Military Uprisings

The Argentine political scene has for long been marred by instabilities and violence. Ever since 1930, when the first military coup, headed by General Jose Uriburu, took place against the democratically elected government of Hipólito Yrigoyen, non democratic dictatorships ruled the country for long periods.

After the dirty war has ended, and the National commission on the disappeared (CONADEP) handed its shocking report to the newly elected democratic government, led by president Raul Alfonsín, a process of bringing the responsible for the horrors to a court of law began. The process didn't go too far.

As the legal proceedings were taking place, enormous military pressure was building upon the democratic government. Real politíc brought the Alfonsín government to weight the benefits of just process vs. the clear and present danger of the country spiraling once again into a vicious circle of violence and a potential civil war.

In December 1986, after the highest officers of the military have been convicted and sentenced to various terms in prison, a new law, "El Punto Final" (The Final Point), was enacted and approved by congress. This law stated that all those in the military or the police that were not yet charged on crimes committed during the 1976-1983 era, would be left out of the judiciary process. It should be noted that the "Punto Final" has overridden an existing law stating that military power "excesses" (including torture and murder without trial) were not only illegal but considered to be crimes against humanity. As it was soon to be realized by the Alfonsín government, the "Punto Final", was anything but final.

Reacting to the trials and imprisonment of the top military officers, severely hurt by the deterioration of army prestige as a result of its abysmal performance during the Falklands war, and encouraged by the enactment of the Punto Final, extremists in army circles started a series of uprisings against the Alfonsín government and their own superiors who cooperated with the newly elected democratic institutes. They barricaded themselves in military bases demanding to stop the trials of their colleagues who were not included under the Punto Final law. They came to be known as the "Carapintadas" (The Painted Faces) since they had their faces smeared black with bitumen.

The first uprising led by Lieutenant Colonel Aldo Rico, took place during the "Semana Santa" on April 15, 1987, in the school of Infantry in Campo de Mayo. Major Ernesto Barreiro refused to appear in court and was backed by the Carapintadas who barricaded in that base. Despite a very wide rally of Argentine civilians with the democratic government, the Carapintadas paid a minor price (Rico and Barreiro were put under arrest) while managing to bring about the retirement of the then Army chief-of-staff, Hector Luis Rios Ereñú, and to press the Alfonsín government and its congress into dropping all charges against lower ranked military officers. The clause came to be known as "La ley de la obediencia debida" (The law of due obedience of orders by any military man ranked lower than Colonel.)

The Carapintadas weren't appeased. More likely, the capitulation of the government to their demands encouraged them to go even further. Led again by Lieutenant Colonel Aldo Rico who was under lenient house arrest, they revolted again. This revolt started in mid January of 1988, in the city of Monte Caseros, in Corrientes county. Rico's forces were defeated after a few days of fighting. They surrendered on January 17, 1988 and 300 of them were arrested, and were sentenced to jail.

The handling of the convicted military persons in jail was strikingly lenient. They were allowed free phone calls, and were kept in comfortable hotel like conditions. A third uprising of the more extreme faction of the Carapintadas, code named Virgen de la Valle (virgin of the valley), took place in December of 1988. It started with the defection of 54 members of the Albatross unit (a coast guard elite squadron), and continued in the military barrack of Villa Martelli where they reappeared. This time the uprising was led by a most extreme and charismatic figure: Colonel Mohammed Alí Seineldín and was supported by an impressive number (about 1000) of troops from several Army, Naval, and Air-force units. This third uprising, like the first, proved successful: only 2 arrests were made as a result (Seineldin himself, and Major Hugo Abete who refused to surrender until several days later). Several of the extensive demands of Seineldin and his troops were met: the Army chief-of-staff, José S. Dante Caridi was forced to retire and replaced by General Gassino who was more respected by the extremists, military salaries were increased, and none of the other rebels was prosecuted.

Less than a year later, on October 5, 1989 as part of an even more sweeping military appeasement policy, the newly elected president, Carlos Menem, signed 4 amnesty decrees (no. 1002, 1003, 1004, and 1005) which set free 39 of the convicted of the 1976-1983 repression era, those convicted for negligence in the Falklands War, and 164 members of the Carapintadas, the Air force, the special Albatross unit, and the military intelligence who took part in the uprisings. Among the released were: ex generals Juan Sasiaiñ, Albano Harguindeguy, Santiago Riveros Acdel Edgardo Vilas, Luciano Benjamin Menendez, and Reynaldo Bignone.

A little over a year later, notwithstanding Menem's amnesties, a fourth uprising erupted, being led again by Seineldin, this time from his prison cell, and helped on the outside by Navy commodore Luis Fernando Estrella. The Carapintadas were clearly distancing themselves from the Army which they were a part of. They opposed both the democratic regime and the heads of the Army that became too politicized in their view. This uprising occurred on December 3rd, 1990 and came to be known as Operació Virgen de Luján, (or simply the December 3rd rebellion.) The rebellion failed with over 600 arrests, many of them convicted. More significantly, the violence resulted in several deaths among opposing democratic army forces which diminished the Carapintadas appeal and popularity tremendously among less extreme army circles.

On December 29, 1990, Menem completed the appeasement policy towards the repression era army members by giving amnesty to all the top responsible for the dirty war, (including those sentenced by the democratic judiciary to life in prison): Jorge Rafael Videla, Emilio Massera, Roberto Viola, Ramon Camps, the ex-commander of the police Ovidio Ricchieri, the ex-commander of the 1st army corps. Guillermo Suarez Mason, and the ex economy minister Jose Alfredo Martinez de Hoz. With only Seineldin remaining in prison, the military pressure has paid off once again.

The story, it seems, refuses to die. In March 1992 a bomb exploded in the Israeli embassy in Buenos Aires killing 29 people and injuring 252. About two years later, on July 18, 1994, at 9:57 am, 660 pounds of explosives, carried in a van, destroyed a seven story building in Buenos Aires, that housed AMIA (Asociacion Mutual Israelita Argentina) and DAIA (Delegación de Asociaciones Israelitas Argentinas). The brick building collapsed and severe damage affected adjacent buildings. 86 people died and 120 were injured. The investigation of the bombings led back to members of the Carapintadas and the police who are known to be strongly antisemitic. A few of the suspects, Notably a captain named Emilio Morello, were among those pardoned six years earlier by president Carlos Menem. The lead suspect, Carlos Telleldin, is the son of a sadistic torturer close to the Junta, who served as a high ranking security official in Cordoba in the repression era. Telleldin espouses neo-Nazi views and is being held for involvement in the falsifying of documents of the vehicle used in the bombing.

The Buenos Aires Police notorious for its participation in the repression era, has been involved in numerous persecutions of human right activists and journalists. just as one example, on March 1998, the office of Familiares de Desaparecidos y Detenidos por Razones Politicas, the Argentine human rights group that joins the Families of the disappeared, was broken into for the eighth time (and this is not a typo). Their two new computers were stolen, as well as their fax machine, and a lot of documentation (this includes the testimonies from ex-disappeared and about what happened to the disappeared). The office is located in front of Congress, in Buenos Aires, a heavily guarded part of the city, and the police never seems to be able to help.

March 26, 1998 update: The Argentine Chamber of Deputies unanimously passed a measure to cancel the Law of Due Obedience and the Final Point (Punto Final) and the Senate approved the measure just 24 hours later. Seems like Argentine politicians are coming back to their senses. Although a presidential veto is expected, and although these measures have only symbolic significance (prosecutions of the responsible are extremely unlikely to be renewed) this is, nevertheless, exciting news for democracy and common-sense. For more details see the following Argentine newspaper articles (in Spanish):

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