Argentina’s ‘Dirty War:’ the United States’ dirty secret

Argentina’s military junta following a United States-supported coup that would have grave repercussions.

Author’s note: to fund the country-wide travel necessary to complete this project, I need your help. Learn how to contribute, below.

In 2022, the lingering evidence is everywhere.

Plaques, acknowledging the thousands of Argentines who decades ago were abducted from their homes and businesses, pepper the pavement in Buenos Aires and beyond.

Many of the clandestine detention centers where those individuals were imprisoned and tortured remain standing a generation later, many turned into memorials, some still eerily functioning as government buildings.

The mothers and grandmothers of Plaza de Mayo, marching since 1977 to petition for the alive reappearance of their disappeared children and grandchildren, still go to the plaza every Thursday at 3:30 p.m. to walk, as they always have, in silent protest.

In Argentina, these testaments stand as grisly reminders of the country’s most tragic chapter — a seven-year period in the 70s and 80s in which the military dictatorships illegally kidnapped, imprisoned, tortured and killed at least 30,000 of their own citizens, the people who became known as “los desaparecidos,” the disappeared. The governments that perpetrated the repression dubbed it the “Dirty War.”

Plaques on my apartment block in Buenos Aires marking where Argentine citizens were illegally abducted.

It was an era that garnered international outrage and condemnation, and was forever imprinted on the collective Argentine memory. To this day, the trials for crimes against humanity continue in courts around the country, a decades-long attempt to reckon with a legacy of pain. Groups of Argentine schoolchildren travel to the somber landmarks in a national effort to ensure the horrors are never forgotten — and thus never repeated.

But encased within the tale of Argentina’s state terrorism is another — one less remembered in the minds of North Americans:

The story of how the United States made it all possible.

Let’s back up, and time travel for a moment, in order to establish some context.

In the late 1960s, as the Cold War ramps up, the United States and the Soviet Union are engaged in a battle for global domination.

In Latin America, Fidel Castro’s victory over dictatorship in Cuba fuels the push for revolution elsewhere, and the U.S.’ long-held grip on the continent’s politics and industry begins to falter as leftist movements emerge with varied success.

In 1970, Chile elects Salvador Allende, the first Marxist candidate to democratically rise to the position of presidency. This enrages the U.S., which sees the rise of Socialism and Communism as a direct threat to North American hegemony, and three years later, a US-supported military coup ousts the democratic leader in a chaotic episode that ends with Allende taking his own life.

Chilean military bombs the presidential palace in a US-supported coup that would bring brutal dictator Augusto Pinochet to power.

With the United States’ blessing, brutal Chilean general Augusto Pinochet assumes the presidency, a fateful maneuver that would have grave repercussions for hundreds of thousands of South Americans over the next two decades.

Aiming to eradicate leftist sentiment by the root, the Pinochet government joins forces with its counterparts in Argentina, Paraguay, Uruguay, Bolivia and Brazil in what would be termed Operation Condor — a cross-border campaign of political repression and state terror that operated with total impunity throughout South America’s Southern Cone.

The United States, as Condor’s secret partner and sponsor, backs the entire operation — providing arms, financial aid, intelligence, planning and logistical support, and training the various militaries in torture tactics at the now-infamous School of the Americas in Panama.

Pinochet and then-U.S. Secretary of State Henry Kissinger shake hands.

That brings us back to Argentina, which bore the greatest brunt of the pain.

In 1976, president Isabel Perón was overthrown by and replaced with a military junta that aligned with Condor. The seven years that followed — until democracy was restored in 1983 — were characterized by almost unfathomable pain.

Declaring a war on “subversives” amidst the process of “National Reorganization,” the Argentine authorities kidnapped and brutally killed tens of thousands of Argentine citizens in secret and with impunity, illegally imprisoning and torturing many more.

Not only were suspected radical types apprehended, held in secret and killed — but also their family members, neighbors, co-workers and anyone they might have had in their address book.

Being a union member, a journalist, a social worker, an activist, a priest who fed the poor — any of that was reason enough for abduction. In this climate, it’s not hard to believe that the 1970s version of me would be among them.

Former clandestine torture and detention center “Olimpo,” one of more than 600 such locations identified across the country. “Olimpo” has now been transformed into a memorial site.

Almost everyone who was so unfortunate to meet this fate was subjected to extreme torture, often being brought to death’s door and then given the bare amount of medical treatment to revive them enough to continue the torture.

For some individuals, it lasted months, even years.

This heart-breaking summation is only a small part of the story.

Me, preparing to break this shit wide open.

As a scholar of Latin American history and a journalist with a special interest in lesser-told U.S. deeds around the world, this gruesome era — and the United States’ covert role — has long captured my attention.

Now, living in Argentina, I have the opportunity to embark on a project storytelling about those fateful collaborations, and the impact they had on the ground.

Along with my project partner Alejandro Rivas (who will be helping with field coordination and nuanced translations), I will be traveling across the country, taking an intimate look at what happened in those years and how they have changed present-day Argentina through a series of interviews and my own research and observations.

Conducting any project within this sensitive arena must be done the right way and with great care.

I am estimating three months for the initial reporting process, which will include both significant time spent reporting within the city and Buenos Aires province, and excursions near and far.

Alejandro Rivas, my partner for this project.

To complete this project, we need your help.

In order to meet the significant expenses of transportation and housing while traveling, as well as offset the cost of living for a second person (Alejandro), I am seeking to raise $7,000.

Here is a breakdown of anticipated costs:

Alejandro’s flight to Argentina: $563; Alejandro’s (eventual flight) back to El Salvador: $563; rental car (four 1-week intervals at various times throughout the next few months): $2,000; lodging on the road (four 1-week intervals): $1,874; gas: $1,000; offsetting cost of living for second person: $1,000. Total: $7,000

If you’re able to contribute, you can do so here.

All contributions and expenses are tracked and public to you. View the spreadsheet, here. If you want to remain anonymous, please designate that within the text field of your contribution.

Questions about this project? Ask me in the comments below.

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