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International Law

by Marguerite Feitlowitz

The Prosecution of Isabel Perón

In the bitterly contested history of Argentina, there is one subject about which there is universal agreement:  Isabel Perón was a disastrous president. And now, three decades after she was ousted in a military coup and began her comfortable exile in Spain, two Argentine judges have called for her extradition to stand trial for crimes committed while she held office.

Her background had not prepared her for a political future. María Estela Martínez, known as Isabel, was a nightclub dancer; she met her future husband during his exile in Panama. (Juan Domingo Perón's second presidency ended in the violent 1955 coup.) She was blonde, svelte, and vivacious; he hoped she would fill the void left by the death of his second wife, "Evita." When he moved to Spain in 1960, Isabel went too; when he resumed his political activities — first "offstage" then as a comeback — she served as a courier until he could legally return to Argentina. Perón, who in 1973 was already ailing when once again he was elected, named his wife Vice-President. On July 1, 1974, he died, and "Isabelita," as she was called in Argentina, became president.

If ever there was a moment that called for leaders of political brilliance, this was it:  upon his return, Perón had flattened, even massacred his left-wing supporters (some would say "worshippers") and elevated the party's hard right wing. Banished from the public political arena, the enraged, heartbroken Peronist left went underground. As unemployment soared and the peso plunged, guerrilla war broke out between armies of the ultra-right and the ultra-left. Kidnappings, executions, and random violence made everyone vulnerable. Responding to threats from the militant left, the Peronist government organized death squads under the banner of the Argentina Anti-Communist Alliance, or the Triple A. Coordinated at first by the Federal Police, the Triple A was eventually taken over by José López Rega, the Minister of Social Welfare who came to be known as Isabel's "Rasputin," "warlock," and power-mad astrologer.

The extent to which Señora Perón was actually wielded power is a matter of debate.  She was by turns brittle and bewildered. She took extended "sick leaves," at the urging of the military. But she was not entirely absent.  Fueling Perón's extradition is her signature on more than one deadly order. Decree No. 261, which she signed on February 5, 1975, charged the army commander in chief with the "erradicación de elementos subversivos." It gave the army "operational control" of the Federal and Provincial Police in Tucumán, a stronghold for a faction of the armed left. It also authorized nonmilitary, "psychological operations."

During Perón's sick leaves, additional Decrees were signed by acting president Italo Luder:  Nos. 2770, 2771, and 2772, dated October 6, 1975, extended army control over all police, and created "defense counsels" to plan and coordinate "the eradication of subversive elements." According to Argentine human rights groups, the Triple A murdered 1,500 people in the run-up to the 1976 military takeover.

"As many people as necessary must die in Argentina so that the country will again be secure," declared General Rafael Videla, in 1975, as both a gesture of support for the Triple A and a statement of his own political ambitions. By the end of that year, the armed left had been routed (a reality the authorities hid so they wouldn't have to soften) but economic and political chaos ruled. Inflation was mounting at a monthly rate of 30 percent; the deficit reached a staggering one billion dollars. On March 24, 1976,  "Isabelita" was ousted in a coup that was, at first, welcomed. Videla became de facto president.

The regime smoothly escalated the repressions enacted under Isabel Perón. From 1976-83, some 30,000 citizens were kidnapped, tortured, and disappeared in a massive program of state terrorism. Both before and after the coup, the government grossly exaggerated the strength of the insurgent forces. The exaggerated subversive threat was a pretext for the regime's real purpose:  the tight structuring of the economy to favor the traditional bastions of wealth (the oligarchy of large landowners, banks, and industrialists) as well as the newer, more speculation-based business class. Economists working for the dictatorship planned for a population, five years out, of approximately 20 million Argentines, when the real population, it was known, would far exceed that number.

The Dirty War juntas kept Isabel Perón under house arrest until 1981, when they allowed her to go into exile in Spain. She has lived a comfortable life in Madrid, removed from politics, but maintaining close friendships with the family of Generalissimo Franco. Now 75, she is not in good health; for this reason, she was not incarcerated to await extradition, but is under house arrest.

It has taken decades for the Argentine judiciary to recover from the ravages of what the generals called the "Dirty War." Courts at every level were hobbled by entrenched military appointees and by outright corruption. In the first days of the new democracy, when the military was still restive, President Raúl Alfonsín promulgated controversial amnesty laws that allowed thousands of torturers and other participants in the "Dirty War" to escape trial. Only in June 2005 did the Supreme Court annul those laws as unconstitutional. The first two trials ended with convictions:  that of Miguel Etchecolatz, who, as Commissioner General of the Buenos Aires Provincial Police, ran a series of clandestine detention centers; and of Julio Simón ("Julian the Turk") a low-ranking cop who tortured, killed, and sold babies born to desaparecidas in captivity. December 2006 saw the arrest of three high-level members of the Triple A, whose activities, according to the investigating magistrate, "amply exceeded that which could reasonably be considered adequate for the security of its offices and functionaries." The Argentine government is determined also to prosecute the Triple A rank and file:  as many 900 former police are under investigation.

As I write, in mid-August 2007, Argentina watches the trial of Christian von Wernich, the infamous "Dirty War" Police Chaplain, charged with numerous counts of murder, torture, and illegal imprisonment. The Argentine Catholic Church not only supported the dictatorship, but, during the presidency of Señora Perón, urged the military to go ahead with the coup. Von Wernich was extradited by Chile, where he'd been sent by the Church in 2003 in order to avoid eventual prosecution, and where he'd lived and worked as a cleric under an assumed name. At least 120 individuals are scheduled to testify against him. The Federal Government has pledged "to guarantee the security of the witnesses," a promise that rings with menace as well as reassurance:  a major witness against the convicted Etchecolatz, a 77-year-old stonemason by the name of Julio López, went missing after a day on the stand. More than nine months later, he is still disappeared, the first desaparecido of Argentina's democracy.        

Isabel Martinez de Perón has beseeched the Spanish magistrates not to extradite her to Argentina. But the judicial process, which is expected to unfold over a period of months, continues. Like any defendant in a real democracy, Isabel Perón is innocent until proven guilty in a public trial. Because she is over 70, if convicted in Argentina, she would serve her sentence not in prison but under house arrest. 

Prosecutions of The Triple A help lift the veil on the chaotic mid-1970s, a time of terrible paradox:  a democracy run by an inner circle of repressors; generals who came to impose "order" and sowed ruin, promised "security" and delivered death. Clarification of the history is essential to Argentina's long efforts to recover from the "Dirty War," which began well before the coup.

Some believe that the feeble Isabel Perón was as much a captive as a criminal. Whether that is a legal defense is a matter for the courts.

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Articles in this Issue

The Chore Coat, by Adrienne Mercer
Beauty That Shines Through, by Krista Landers
On Brautigan, by Justin Taylor
Deaf not Deaf, by Josh Swiller
My Guitar Flies Solo to Bucharest, by Glenn Kurtz
Communications, by Phillip Routh
International Law, by Marguerite Feitlowitz
Automotive Technology, by Jeff Steinbrink
Lost Last Month


Marguerite Feitlowitz is the author of A Lexicon of Terror:  Argentina and the Legacies of Torture, a New York Times Notable Book and Finalist for the PEN New England/L.L. Winship Prize. Her fiction, essays, and translations have appeared in BOMB, Tri-Quarterly, Salmagundi, Les Temps Modernes, Americas, and many other magazines, newspapers, and anthologies. Currently at work on a novel, she teaches literature at Bennington College.

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