Trial in ‘Argentina, 1985’ Began Quest for Justice That Continues Today
BUENOS AIRES — The bones of a man, brought into light in a laboratory, had spoken.
For years, he was kept inside a blue plastic box on a shelf with hundreds of other boxes containing unidentified human remains believed to belong to victims of the brutal military dictatorship that ruled Argentina from 1976 to 1983.
Lying on a table in the Buenos Aires headquarters of the Argentine Forensic Anthropology Team, his skeleton told a story: He was about 25 years old and stood 5 feet 8 inches to 6 feet tall. Five gunshot wounds, one to the head and four to the pelvis, had killed him.
And now, more than 30 years since his discovery in a mass grave, he is on the verge of being identified.
“When they pass from having a number to having a name, it’s wonderful,” said Patricia Bernardi, a forensic anthropologist and a founder of the team, a nonprofit that works on cases related to abuses committed under military rule.
The identification of victims is part of a broader effort to deliver justice and accountability 40 years after the end of the dictatorship, a traumatic chapter that is in the spotlight again because of “Argentina, 1985,” a film that has earned an Oscar nomination for best international feature.
A historical drama, it depicts a real landmark case that a team of lawyers pressed against military leaders in a trial that ended with the convictions of five members of the military junta, including the dictators Jorge Videla and Emilio Massera, who received life sentences. Four others were acquitted.
The military unleashed a wave of repression to eliminate so-called subversives, a category that came to include political dissidents, student activists, labor organizers, journalists, intellectuals and clergy members. Human rights groups estimate that as many as 30,000 people were killed or disappeared during the dictatorship.
In a pivotal scene in the movie, a character based on a real-life prosecutor tells a panel of judges that the trial can help forge a peace based on justice and memorializing the atrocities.
“This is our opportunity,” he says. “It may be our last.”
Rather than an end, those words, taken from the real closing arguments, were a beginning. To this day, in courtrooms across Argentina, roughly 180 former military officials, police officers and civilians are being prosecuted for crimes against humanity.
With more than 300 open investigations and 14 trials, the process is “permanently alive,” said Estela de Carlotto, the president of Abuelas de Plaza de Mayo, a human rights organization started by women searching for their grandchildren who were born in captivity to political prisoners and then given to other families.
Some investigations are focused on crimes committed in clandestine detention centers where hundreds of people were tortured and killed. In one case, a former marine captain is on trial for orchestrating the illegal adoption of his brother’s daughter, who was born in a detention center and raised by another member of the military. Her parents are still missing.
In total, more than 1,100 military personnel, police officers and civilians have been convicted of crimes against humanity since 2006, including 58 last year.
Argentina’s reckoning with its past has been far more extensive than that of neighboring countries also scarred by repressive military rule, including Brazil, Chile and Uruguay. Amnesty laws in Brazil have blocked military trials, while a small number of trials have occurred in Uruguay. Many top officials convicted of dictatorship-era crimes in Chile received reduced sentences.
“These trials are right and necessary,” said Maria Ángeles Ramos, one of the lead federal prosecutors of dictatorship-era crimes in Argentina.
“We made this decision that what happened is unforgivable and Argentina cannot afford to ignore its past,” Ms. Ramos said. “That is a very big self-critique as a society. It’s a value that puts us in a distinctive place in the world.”
The pursuit of justice has not been easy. After the 1985 trial of leaders of the junta, the government enacted laws that blocked most other prosecutions. A former president also pardoned the convicted military commanders.
In the 1990s, victims and relatives of those who had disappeared staged protests outside the homes of former military rulers and others believed to have violated human rights.
Teresa Laborde’s mother, Adriana Calvo, a physicist and university professor, was a key witness at the 1985 trial. She described having been handcuffed and blindfolded and calling out for the baby she had just delivered in the back seat of a Ford Falcon as she was moved from one clandestine detention center to another.
The newborn was Ms. Laborde, now 45. She and her mother were eventually released.
“That trial that everyone says was an example, in my house we lived it as the gateway to impunity,” Ms. Laborde said, referring to the acquittal of four of the leaders and light sentences for some others. “Justice meant holding the last torturer responsible.”
A pivotal moment came in 2003, when the Argentine Congress, responding to mounting public pressure, abolished the laws that had halted prosecutions of dictatorship-era crimes. In 2006, a court handed down the first sentence under a relaunched prosecution process.
“In some sense, it was all of civil society that built this,” said Natalia Federman, a human rights lawyer and executive director of the Argentine Forensic Anthropology Team. “It became impossible for the state to say, We’re not going to do anything.”
The forensic team’s work has been a key part of trials. More than 1,400 bodies have been recovered, with around 800 identified — some washed up on beaches after being hurled from planes during so-called death flights. Others, like the man in the forensic team’s laboratory, were discovered in unmarked graves.
The team is keeping details about the man confidential until his identification is confirmed, but he is believed to have been a prisoner of one of the dictatorship’s detention centers. Evidence that emerged in trials involving people he was buried with helped analysts piece together a hypothesis about his identity.
It underscores how trials are a crucial part of “building memory,” Ms. Ramos said, “so we all know what occurred and we talk about it.”
Argentina’s military generally does not discuss the continuing investigations and trials, and its rank and file are now made up entirely of officers who joined after the dictatorship.
“We do everything possible — and the continuity of the trials has to do with that — to ensure that what happened is not forgotten,” said Eduardo Jozami, who works as director of human rights at the Defense Ministry and who was imprisoned during the dictatorship.
But time is a looming enemy: More than 1,000 people under investigation have died, and so have victims and their relatives.
“There is a slowness, sometimes an indifference,” Ms. de Carlotto said of the pace of justice. “But our permanence and resistance is present.”
At a trial of crimes at clandestine detention centers, Laura Treviño recalled the early hours of Sept. 11, 1976, when she was 18. Six men in civilian clothes arrived at her family’s home in a city near Buenos Aires and took away her 17-year-old brother.
The men claimed to be part of the army and asked about the teenager, Victor Treviño, a left-wing activist agitating for lower student transit fares.
The men, some of them wearing ski masks and carrying guns, went to the back of the home, Ms. Treviño testified.
She heard a commotion as they ordered her brother to dress. As the men led him out, his mother asked where he was being taken.
“‘You’ll find out soon,’ they told her,” Ms. Treviño testified. But they never did.
“That’s what we all want: to know what happened to him,” she testified. “To all of them.”