out to be a union organizer in factories.

Once “liberated,” Marquat did not hear of Enrique again until the Página 12 newspaper reported in 2003 that Enrique had died after being hospitalized in 1979, officially joining the ranks of the desaparecidos.

Marquat sadly told that her four-year-old grandson recently asked why Grandpa had been taken away. Marquat said she answered that he had honorably turned himself in to spare his family.

Argentina has gone back and forth on whether to punish the perpetrators of the Dirty War or to just let bygones be bygones. Former Argentine president Néstor Kirchner and his wife Cristina Fernández, the current president, appear determined not to give in to the apologists for the war.

Jorge Rafael Videla Redondo, who lead the overthrow of the government in 1976 and ran the country for much of the Dirty War, was sent to prison for crimes against humanity, then pardoned, then sent back to prison after a court determined the pardon unconstitutional.

From his cell, Videla faces more trials as there seems to be no end to the charges being brought against him, including trafficking in babies swiped from their kidnapped mothers.

The list of others who are beginning to serve prison sentences for their roles in the Dirty War or are facing years behind bars fighting criminal charges grows constantly.

Considerations of pardon or amnesty may be understandable for things like illegal immigration or draft resistance. But not for kidnapping, larceny, torture, and murder.

Most of the participants in the crusade to “save” Argentina from the evils of Communism or trade unionism were little more than a uniformed mafia of sinister criminals with a flair for sadism, a insatiable hunger for others’ possessions, and a colossal disregard for law. Any claim they might make to a noble cause is hideous.

God and country is one thing. Stealing babies and electrocuting people for their religion or politics is quite another.

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