Tuesday, January 19, 1999 Published at 03:47 GMT
Dealing with dictators
Justice in Buenos Aires had stood still for 15 years - until Pinochet
By John Simpson, World Affairs Editor
Nowadays Argentina is more stable and more at ease with itself, than at any time in the past quarter-century. Even so, there is unfinished business here. This country is only now starting to face up to its terrible, brutal past.
In March 1976 the military seized power and began the systematic destruction of moderate and left-wing dissent. Maybe 14,000 people were murdered.
But the Spanish judge, Balthazar Garzon - the same man who is behind the effort to extradite General Pinochet of Chile, applied for his arrest and that of several other leading figures. The Argentine courts followed suit.
"The arrest warrants issued by Garzon were a slap in the face to the Argentine government which has based its policy around appeasment and pardons to the top military. I don't think we would be seeing the arrests if it hadn't been for the warrants issued by Spain. "
Lying in wait for Galtieri
In a modest flat in a middle-middle-class suburb of Buenos Aires lives former Argentinian dictator General Galtieri.
I called on him to ask about the old days, but he was not in. So I waited.
Fifteen years - then Pinochet
I first came to Buenos Aires in 1983 when the military dictatorship was on its last legs and people were just starting to confront the terrible events they had been through.
Then, as now, the same names were all over the front pages: those who gave orders to torture and murder and those who carried the orders out. Not much has been done in 15 years since then to deal with the problem at a fundamental level.
But what if the attention given to the big names diverts attention from those further down the scale? The people who were in daily control of the torturers and murderers.
One voice - silenced
Across Buenos Aires is the neat, pleasant building of the Naval Mechanics School in Buenos Aires, known from its Spanish initials as Esma.
Those cases were pretty much closed by the amnesty granted in 1989. They were not ongoing crimes.
Esma was the place women prisoners were brought to have their children. The mothers were murdered and the babies given to military families who wanted them. Those crimes are not over. They are effects are still felt, day by day.
The most notorious case
Cecilia Vinas would be in her forties now. But after growing up in the seaside town of Mar del Plata she worked in a trade union office, which was enough to make her a target for the military death squads.
She and her husband were arrested in 1977; he was murdered at once, but because she was pregnant she was allowed to give birth to her child at Esma.
Her family thought her dead but in 1983, six years after being kidnapped, she made the first of a series of phone calls to her family. She was still a prisoner, even though the military dictatorship was now over.
Until she spoke to her mother, she thought her child had been handed over to the family by her military captors. It shattered her to know her son could not be found - and that was the last her family heard.
In the 14 years since then the family have publicised the case tirelessly.
A new identity
Now Cecilia's son, who is called Javier, is 21. He grew up thinking he was the son of Captain Jorge Vildosa, who operated out of Esma, and was in fact his kidnapper.
Instead, of course, it proved that he was Cecilia's grandson. Then, nervously, he made contact with his real family.
The young man who had once been so certain who he was was now caught between two families. He had discovered that the man who brought him up was a kidnapper, and perhaps a murderer.
Defending the indefensible
It is difficult to imagine what men such as Jorge Vildosa and General Galtieri think about the bad old days.
Pedro Bianci, a lawyer who represented many of Junta, says he does not think the men responsible for these crimes feel guilty:
"My personal opinon? I don't think so. I think they are convinced they did the right thing."
"It was a very difficult time for Argentina. None of you lived through it, you weren't here. I lived it. I don't agree with the methods used but I do agree that we had to defeat subversion."
If there is no real justice, will not these resentments come to the surface again?
These arrests we are seeing now of very old men who can serve their sentences at home seem to be more for show than to contain any real threat.
We can stick Massera in jail, Vidella in jail or Galtieri might even go to jail.
But it still seems unlikely that the men who delivered the babies and the people who today are between 40 and 50, colonels and captains, will ever be prosecuted for the crimes they have committed.