Useful Notes: National Reorganization Process

“First we will kill all the subversives; then we will kill all their collaborators; then their sympathisers; then those who remained indifferent; and finally, we’ll kill the undecided.”
General Iberico St. Jean, governor of Buenos Aires

The National Reorganisation Process, known in Spanish as Proceso de Reorganización Nacional or El Proceso (The Process), was the name given to a series of military juntas who controlled Argentina from March 24th, 1976 until December 10th, 1983. Generally regarded as one of the darkest eras—if not the darkest era—in Argentine history, The Process saw the suppression of civil rights, the integration of the military into every facet of Argentine life, and the “disappearance” of thousands of Argentines as the military tried to cleanse of the country of leftist political dissenters.

Argentina had a long history of military coups d’état prior to The Process. Upon the death of Juan Peron in 1974, and the failure of his wife, vice-president, and designated successor, Isabel Peron to maintain domestic stability, the military stepped in, as it had done many times before. The country was wracked at the time with left-wing terrorism, mostly perpetrated by a guerrilla movement known as the Montoneros, who sought to turn the country into a Communist state. The Montoneros had made a name for themselves blowing up businessmen, government officials, and military officers; now, the military had decided, it was time to put an end to this. With backing from the United States of America, and conservative Argentines, the first junta, made up of Army Commander-in-Chief, Lieutenant-General Jorge Rafael Videla, Navy Chief Admiral Emilio Massera, and Air Force Chief Brigadier-General Orlando Agosti, removed Isabel Peron from power, and installed themselves as Argentina’s new rulers. Over the next seven years, three more juntas would dance in Videla, Massera, and Agosti’s shoes. All would play a role in ensuring that The Process would go down as perhaps the worst perpetrator of state terror in South American history.

The Process quickly gained control over the media, and all the other institutions of government. Military officers were assigned to almost all official posts, as the civilian government was shut down, and the entire country took a hard swing to the right, with social services being cut, traditional values promoted, and the economy opened up to foreign business interests. As promised, the junta stepped up the campaign against the Montoneros, and quickly eliminated them. Then, with their actual enemies defeated, The Process turned on the Argentine public in what became known as "The Dirty War."

Videla had once said that “As many people as necessary must die in Argentina so that the country will again be secure.” From 1976 to 1983, somewhere between 9000 and 30 000 Argentines were arrested without trial, confined in secret prisons, gruesomely tortured, and eventually, executed and buried in unmarked graves. Others were hurled, drugged and insensate, into the Atlantic and Pacific Oceans from low flying airplanes and helicopters, their bodies never to be discovered. Still thousands more were subjected to lengthy prison terms and/or torture, before being released into the world, broken by the experience. To add a macabre twist, the juntas also kidnapped the children of leftists and sold them to rich Argentine families, enriching themselves in the process. Unwilling to limit their actions to their own country, the juntas made their intelligence service an integral part of the Pan-South American Operation: Condor, collaborating with Augusto Pinochet’s Chile, Alfredo Stroessner’s Paraguay, and the military juntas of Bolivia, Peru, Uruguay, and Brazil to terrorize, repress, and assassinate leftists across the continent. The eventual death toll reached somewhere around 60 000 making Operation: Condor the worst politicide in the history of modern South America.

Despite all of this, The Process might well have remained in power, had the third junta not declared war on Britain. Having lost The Falklands Islands War, The Process collapsed. The new government under Raoul Alfonsin (a human rights attorney) prosecuted the leaders of the first three juntas under military tribunals, and turned numerous other perpetrators over to civilian courts, before the threat of another revolt forced him to back down. The 1990s saw all of those involved pardoned by President Carlos Menem, and an attempt was made to forget the entire affair, only for Captain Adolfo Scilingo’s public admission of guilt for his part in the death flights to start a whole new round of confessions, exhumations, arrests, and trials, as perpetrators and victims alike began speaking out in the 2000s. The Supreme Court struck down Menem's pardon as unconstitutional, and many of those involved were rearrested; Videla and Massera would both spend the rest of their lives in custody. The resulting media frenzy effectively re-traumatized Argentine society, and ensured that the legacy of The Process will never fully go away.

The four juntas were: 1) Lieutenant-General Jorge Rafael Videla, Admiral Emilio Massera, Brigadier-General Orlando Agosti; 2) Lieutenant-General Roberto Viola, Admiral Armando Lambruschini, Brigadier-General Omar Graffigna; 3) Lieutenant-General Leopoldo Galtieri, Admiral Jorge Anaya, Brigadier-General Basilio Lami Dozo; 4) Lieutenant-General Cristino Nicolaides, Admiral Ruben Franco, Brigadier-General Augusto Hughes.

See Argentines with Armored Vehicles for the forces they commanded. See The Falklands War for the war they lost. See Augusto Pinochet for their equally vile contemporary.

Tropes associated with The Process include:

  • A God Am I: Massera compared himself to Jesus in his statements at trial.
  • Argentines with Armored Vehicles: The Dirty War was fought by all three branches of the Argentine military and The Process was headed by Generals and Admirals.
  • Armies Are Evil: Under The Process the Argentine military got its hands very, very dirty, engaging in mass kidnappings, torture, murder, and politicide. To this day many Argentines find themselves unable to trust their own military, and the prestige of the army has yet to fully recover.
  • The Atoner: Adolfo Francisco Scilingo, a Navy pilot who participated in the death flights was so traumatised by his experiences that he had to confess to his crimes, blowing the lid off the military's attempts to keep it silent. He later travelled to Spain, where there was a warrant for his arrest, so that he could go to prison (he could not be arrested in Argentina) and is serving out a life sentence.
  • Banana Republic: Under The Process Argentina metamorphosised into an exceptionally stereotypical one.
  • Big Bad Duumvirate: All four juntas were triumvirates, controlled more or less equally by the representatives of the three armed services, though as ever, personality will tell (the first junta, for instance, was dominated by Videla and Massera with Agosti effectively sidelined).
  • Cold-Blooded Torture: The regime was infamous for it, with rape, the severing of limbs, beatings, and more exotic perversions (one involving inserting rats into bodily orifices) being institutionalised in the prisons.
  • Dark Messiah: If his claims at his trial were any indicator, Massera saw himself as a Christlike figure, being sacrificed on behalf of Argentina.
  • Democracy Is Bad: The first junta thought that democracy had brought Argentina to the brink of ruin, and that harsh measures were needed to restore it.
  • Dirty Business: How some members of the military, like Scilingo, tried to justify their actions to themselves at the time. There are numerous reports coming from young conscripts who were forced to torture victims, in which they talk of how they were torn between following what they believed were legal orders, and the sheer physical disgust they felt after the fact. In the case of Scilingo, it ultimately resulted in his mental breakdown years later.
  • Draco in Leather Pants: The Process still has a Vocal Minority of defenders within Argentina. During the junta, they were also defended by the likes of Ronald Reagan and Margaret Thatcher who viewed them as allies against the evils of least until the third junta declared war on Thatcher and tried to seize the Falklands Islands.
  • Eviler Than Thou: With the Montoneros. Ultimately subverted in that the Montoneros were way out of their depth and had no chance of challenging the junta's supremacy.
  • Evil Genius: Admiral Massera is usually seen as the brains and ideological mastermind of The Process.
  • Evil Old Folks: Massera and Videla were both in their eighties at the time of their respective deaths. Neither one was sorry about what they'd done.
  • Exact Words: Alfonsin promised the military that only the first three juntas would be handed over to military tribunals. He had the rest of the perpetrators arrested by the civilian police.
  • Final Solution: The Process was meant as the final solution to Argentina's Communist problem.
  • The Fundamentalist: Videla, Massera, and many other military leaders were deeply religious, right-wing Catholics, who thought that any deviation from their version of Western Christian values, qualified as a crime. Said Videla: "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."
  • General Failure: The third junta completely bungled the war against Great Britain, with all three services refusing to commit their best troops for fear of weakening themselves vis a vis the other services. This lead to military disaster and their own eventual downfall.
  • General Ripper: All of the junta leaders, and many of their subordinates as well, were completely convinced that there was a Communist plot aimed at destroying their nation. Long after the real Communists were dead the junta kept right on killing because they could not accept that the war really was over. See Iberico St. Jean and Jorge Videla's quotes for just what kind of people we're dealing with here.
  • Glorious Leader: Not so much any one member of the juntas, but The Process itself was portrayed this way, being held up as the only political movement that could save Argentina from the evils of Communism.
  • The Generalissimo: All twelve of The Process' leaders hit the archetype in one way or another, with Videla and Massera being perhaps the most stereotypical.
  • I Did What I Had to Do: The members of the first three juntas all tried to use this excuse as a justification for their actions, claiming that extreme measures had to be used to save Argentina. In reality, while there was a Communist guerilla movement, it was never as strong as The Process feared it to be, and the juntas' campaign against them devolved into a witch hunt against anybody to the left of their own far-right position.
  • Invasion of the Baby Snatchers: General Videla sold the children of those raped in his custody to his political allies, who then adopted them. Hundreds still don't know who their real parents are. Quoth Christopher Hitchens:
    "And, if I'd tell you why [Videla]'s now under house arrest in Argentina, you might get a sense of the horror I felt as I was asking him questions about [the Dirty War]. He's in prison in Argentina for selling the children of the rape victims among the private prisoners, who he kept in a personal jail. And I don't know if I've ever met anyone who's done anything as sort of condensedly horrible as that.”
  • Insane Admiral: Many of both the General Ripper and "hopeless incompetent" varieties. Emilio Massera is an unusually literal example, being chief of the Argentine Navy, and convinced that he was a messianic figure destined to save Argentina from the perils of Communism. At his last trial for kidnapping Massera was actually judged unfit to stand trial following a stroke that had rendered him legally insane and unable to assist in his own defence.
  • Just Following Orders: This defence was allowed in the case of lower ranking Argentine soldiers, with the Alfonsin government determining that responsibility increased the higher up the chain of command you went (though exceptions could be and were made in the case of truly awful cases of torture or the theft of infants).
  • Karma Houdini: Zigzagged with the juntas. The leaders of the first three juntas were put on trial for murder, torture, and various other crimes by the Alfonsin government. Graffigna, Galtieri, Anaya, and Lami Dozo were acquitted, Agosti got four and a half years in jail, Lambruschini eight years, Viola seventeen years, and Videla and Massera life in prison. The sentences were commuted by President Carlos Menem, but in the 2000s Videla and Massera were rearrested on charges of kidnapping and selling the children of leftists to rich Argentines, and a number of specific murder charges. Massera lost his mind and died in a military hospital, while Videla was first placed under house arrest, and then sent to a military prison in 2010, where he faced a sentence of fifty years for kidnapping and died in 2013 after a fall in the shower. Many other offenders will, of course, never pay for their crimes.
  • Knight Templar: The leaders of the juntas, particularly Videla and Massera who absolutely believed they were safeguarding Christian civilisation from godless Communism. If you did not share their vision for Argentina they classified you as a traitor, and you became a target for death squads.
  • Lean and Mean: The skeletally thin Jorge Videla. Almost any description of him will comment on his emaciated appearance.
  • Manipulative Bastard: Admiral Massera, who was regarded as the real power in The Process and was the one who handled public relations for the first junta, ensuring that public opinion remained firmly on their side.
  • Military Coup: A fairly classic one, with all the armed services cooperating to displace the civilian government.
  • My Country, Right or Wrong: An attitude expressed by many Argentine soldiers when asked why they were willing to participate in The Dirty War.
  • A Nazi by Any Other Name: The Process was a radical ultra right-wing movement that aimed to save Argentine culture from the perils of Communism, and engineered the largest scale politicide in South American history to do it, while at the same time imposing its own ideology on the Argentinian populace, glorifying warfare, and censoring the press. Perhaps more than any other South American military dictatorship (including the likes of Pinochet), The Process earned the moniker of neofascist.
  • People's Republic of Tyranny: The National Reorganisation Process itself.
  • Police State: Under The Process Argentina was the most brutal police state in South America.
  • President Evil: Videla, Viola, and Galtieri all held the title of President at one point, though in practice the three members of each junta ruled as a triumvirate. Of the three, Videla was probably the most genuinely evil.
  • The Quiet One: Agosti can come off this way in discussions of the first junta, as he more or less played a backseat to Videla and Massera, who were President and chief ideologue respectively.
  • Raised Catholic: All the junta leaders, with Agosti, Videla and Massera in particular believing that they were defending the Church from godless Communism.
  • Red Scare: The Process itself was essentially one giant red scare, with the military seeing Communists around every corner. As late as his last trial in 2010, Videla insisted that those who were trying to put him prison were part of a Marxist plot to create a Communist state in Argentina.
  • Retired Monster: None of the junta leaders have ever apologized for their actions, with Videla and Massera in particular remaining Defiant to the End.
  • Sanity Slippage: Massera had lost his mind by the time of his last trial.
  • Secret Police: The role of military intelligence and the national police forces, both of whom kept an eye on the public, and were empowered to arrest and imprison suspects without charge or trial.
  • Shell-Shocked Veteran: Scilingo, and many more perpetrators suffer from severe PTSD. Some scholarly articles have contended that the Argentine nation as whole suffers from shell shock, and is unable to escape the cycle of confession, trial, and subsequent retraumatization that keeps the nation trapped in its own painful past.
  • Sociopathic Soldier: The Process produced a lot of these, as conscripts and professional soldiers alike were forced to participate in The Dirty War. Some, like Scilingo, have regretted their actions. Others, like Torture Technician Julian The Turk, have not.
  • Stupid Evil: Christopher Hitchens, who interviewed Videla in the later seventies, described him as this. He gave the impression, Hitchens said, of someone who knew what to say and had learned it very well, but who had no idea why he was saying it beyond it felt right. During the interview itself, Videla, without any prompting, admits the thing his government was denying; that people were imprisoned by the NROP for spreading ideas.
    "I possess a picture of the encounter that still makes me want to spew: there stands the killer and torturer and rape-profiteer, as if to illustrate some seminar on the banality of evil. Bony-thin and mediocre in appearance, with a scrubby moustache, he looks for all the world like a cretin impersonating a toothbrush. I am gripping his hand in a much too unctuous manner and smiling as if genuinely delighted at the introduction. Aching to expunge this humiliation, I waited while he went almost pedantically through the predicted script, waving away the rumored but doubtless regrettable dematerializations that were said to be afflicting his fellow Argentines."
  • There Is No Kill Like Overkill: As Iberico St. Jean's quote demonstrates, the leaders of The Process knew that they were going overboard. They were just long past caring.
  • Torture Technician: The Process' secret detention centers were staffed with people who were willing to electrocute, rape, and otherwise torture victims in order to gain confessions. Julian the Turk was perhaps the most infamous of these, but there were many, many more.
  • Unperson: The junta's aim in the "disappearances" was to erase the victims from history, holding them in secret before killing them, so that nobody would ever know what had truly happened to them. Said Videla: "The disappeared are just that: disappeared. They are neither alive nor dead. They are disappeared." In practice it completely backfired, creating a veritable army of grieving families who, unable to mourn properly (as the military denied their losses had even happened in the first place) kept the memories of the victims alive.
  • Unusual Euphemism: In Argentina "disappeared" became slang for "killed by the army."
  • Utopia Justifies the Means: The Process' leaders thought they were returning Argentina to a halcyon era from the past, and utopian rhetoric colors all of their descriptions of their actions.
  • Well-Intentioned Extremist: The junta members really do seem to have believed they were acting in Argentina's best interests, and Massera and Videla went to their graves insisting that they had saved their country.
  • Would Be Rude to Say "Genocide": What The Process was engaged in is known as "politicide" (an attempt at wiping out an entire political group) and is one of the crimes against humanity. No one at the time was willing to call it what it was, with Reagan, Thatcher, and other world leaders all insisting it was a civil war. Even at the war crimes trials, the offenders were charged with lesser crimes (murder, kidnapping) rather than crimes against humanity.

Works featuring The Process include:

  • The novel The Islands deals with the aftermath of Falklands Islands War. Protagonist Felix is a Shell-Shocked Veteran, still carrying the baggage of the conflict and what he did under The Process. One of the other characters, the mysterious Major X, is a torturer-turned-would-be-liberator of the islands, who has no regrets about what he did, while Felix's superior officer, Verraco, is a sociopath who has one of his own men tortured to death in much the same way the junta tortured its victims.
  • The novel Malvinas Requiem tells the story of a group of soldiers who desert and hide underground as soon as they arrive at the Falklands Islands. The novel sets them up as deliberate counterpoints to the victims of The Process, with the characters engaging in a lengthy discussion of the horrors perpetrated by the junta. "They say there's ten thousand of us on the island" one soldier comments. "They say Videla killed fifteen thousand," another shoots back.
  • Christopher Hitchens wrote extensively on the National Reorganization Process, actually interviewing General Videla when it was at its height.
  • Nunca Más ('Never Again') is the report presented by the CONADEP (National Commission on the Disappearance of Persons), a commission created by President Raul Alfonsin after his instauration to investigate the human rights violations commited by the Juntas. The report contains testimonies from relatives and survivors accounting for the abductions, tortures and murders they witnessed, all evidence that would help in the trials against the Juntas.

  • The film Los rubios (The Blonds) is a documdrama showing one woman's quest to uncover what happened to her disappeared family during The Dirty War.
  • The film Night of the Pencils follows the stories of seven students who are abducted by the dictatorship. Only one of the seven survives to tell the tale.
  • Chronicle Of An Escape: A 2006 Argentine film telling the stories of four men who narrowly escape death at the hands of one of the junta's death squads.
  • The movie Kamchatka is about a family hiding from the junta in rural Argentina.
  • Imagining Argentina, starring Antonio Banderas, tells the story of a man who uses his psychic powers to try and locate his disappeared wife, while helping other victims of the junta try and uncover what has happened to their loved ones. It includes some truly ugly torture scenes.
  • Olympic Garage is the story of a dissident journalist captured and tortured at the titular location, one of the juntas most well-known torture chambers.
  • A Wall of Silence is about a film director whose husband was disappeared under The Process. She struggles to move on, but cannot, while trying to determine what the responsibility of artists is when it comes to representing what happened during The Process.
  • Captive (2003) is about a student, Cristina, who discovers that she is one of the children who was kidnapped during The Process and sold off to a wealthy family. She is left trying to find her real relatives, and looking to uncover just how much her adoptive parents really know. Her grandmother is another major character, who has spent sixteen years trying to locate her.
  • The Official Story is about an upper middle class couple who discover that their adopted daughter is the child of one of the disappeared. It won several awards.
  • Hermanas is about two sisters who flee Argentina during the junta after their father disappears. Eight years later, the girls meet up for the first time and try to rebuild their relationship as the film flashes back to their family's life during The Process.
  • The Lost Steps: Yet another film dealing with a stolen child, this one has Monica Erigaray discovering that not only is she the granddaughter of a dissident writer, but that the man she believes to be her father was a Torture Technician known as "The Toad" during the junta.
  • Clandestine Childhood is about a married couple of Montoneros who escape The Process and then return to Argentina under assumed names to try and bring the junta down.
  • The Girlfriend is about a married couple trying to come to terms with the disappearance of both their son, and the wife's Jewish friend. The wife, Maria, eventually joins The Mothers of the Plaza del Mayo to protest the regime.
  • Veronico Cruz is about a rural shepherd boy whose father was disappeared by the regime and who eventually ends up as a sailor during the attack on the Falklands.