III. 1995: A Year of Confessions

Argentina. Reluctant Partner - Human Rights Watch, December 2001 


Although the CONADEP report had placed on public record a harrowing official account of the military repression that followed the 1976 coup, its findings were based largely on the testimony of relatives of victims and on information collected over the years by Argentina's main human rights organizations. Under the Menem government, the investigative work begun by the commission continued in the human rights office of the Ministry of the Interior. By the end of the decade the files assembled by CONADEP had quadrupled in number. The paucity of information provided by the military, however, was notable. This generated a debate that still continues about whether their silence was due to a secret pact, or to the systematic destruction of files at the close of the military government. The methodology applied in the Interior Ministry's investigative work involved mainly patientcorrelation and cross-checking of existing official records and new ones as they became available.13 It attracted little publicity.

With action in the courts stifled by Alfonsín's impunity laws, human rights organizations still sought in annual Senate hearings to block the promotion of officers implicated in the worst abuses. Several middle-level officers, angered at their blocked promotion and shielded by their immunity from prosecution, confessed publicly their responsibility for atrocities, insisting that they had been scapegoated for following orders. It was these dramatic confessions that brought intense public pressure for the re-opening of human rights trials.

In November 1994, a Senate ratifications committee refused to authorize the promotion of Navy Captains Antonio Pernías and Juan Carlos Rolón, both intelligence officers at ESMA. Pernías had been detained in 1987 in the case of the "disappeared" French nuns, but was released under the due obedience law. He declared his innocence in the Senate hearing, but testified that the navy was indeed responsible for kidnapping and killing the nuns. Moreover, contrary to all previous assertions by the military, with some rare exceptions, he described torture as a routine practice in ESMA. Protected from prosecution by the full-stop law for the crime in which he was implicated, the January 1977 abduction and murder of Mónica Jáuregui, Rolón said that he took his orders from superiors who had since been promoted to admiral with Senate consent.14 It had been navy policy, he pointed out, for all its members to spend some time in the task forces, so as to involve the whole institution in the repression.

Returning to the country after a visit abroad, President Menem made several comments on the controversy over the appointments, apparently aimed at rescuing the military leadership from humiliation. In effect, they amounted to a public defense of the junta's actions, which Menem referred to as a defense of "the rule of law" (la vigencia de la ley). "Apart from the errors committed, the subversive apparatus disappeared and we owe that to the men of arms," Menem insisted on radio.15

The admissions of Rolón and Pernías were followed by further revelations by other officers angered at the silence of their superiors. The most detailed and shocking were the interviews given by another ESMA naval officer, Capt. Adolfo Scilingo, to journalist Horacio Verbitsky, and published in Verbitsky's book El Vuelo (The Flight) in March 1995. According to Scilingo, between 1,500 and 2,000 detainees held at ESMA were drugged, stripped of their clothing, and thrown alive from planes into the Atlantic Ocean between 1976 and 1977. Scilingo, who himself participated in the flights, declared that he first received the orders from Adm. Luis María Mendía, then Naval Operations Commander. Before contacting Verbitsky, Scilingo had written to Videla giving details of the flights he participated in and warning him that he would publish the letter if Videla did not publicly assume responsibility. Videla never replied.16

President Menem's reactions to Scilingo's revelations were again dismissive. He insisted that it was pointless and harmful to revisit the issue, which had been thoroughly investigated in the trials of the juntas. He referred to Scilingo as a petty crook (fascineroso) with a record of fraud and larceny. According to Verbitsky, before going public Scilingo had sent Menem a copy of his unanswered letter to Videla, and requested an audience with the president. But Menem had not replied either and the Navy remained silent.17

On April 24, an army sergeant, Victor Ibañez, revealed in an interview published in La Prensa that death flights like those described by Scilingo had departed regularly from El Campito, the clandestine detention center in the Campo de Mayo army headquarters near Buenos Aires. The victims were anaesthetized before being boarded on the planes, which left under cover of darkness. "I witnessed the interrogation of people who gave no information at all. I saw a man die on the parrilla (literally, grill, an iron frame to which victims of electric shock torture were tied) whom they were unable to get anything from. And there is no way of bearing the physical pain. If they said nothing it's because they knew nothing, This made me sick, as well as a whole lot of other people who now repent what they did."18

Before the impact of these new declarations could be felt, Menem's appointee as army commander, Gen. Martín Balza, intervened. In a television broadcast the day following Ibañez's declarations, Balza acknowledged for the first time the army's responsibility for gross and systematic violations of human rights. The military coup of 1976, he said, was a tragic miscalculation: "the armed forces, and among them the army, for which I have the responsibility of speaking, thought erroneously that society did not possess the necessary antibodies to confront the scourge [of violent left-wing subversion] and with the backing of many, took power." The armed forces, he said, were ill-prepared to combat urban terrorism and resorted to methods, such as torture and extrajudicial execution ("obtaining information by illegitimate methods even to the point of extinguishing life") that can never be justifiable. It was a crime, Balza said, to give immoral orders: "no one is obliged to follow such orders, and the person who does incurs the moral and legal consequences of their actions."

Balza worked with a team of five military advisors in drafting the statement. He did not clear it beforehand with President Menem or his cabinet.19 Indeed, Balza took a rare step for an army commander in Latin America, by going over the heads of an elected government to communicate a powerful democratic message to the military ranks. Menem himself had previously ridiculed and attempted to discredit the confessions of Scilingo and others ("I suggest that if they want to confess, they talk to a priest," Menem had said).20

Balza told Human Rights Watch that after the initial shock at the harshness of his message wore off, many officers expressed their agreement with it, especially when soldiers found themselves being treated once more with respect in the streets. 21 However, opinion in the army remains deeply divided over Balza and his legacy.22

The truth-telling reopened a public debate about Argentina's past that had been dormant since Menem's pardons five years earlier. According to the Argentine human rights group, the Center for Legal and Social Studies (CELS): "It was evident from the beginnning that Scilingo's words had reached many ears, and little by little the suprising conversations that could be heard in bars and shops filtered through to the various institutions which until then had remained excessively silent."23 But the debate provided no certainties, only more questions. Why did the armed forces continue to refuse to provide information on the fate of the "disappeared"? How could the search for truth and justice continue in the courts when the impunity laws prevented prosecutions? The solution for advocatesof truth and justice was to persuade the courts to continue investigating, on the grounds that their responsibility to establish the truth was as great as their responsibility to dispense justice.


13 For a useful summary of the advances achieved during this period by the Ministry of the Interior's human rights office, see Alicia Pierini, 1989-1999: Diez Años de Derechos Humanos (Buenos Aires: Ministerio del Interior, 1999), pp. 71-99.

14 Horacio Verbitsky, El Vuelo (Buenos Aires: Planeta, 1995), pp. 14-16.

15 Ibid., p. 24.

16 Ibid., p. 17.

17 Ibid., p. 18.

18 Quoted in Nada Más que la Verdad, p. 328.

19 Human Rights Watch interview with Gen. Martín Balza (R), Buenos Aires, April 24, 2001.

20 Cited in Centro de Estudios Legales y Sociales (CELS), Informe Anual sobre la situación de los derechos humanos en la Argentina, 1995 (Buenos Aires: CELS, 1996) p. 128.

21 Human Rights Watch interview with General Balza.

22 In 2000, Balza was accused, along with former President Carlos Menem, of participating in a conspiracy to sell arms illegally to Croatia. Whether or not Balza had knowledge of the illegal arms deals, it was not this issue that preoccupied his army critics but the strong public position he took on human rights.

23 CELS, Informe Anual 1995, p. 85.