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Report of Conadep (National Commission on the Disappearance of Persons) - 1984


During the 1970s, Argentina was torn by terror from both the extreme right and the far left. This phenomenon was not unique to our country. Italy, for example, has suffered for many years from the heartless attacks of Fascist groups, the Red Brigades, and other similar organizations. Never at any time, however, did that country abandon the principles of law in its fight against these terrorists, and it managed to resolve the problem through the normal courts of law, guaranteeing the accused all their rights of a fair hearing. When Aldo Moro was kidnapped, a member of the security forces suggested to General Della Chiesa that a suspect who apparently knew a lot be tortured. The general replied with the memorable words: ’Italy can survive the loss of Aldo Moro. It would not survive the introduction of torture.’  

The same cannot be said of our country. The armed forces responded to the terrorists’ crimes with a terrorism far worse than the one they were combating, and after 24 March 1976 they could count on the power and impunity of an absolute state, which they misused to abduct, torture and kill thousands of human beings.  

Our Commission was set up not to sit in judgment, because that is the task of the constitutionally appointed judges, but to investigate the fate of the people who disappeared during those ill-omened years of our nation’s life. However, after collecting several thousand statements and testimonies, verifying or establishing the existence of hundreds of secret detention centres, and compiling over 50,000 pages of documentation, we are convinced that the recent military dictatorship brought about the greatest and most savage tragedy in the history of Argentina. Although it must be justice which has the final word, we cannot remain silent in the face of all that we have heard, read and recorded. This went far beyond what might be considered criminal offences, and takes us into the shadowy realm of crimes against humanity. Through the technique of disappearance and its consequences, all the ethical principles which the great religions and the noblest philosophies have evolved through centuries of suffering and calamity have been trampled underfoot, barbarously ignored.  

Throughout the ages there have been many pronouncements on the sanctity of individual rights. In modern times, these have ranged from the rights enshrined in the French Revolution to those expressed in the universal declarations of human rights and the great encyclicals of this century. Every civilized nation, including our own, has laid down in its constitution guarantees which can never be suspended, even in the most catastrophic state of emergency: the right of life; the right to security of person; the right to a trial; the right not to suffer either inhuman conditions of detention, denial of justice or summary execution.  

From the huge amount of documentation we have gathered, it can be seen that these human rights were violated at all levels by the Argentine state during the repression carried out by its armed forces. Nor were they violated in a haphazard fashion, but systematically, according to a similar pattern, with identical kidnappings and tortures taking place throughout the country. How can this be viewed as anything but a planned campaign of terror conceived by the military high command? How could all this have been committed by a few depraved individuals acting on their own initiative, when there was an authoritarian military regime, with all the powers and control of information that this implies? How can one speak of individual excesses? The information we collected confirms that this diabolical technology was employed by people who may well have been sadists, but who were carrying out orders. If our own conclusions, seem insufficient in this respect, further proof is furnished by the farewell speech given to the Inter-American Defence junta on 24 January 1980 by General Santiago Omar Riveros, head of the Argentine delegation: ‘We waged this war with our doctrine in our hands, with the written orders of each high command.’ Those members of the Argentine military juntas who replied to the universal outcry at the horror by deploring ’excesses in the repression which are inevitable in a dirty war’, were hypocritically trying to shift the blame for this calculated terror on to the individual actions of less senior officers.  

The abductions were precisely organized operations, sometimes occurring at the victim’s place of work, sometimes in the street in broad daylight. They involved the open deployment of military personnel, who were given a free hand by the local police stations. When a victim was sought out in his or her home at night, armed units would surround the block and force their way in, terrorizing parents and children, who were often gagged and forced to watch. They would seize the persons they had come for, beat them mercilessly, hood them, then drag them off to their cars or trucks,  while the rest of the unit almost invariably ransacked the house or looted everything that could be carried. The victims were then taken to a chamber over whose doorway might well have been inscribed the words Dante read on the gates of Hell: ’Abandon hope, all ye who enter here’,

Thus, in the name of national security, thousands upon thousands of human beings, usually young adults or even adolescents, fell into the sinister, ghostly category of the desaparecidos, a word (sad privilege for Argentina) frequently left in Spanish by the world’s press’.  

Seized by force against their will, the victims no longer existed as citizens. Who exactly was responsible for their abduction? Why had they been abducted? Where were they? There were no precise answers to these questions: the authorities had no record of them; they were not being held in jail; justice was unaware of their existence. Silence was the only reply to all the habeas corpus writs, an ominous silence that engulfed them. No kidnapper was ever arrested, not a single detention centre was ever located, there was never news of those responsible being punished for any of the crimes. Days, weeks, months, years went by, full of uncertainty, and anguish for fathers, mothers and children, all of them at the mercy of rumours and desperate hopes. They spent their time in countless attempts at wringing information from those in authority: whether officers in the armed forces who were recommended to them, bishops, military chaplains or police inspectors. They received no help.  

A feeling of complete vulnerability spread throughout Argentine society, coupled with the fear that anyone, however innocent, might become a victim of the never-ending witch-hunt. Some people reacted with alarm. Others tended, consciously or unconsciously, to justify the horror. ’There must be some reason for it,’ they would whisper, as though trying to propitiate awesome and inscrutable gods, regarding the children or parents of the disappeared as plague-bearers. Yet such feelings could never be wholehearted, as so many cases were known of people who had been sucked into that bottomless pit who were obviously not guilty of anything. It was simply that the ’anti-subversive’ struggle, like all hunts against witches or those possessed, had become a demented generalized repression, and the word ’subversive’ itself came to be used with a vast and vague range of meaning. In the semantic delirium where labels such as:  Marxist-Leninist, traitors to the fatherland, materialists and atheists, enemies of Western, Christian values, abounded, anyone was at risk - from those who were proposing a social revolution, to aware adolescents who merely went out to the shanty towns to help the people living there.  

All sectors fell into the net:  trade union leaders fighting for better wages; youngsters in student unions, journalists who did not support the regime; psychologists and sociologists simply for belonging to suspicious professions; young pacifists, nuns and priests who had taken the teachings of Christ to shanty areas; the friends of these people, too, and the friends of friends, plus others whose names were given out of motives of personal vengeance, or by the kidnapped under torture. The vast majority of them were innocent not only of any acts of terrorism, but even of belonging to the fighting units of the guerrilla organizations: these latter chose to fight it out, and either died in shootouts or committed suicide before they could be captured. Few of them were alive by the time they were in the hands of the repressive forces.  

From the moment of their abduction, the victims lost all rights. Deprived of all communication with the outside world, held in unknown places, subjected to barbaric tortures, kept ignorant of their immediate or ultimate fate, they risked being either thrown into a river or the sea; weighed down with blocks of cement, or burned to ashes. They were not mere objects, however, and still possessed all the human attributes: they could feel pain, could remember a mother, child or spouse, could feel infinite shame at being raped in public. They were people not only possessed of this sense of boundless anguish and fear, but also, and perhaps indeed because of feelings such as these, they were people who, in some corner of their soul, clung to an absurd notion of hope. 

We have discovered close to 9000 of these unfortunate people who were abandoned by the world. We have reason to believe that the true figure is much higher. Many families were reluctant to report a disappearance for fear of reprisals. Some still hesitate, fearing a resurgence of these evil forces.  

It is with sadness and sorrow that we have carried out the Mission entrusted to us by the constitutional President of the Republic. It has been an extremely arduous task, for we had to piece together a shadowy jigsaw, years after the events had taken Place, when all the clues had been deliberately destroyed, all documentary evidence burned, and buildings demolished. The basis for our work has therefore been the statements made by relatives or by those who managed to escape from this hell, or even the testimonies of People who were involved in the repression but who, for whatever obscure motives, approached us to tell us what they knew.  

In the course of our investigations we have been insulted and threatened by the very people who committed these crimes. Far from expressing any repentance, they continue to repeat the old excuses that they were engaged in a dirty war, or that they were saving the country and its Western, Christian values, when in reality they were responsible for dragging these values inside the bloody walls of the dungeons of repression. They accuse us of hindering national reconciliation, of stirring up hatred and resentment, of not allowing the past to be forgotten. This is not the case. We have not acted out of any feeling of vindictiveness or vengeance. All we are asking for is truth and justice, in the same way that the churches of different denominations have done, in the understanding that there can be no true reconciliation until the guilty repent and we have justice based on truth. If this does not happen, then the transcendent mission which which  the judicial power fulfills in all civilized communities will prove completely valueless. Truth and justice, it should be remembered, will allow the innocent members of the armed forces to live with honour; otherwise they risk being besmirched by an unjust, all embracing condemnation. Truth and justice will permit the armed forces as a whole to see themselves once more as the true descendants of those armies which fought so heroically despite their lack of means to bring freedom to half a continent.  

We have been accused, finally, of partiality in denouncing only one side of the bloody events which have shaken our nation in recent years, and of remaining silent about the terrorism which occurred prior  to March 1976, or even, in a tortuous way, of presenting an apology for it. On the contrary, our Commission has always repudiated that terror, and we are glad to take this opportunity to do so again here. It was not our task to look into the crimes committed by those terrorists, but simply to investigate the fate of the disappeared, whoever they were, and from whichever side of the violence they came. None of the relatives of the victims of that earlier terror approached us, because those people were killed rather-than ’disappeared’. Also, Argentinians have had the opportunity of seeing an abundance of television programmes, of reading countless newspaper and magazine articles, as well as a full-length book published by the military government, in which those acts of terrorism were listed, described, and condemned, in minute detail.  

Great catastrophes are always instructive. The tragedy which began with the military dictatorship in March 1976, the most terrible our nation has ever suffered, will undoubtedly serve to help us understand that it is only democracy which can save a people from horror on this scale, only democracy which can keep and safeguard the sacred, essential rights of man. Only with democracy will we be certain that NEVER AGAIN will events such as these, which have made Argentina so sadly infamous throughout the world, be repeated in our nation.  

Ernesto Sabato



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