Jorge Rafael Videla, Argentina’s Disappearer in Chief, Dies at 87

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General Jorge Rafael Videla in Buenos Aires on July 5, 2012, before receiving a sentence for his responsibility in an orchestrated plan to kidnap children from people "disappeared" during the military dictatorship

He would never have been cast to play the role of a bloody South American dictator in a Hollywood film. Soft-spoken, deeply religious, rake thin and awkward, his lean face cut horizontally by an incongruously thick walrus mustache, his fellow army officers nicknamed him affectionately the Pink Panther. The name stuck and was picked up by the press after General Jorge Rafael Videla overthrew Argentina’s democratically elected government in 1976 as head of a military junta that imposed a seven-year reign of terror in which some 20,000 Argentines were brutally murdered.

“Videla belongs to that class of people who reveal the mediocrity of evil and who prove that the devil can incarnate in just anyone,” Argentine author Tomás Eloy Martínez once wrote.

But behind the gentlemanly mask lurked a mind poisoned with the abhorrent idea that thousands of young people — Argentina’s revolutionaries of the late 1960s and early ’70s — had to “disappear” to prevent Argentina from falling into the hands of godless communism. “Argentina is by history Western and Christian,” Videla once told a group of British journalists. “A terrorist is defined not only by killing with a gun or planting a bomb, but also by activating with ideas contrary to our civilization.”

These Western and Christian values, Videla believed, were threatened by modern maths, a “subversive” subject that was struck from school curricula, and the Uncle Scrooge character in Donald Duck cartoons, banned from television because Disney’s creation, the “richest duck in the world,” was believed to be a sly satire on capitalism that favored communist sympathies.

Yet Videla was seen by some a dove among the hawks within the military junta, one who kept in line even more bloodthirsty generals like Ibérico Saint-Jean, who in 1977 declared: “First we will kill the subversives, then we will kill their collaborators, then their sympathizers, followed by the indifferent and finally the timid.”

Before British journalist Robert Cox was forced to leave Argentina in 1979 because of his brave reporting on human-rights crimes committed by Videla’s government, the military ruler described himself to Cox as the man holding back the demons. “He told me that he would like to go home but that he feared that if he left office, his place would be taken by a general who would be so ruthless that Argentina would be drowned in blood,” wrote Cox in the Buenos Aires Herald last year.

Whether other generals would have been worse is something for the historians to decide, but under mild-mannered Videla some 20,000 people were made to “disappear.” Most gruesome of all, the military decided to keep alive captured pregnant women until they gave birth, after which they were also murdered and the babies handed over to military families to be raised according to the “Western and Christian” values Videla claimed to defend.

Cox, who met with Videla on a number of occasions back then, believed for a time that the general was serious about his claim to be keeping the hawks under control. But after testifying against Videla last year in a trial in which he was sentenced to 50 years for the cases of the babies, Cox pondered: “How could any man decide in cold blood to order that pregnant women should be allowed to have their babies and then be killed, usually by being dumped, naked and unconscious from military aircraft into the freezing waters of the Atlantic?”

Videla remained in power until March 1981, when he retired as Army Commander in Chief. One of his successors, General Leopoldo Galtieri, presiding over an economic debacle, decided to take Argentina to war against the U.K. in an effort to regain the Falkland Islands, 300 miles off Argentina’s Atlantic coast, long claimed by Argentina as Las Malvinas. Galtieri’s plan failed when British Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher dispatched a Royal Navy fleet over the equator and swept Argentina’s troops off the islands. The dictatorship collapsed a year later, and since 1983 Argentina has been a democracy.

Videla’s death still leaves many questions unanswered, especially because he refused in court to give details of the crimes committed by his dictatorship. “I do not celebrate his death, because they die and they take with them the most important secrets in history,” said Nora Cortiñas, whose son Carlos Cortiñas “disappeared,” never to be seen again in 1977. The mothers of the “disappeared,” including Cortiñas, have for almost four decades struggled tenaciously for truth and justice.

Among the secrets Videla takes with him is exactly how the Condor Plan — the network through which autocrats from other South American dictatorships, like General Augusto Pinochet in Chile, collaborated with Argentina to persecute leftist opponents throughout the continent — worked. With some 20,000 “disappeared” under his rule, Videla has a higher body count to his name than Pinochet and other South American contemporaries like General Alfredo Stroessner of Paraguay, although he lags far behind the former de facto ruler of Guatemala, Efrain Rios Montt, who was recently convicted in his own country of crimes against humanity and genocide.

Videla was condemned for his crimes in the immediate aftermath of democracy’s return to Argentina, along with other military leaders of the dictatorship, but was released amid a general amnesty in 1990. Further trials were blocked by amnesty laws passed by Argentina’s Congress. It was only recently, with the amnesty laws overturned and a new round of trials under way, that Videla was taken back to jail, where he died in the morning of May 17 of natural causes in his cell at Marcos Paz prison.