This riveting analysis of the aftermath of Argentina's massive disappearances uncovers a dynamic of trust and betrayal that has driven relentless confrontations between the state, the military, former insurgents, and bereaved relatives about how to remember, mourn, and punish atrocities committed against fellow citizens.
2018 | 304 pages | Cloth $65.00
Anthropology | Latin American Studies/Caribbean Studies
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Table of Contents
List of Abbreviations
Introduction. Trust and Betrayal
Chapter 1. Trauma
Chapter 2. Memory
Chapter 3. Testimony
Chapter 4. Denial
Chapter 5. Sovereignty
Chapter 6. Accountability
Chapter 7. Guilt
Chapter 8. Mourning
Appendix. Timeline of Argentine Political History
Trust and Betrayal
The arrival at a teeming Plaza de Mayo of the five-hundred-yard-long banner displaying the youthful images of thousands of disappeared Argentines was heralded by a band of drummers and a group of dancers who had been steadily making their way through the crowd-lined Avenida de Mayo that connects Argentina's congress building with the presidential palace. The disappeared who had been persecuted and assassinated by the military regime were about to make their glorious entry into the heart of Buenos Aires on this Day of Memory in March 2010. The dancers and drummers stepped aside upon reaching the Plaza de Mayo. This gesture allowed the banner to take center stage in the historic square and honor the disappeared and their relatives. They walked as one because the political lives and deaths of the disappeared were entwined with the protests of the relatives at the Plaza de Mayo, where Argentina's independence had been proclaimed in May 1810 and where presidents and dictators had won and lost the support of popular crowds. The banner symbolized the continued influence of the disappeared on Argentine society and the enduring care of their relatives for nearly four decades.
My sentiment was bittersweet as I recalled standing at the same Avenida de Mayo on 10 December 1983 to watch President Raúl Alfonsín make his way to the Plaza de Mayo in an open limousine. The expectant smile on his face made a lasting impression on me. Alfonsín had just been inaugurated in Congress after having won the October elections on a call for truth and justice and the promise that the disappearances would soon be explained. Now, twenty-seven years later, this hope had mostly evaporated, lost in the illusion of time, but at least the disappeared and their relatives had gotten the nation's attention, and many perpetrators were in prison for crimes against humanity committed during the dictatorship that had ruled Argentina between 1976 and 1983.
The Argentine armed forces had taken control on 24 March 1976 on the pretext of eliminating the guerrilla insurgency, jump-starting the economy, and laying the foundation for a lasting democracy. Tens of thousands of enforced disappearances, hundreds of thousands of anguished relatives, and a traumatized society were the price. How have Argentines been struggling with the human, social, and symbolic losses inflicted by the military regime? In particular, how have trust and betrayal shaped and reshaped the long-term consequences of the state's repressive violence and Argentina's sociocultural traumas since the fall of the dictatorship in 1983? Finally, how did the unending confrontations between conflicting social groups and a multifaceted state influence the memory, mourning, and accountability of Argentina's many losses?
Trust is essential to state and society. Trust makes social interaction and political institutions possible, whereas betrayal may lead to social and political disintegration. I believe that these two analytical concepts are of considerable explanatory value for understanding how traumatized societies struggle with the unresolved legacies of a repressive past. As far as the concepts of state and society are concerned, they refer to heterogeneous, layered, and multifaceted sociocultural constructions in which trust and betrayal are manifested in multiple differentiated ways. They do not constitute autonomous, homogeneous wholes because society is replete with social strife among conflicting individuals, groups, and interests, while state organs, such as local and national administrations, the parliament, the judiciary, and the armed forces, may be at odds with one another and be engaged in corruption and clientelism behind a façade of stately formality.
Authoritarian, repressive regimes undermine the trust embedded in society and extended to state agents and institutions by creating an uncertain environment in which the state can strike unawares. Suspicion and mistrust can penetrate all levels of state and society because trusting relations are besieged by the ever-present threat of betrayal. This book focuses on the dynamics of trust and betrayal to explain how, between 1983 and 2016, Argentina dealt with the sequels of its violent past in key areas of national contestation. Trust and betrayal have been important modalities of social and political relations in Argentina, not only during the dictatorship but also during its aftermath when democracy returned to the country. National governments, the armed forces, former guerrilla organizations, associations of searching relatives, and human rights organizations have harbored considerable mutual mistrust and have each, in their own way, been suspicious of internal betrayal. Successive presidents have periodically changed course regarding their handling of national commemorations, criminal accountability, and reconciliation policies. They contributed to a general feeling of precariousness among Argentine citizens about an untrustworthy state. Furthermore, the changing narratives and testimonies about political violence and military repression by the opposed historical protagonists and the gradual disclosure of past truths and falsehoods have fed a mutual mistrust in a divided civil society that has hindered the mourning of Argentina's multiple losses. Argentina has therefore remained a traumatized society that continues in open conflict over its past because of the ongoing dynamics of trust and betrayal—dynamics that are, in fact, implicating increasingly more social sectors as complicit with the dictatorial regime. The framing of Argentina's disappearances in terms of genocide is the latest manifestation of this mistrust. Genocide is, after all, the ultimate betrayal, the worst violation of trust among human beings and social groups.
On 24 March 2010, Estela de Carlotto and Nora de Cortiñas, as the most prominent representatives of the Grandmothers of the Plaza de Mayo and the Mothers of the Plaza de Mayo Founding Line, were leading the presentation of the banner of the disappeared. I may have met Nora de Cortiñas for the first time in Buenos Aires in April 1978, one year after her son Gustavo had disappeared. On that day, I was walking across the Plaza de Mayo when suddenly three or four women approached me and told me in desperation that their children had been taken, they did not know where. Nora de Cortiñas could very well have been among these women, who were quickly pushed away from me by a policeman and two civilians. She had become one of the movement's new leaders after its founder, Azucena Villaflor de De Vicenti, had been abducted and disappeared. Eight persons had been dragged away during a gathering at the Santa Cruz Church on 8 December 1977. Azucena and four others were taken two days later. In another repressive move, the dictatorship forbade the Thursday afternoon demonstrations of the mothers at the Plaza de Mayo, as they were fearful they might jeopardize the upcoming World Cup soccer tournament of June 1978. Only the most fearless mothers, among them Nora de Cortiñas, maintained their presence at the square by approaching passersby like me who might be foreign journalists who could spread the word abroad about their protests.
In 1990, I had three in-depth interviews with Nora de Cortiñas. She told me about the long days spent searching for her son and the profound sense of betrayal when she discovered in 1982 that Gustavo Niño—the young man who had frequented the weekly gatherings at the Santa Cruz Church in search of his abducted brother—turned out to be undercover Navy Lieutenant Alfredo Astiz. Astiz was a free man in 1990 thanks to an amnesty intended to bring social peace to Argentina by ending the prosecution of perpetrators. Nora strongly opposed the amnesty law: "reconciliation with the assassins, the torturers, and those who disappear people is impossible. There are prisons for them. . . . I don't want to forgive them" (interview on 16 November 1990). Nora never changed her mind throughout her lifelong activism.
The National Day of Memory for Truth and Justice, popularly known as the Day of Memory, was created by Congress in 2002 to remember the disappeared and commemorate the coup d'état of 24 March 1976. The human rights movement took advantage of the national holiday to remind Argentine society that the accountability of perpetrators and collaborators had been cut short by the amnesties and pardons of the late 1980s. Yet, Argentine history is full of unexpected turns, and by 2006 a new cycle of trials against the Argentine military and police had begun. Years of street protests and the persistence of human rights lawyers had paid off. The Day of Memory demonstrated that the disappeared had not been abandoned. Although the national holiday was intended as a nonpartisan commemoration, public presence and oratorical prominence at the Plaza de Mayo in Buenos Aires became an annual political contest.
The Day of Memory in 2010 began officially at 11:30 a.m. with a speech by President Cristina Fernández de Kirchner at the former Navy Mechanics School (ESMA), where one of Argentina's largest secret detention centers had been housed. She emphasized that the recovery of the identity of babies kidnapped during the dictatorship was "a victory over oblivion and death," and she rejected the suggestion by some politicians to stop prosecuting the perpetrators: "Nobody judges the past, but rather real crimes committed by real men." She was not giving her speech in the Casa Rosada, the presidential palace at the Plaza de Mayo, as if to distance herself from the discord among the human rights organizations and political groups marching toward the square.
The day's program had been hotly debated among the sixty participating organizations that refused to share the podium erected at the square's center because of their different stance toward the reigning Peronist government. The compromise, hammered out after long negotiations, was eventually broken when state officials intervened at the last moment and started the music festival two hours earlier than planned, thus allowing opposition groups less time to air their disapproval of the government. The pro-government Mothers of the Plaza de Mayo Association, led by Hebe de Bonafini, was present for President Cristina de Kirchner's speech at 11:30 a.m., and at 5:00 p.m. opened the music festival to celebrate an artistic culture that the dictatorship had been unable to destroy. The Mothers of the Plaza de Mayo Founding Line, headed by Nora de Cortiñas, carried the large banner representing the disappeared to the nation's symbolic center at 2:00 p.m. and departed before the rival Mothers Association stepped on stage. The Grandmothers of the Plaza de Mayo joined Argentina's president at the ESMA and accompanied both organizations of mothers at the Plaza de Mayo. Finally, dozens of leftist groups with names such as Revolutionary Peronism, Tupac Amaru, and Neighborhoods on Their Feet entered the square around 4:00 p.m. and read a critical message to the Kirchner government, which was drowned out by the loud music coming from the podium.
The next day I met Nora de Cortiñas at her office. Decades had passed since I had first met her. Now eighty years old, she was still trying to determine what had happened to her son Gustavo and was tirelessly taking to the streets to demand the prosecution of the assassins. She commented that the Plaza de Mayo had been divided between pro-Kirchner and anti-Kirchner groups or, as the opposition newspaper Clarín wrote, between "orthodox Kirchnerists, reluctant Kirchnerists, and furious Kirchnerists versus Marxism-Leninism, Trotskyists, Maoists, picketers, and anarchists. K vs. anti-K. Two marches, two events, and two different worldviews." Nora lamented the censorship of antigovernment forces and the festive atmosphere of the day's closing event: "We have nothing to celebrate on the 24th of March. It is a day to remember, to denounce, to reflect, and to continue accusing the project of the civil-military sector" (interview on 25 March 2010). The commemoration at the Plaza de Mayo in 2010 showed that what united the mothers and grandmothers, namely the emotional attachment to the disappeared and the accountability of the executioners, at the same time divided them when they quarreled over how to express this attachment in public and give shape to their ambiguous entanglement with the Argentine state.
In my previous book, I demonstrated how the complex interplay of political violence and sociocultural trauma affected several social domains of Argentine society between 1945 and 1990 (Robben 2005a). The betrayal and mistrust that had pervaded the military dictatorship influenced Argentine society in the decades thereafter. The armed forces continued to betray the Argentine people by refusing to open the books on the disappeared, thus condemning relatives to an interminable search for kidnapped babies and the skeletal remains of their abducted loved ones. These two conflicting groups were mistrustful of Argentina's successive governments that followed an unpredictable path between accountability and pacification. Before entering into a conceptual discussion of trust and betrayal, I will provide a short history of the political violence in twentieth-century Argentina until the fall of the military regime in 1983 as a prelude to this book's analysis of its aftermath.
A Concise History of Political Violence in Argentina
Argentina has been weighed down by political violence since the Spanish viceroy was deposed during the May Revolution of 1810, and a successful war of independence was fought against Spain. This anticolonial war evolved into a period of intermittent civil wars between regional warlords and the central government in Buenos Aires. In the same period, the young republic embarked on a territorial conquest of Patagonia and the destruction of its native population. Charles Darwin, who traveled extensively in Argentina between 1832 and 1834, noted the connection between economy and genocide. "This war of extermination, although carried on with the most shocking barbarity, will certainly produce great benefits; it will at once throw open four or 500 miles in length of fine country for the produce of cattle" (Darwin 1988:172).
The civil wars ended in 1852, and the Argentine state was consolidated in the decade of its so-called National Organization. The constitution was written, Congress was installed, and the economy expanded thanks to increasing agricultural exports and foreign investments. Argentina attracted many immigrants from Europe between 1865 and 1880, including refugees from the Paris Commune who began organizing the rapidly growing working class and in 1872 founded a chapter of the First International.
In search of new grazing lands, cattle ranchers clashed with the native inhabitants at a frontier where trade, theft, intermarriage, and kidnapping occurred at the same time (Duncan Baretta and Markoff 1978; Jones 1993). Peace treaties were as easily made as broken. In 1878, the Argentine government decided to make the Río Negro its southernmost natural line of defense against Indian raids. An expeditionary force of six thousand soldiers, equipped with horses and Remington rifles, advanced in five divisions across the vast pampas, killing and enslaving native warriors and families (Punzi 1979; Viñas 1982). More expeditions followed, and in April 1883 President Roca congratulated General Villegas on his final victory: "Beyond that enchanting blue lake at whose margins the Argentine bayonets pitch their tents, at the same sites where in the near future towns will arise, there are no more indians, daring tribes or terrible chiefs left to terrorize cattle herders and prevent the cultivation of land" (Walther 1980:547).
Argentina was booming by the late nineteenth century. Nearly two million immigrants arrived between 1900 and 1908, escaping poverty in Europe but finding only more exploitation in an overpopulated Buenos Aires (Lynch 1993; Rock 1987). The harsh repression of strikes and street protests during the first decades of the twentieth century culminated in the Tragic Week (la Semana Trágica) of January 1919, when members of the army and police killed thirty-four workers (Díaz Araujo 1988). Authoritarianism reigned in Argentina after the country's first military coup d'état in 1930. An era of political corruption and economic decline began, known as the Infamous Decade, in which political opponents were subjected to waterboarding and the electric prod was added to the arsenal of torture instruments (Unamuno 1988).
The repressive political climate ended in 1945 when the populist leader Juan Domingo Perón came to power with the support of the Argentine working class. He started an emancipatory movement that freed exploited workers "from the fear of losing their job, to look upon the foreman as an equal, to feel protected by the union representative, and not to hear constantly the bark of misery" (Luna 1973:320). Tensions with the Catholic Church arose in 1950 when Perón stated that Peronism's ideology of social justice embodied the essence of the Christian faith. His growing authoritarianism provoked failed military rebellions in 1951 and 1952, and the stepped-up state repression of political opponents created much bad blood. In fact, Argentina's first documented disappearances occurred in December 1946 when the police shuttled five political detainees among different police stations in La Plata and denied having them in custody (Lamas 1956:47-53). The street protests against Perón gained momentum in 1952, and military conspiracies were brewing. The turmoil reached its climax in 1955. The presidential palace at the Plaza de Mayo was bombed in June 1955 by the rebellious Navy, causing hundreds of civilian deaths (Portugheis 2015). The uprising failed, but the anti-Peronist opposition only grew in strength until a successful coup d'état on 16 September 1955 forced Perón to flee the country.
The military junta immediately proscribed the Peronist Party, and even forbade mentioning the names Perón and Evita in public. In addition, many worker benefits were revoked to raise the productivity of Argentina's industry. The overwhelmingly Peronist working class considered these measures to be acts of revenge and supported a resistance movement against the dictatorship that came to inspire the political violence of the 1970s. More than two hundred Peronist groups, with around ten thousand members in Buenos Aires alone, sabotaged the country's economy. There were strikes, street protests, fire bombings, and armed operations (James 1988:77-80).
On 9 June 1956, Peronist officers staged a rebellion that was beaten down brutally, leaving thirty-four dead. Hundreds of Peronists were arrested. Ernesto Jauretche, who would join the Peronist guerrilla organization Montoneros in the early 1970s, recalled how deeply he was affected by his mother's detention. "The first time they took my mother, they also disappeared her. For one month, we searched for her everywhere but they told us: 'She's not here, she's not here.' We searched for her at military bases, everywhere. Executions were taking place and we didn't have any news about my mother, we didn't know where she was. The history of the disappearances is indeed very old" (interview on 6 April 1991).
The Peronist resistance movement petered out in the late 1950s. The military had handed over power to the civilian government of Arturo Frondizi in 1958, and the labor unions avoided open confrontations with the state. Nevertheless, a rural guerrilla insurgency, inspired by the Cuban Revolution of 1959, sprang up in Tucumán Province. The small group soon fell apart, however, because of internal disagreements and offensive police operations. Insurgents again attempted revolution in June 1963. Argentine guerrillas trained in Cuba entered Argentina to create a liberated zone in the province of Salta, but they failed because they lacked support from the rural population and an urban working class that was organized in noncombative labor unions. Union leaders had developed close ties with the political establishment and had cultivated clientelistic relations with the rank and file through pension funds, medical care, and jobs for loyal members (James 1988:130-142). Some even supported the coup d'état of 28 June 1966 by retired General Onganía because President Frondizi's successor, Arturo Illia, wanted to improve the internal union democracy and eradicate the rampant clientelism.
The pact between union leaders and military rulers was broken when the junta decided in August 1966 to impose the forced mediation of labor conflicts and abolish the right to strike. Working-class resistance grew and coalesced with the rebellious spirit of a younger generation inspired by the Cuban Revolution. In 1969, massive street demonstrations of workers and students erupted in industrial cities such as Córdoba and Rosario. The middle classes sympathized with the antigovernment protests but did not approve of the armed violence (Carassai 2014). Small guerrilla groups misinterpreted this solidarity as the coming of a revolution, and benefited from the crowd mobilizations to recruit members.
The military dictatorship failed to control the increasing number of antigovernment street protests that demanded the return of Perón, who had been living in exile since 1955. The junta decided to hold national elections in March 1973 but excluded Perón from the ballot. The Peronist Party won the elections, and its candidate, Héctor Cámpora, assumed power on 25 May 1973. His presidential pardon of nearly four hundred incarcerated political prisoners became a watershed in the Argentine military's thinking about counterinsurgency warfare and convinced them that total annihilation was the only correct response to a future resurgence of armed violence. Only weeks before the pardon Navy Captain Horacio Mayorga had warned against "the presence of a violent left that can sink us into a killing process, and if the dead are ours it will then be the law of the jungle" (Potash 1996:503).
Perón returned to Argentine soil on 20 June 1973 during a violent confrontation at Ezeiza Airport between revolutionary Peronists with roots in the guerrilla insurgency and orthodox Peronists backed by the traditional Peronist labor unions. Many Argentines believed that the country's political violence would end once Perón became president of Argentina on 12 October 1973. Indeed, the Peronist guerrilla organizations demobilized their combatants, but the Marxist People's Revolutionary Army (ERP) continued to attack the armed forces, convinced that the revolutionary process begun in 1969 was maturing into victory. The violence increased further when the internecine fighting between left-wing and right-wing Peronists heated up again; it escalated further after Perón's death in July 1974, when his widow Isabel Martínez de Perón became Argentina's new president. The Montoneros began fighting it out with right-wing death squads that operated out of the Ministry of Social Welfare with the support of several labor unions and some military officers. The guerrilla insurgency was financed by ransom payments for kidnapped businessmen, and it acquired weapons and medical supplies by attacking military bases and police stations.
The Peronist and Marxist guerrilla insurgency consisted of around five thousand combatants in 1974-1975. The death squads numbered around one thousand operatives. Right-wing assassinations between May 1973 and March 1976 have been estimated at 1,165, while 480 assassinations were attributed to the guerrilla organizations (Moyano 1995). Isolated from a popular hinterland that became disenchanted with the political violence, the revolutionary movement would now face a revengeful militarized state.
The Argentine armed forces decided that the time had come for the state to enforce its constitutional monopoly on violence, and in February 1975 they entered into offensive operations against a rural insurgency of the People's Revolutionary Army in Tucumán Province. On 6 October 1975, the Peronist government gave the armed forces the mandate "to execute the military and security operations necessary to annihilate the actions of the subversive elements throughout the country's territory" (PEN 1975). On 24 March 1976, the military deposed President Isabel Martínez de Perón, an ominous decision that was supported at first by broad layers of the middle class that wanted the political violence to end (Carassai 2014:171-177). The coup was only in part undertaken to combat the insurgency. The military had already received extensive freedom of operation in October 1975, while the guerrilla organizations were on the defensive by late 1975. The dictatorship's greater objectives were to eradicate Argentina's heterogeneous revolutionary movement, restore the economy, and transform Argentine society through a Process of National Reorganization (Proceso de Reorganización Nacional) that would establish a lasting democracy and protect the so-called Argentine way of life and its Western Christian culture (Robben 2005a:171-189).
The combined police, gendarmerie, and armed forces were mobilized in an asymmetrical conflict characterized by disproportionate state violence against a dwindling guerrilla insurgency and an amorphous political opposition movement. The most succinct summary of the mode of operation was provided by Admiral Luis María Mendía, who told officers shortly before the military coup: "Thus, we shall act with civilian clothing, in quick operations, intense interrogations, practices of torture and physical elimination by means of operations in aircrafts from which, during the flight, the living and narcotized bodies of the victims will be thrown into the air, thus giving them 'a Christian death'" (Feierstein 2006:152).
Tens of thousands of captives were held in hundreds of secret detention centers. An unknown number were released within days or weeks once it was determined that they did not pose a threat to Argentine society and culture. Whereas the toll from guerrilla attacks on police and military between 1960 and 1989 has been established at 508 dead (Díaz Bessone 2001), the precise number of assassinated-disappeared remains unknown. A truth commission concluded in 1984 that 8,960 persons were missing permanently (CONADEP 1984:479, 1986:447). In 2015, the Peronist government documented the assassination and enforced disappearance of 8,631 persons, while 783 cases were still under investigation (Secretaría de Derechos Humanos 2015). The human rights movement, however, considers these figures misleading because many abductions were never reported. It claims that thirty thousand Argentines were disappeared.
When in August 2016 Argentine President Mauricio Macri was asked about the number of disappeared, he responded, "I'm not going to enter into this debate. I have no idea whether there were nine or thirty thousand." Estela de Carlotto of the Grandmothers of the Plaza de Mayo accused the president of trying to discredit the human rights organizations as liars and of changing the discussion about state terrorism to one about numbers. Jorge Auat, the public prosecutor for crimes against humanity, also disagreed with President Macri, saying that not the number but the immensity of the crime was at stake, because "it is clear that life is no longer the same after the crimes of the dictatorship, and that is why these are crimes against humanity." The slogan of the Day of Memory in March 2017 was therefore appropriately "They are 30,000." The heated public debate about the number of disappeared, taking place thirty-three years after the military fell from power, demonstrates that the impact of the disappearances on Argentine society continues to be deep, and that the mutual mistrust within the divided society and with the government is an enduring legacy of the authoritarian state's betrayal of its citizens.
The disappearances paralyzed many Argentines politically during the dictatorship. The military repression was not just intended to break the revolutionary movement but also served to undermine the Argentine people's trust in order to prevent them from organizing an effective resistance. The military was therefore taken aback when a group of mothers began a weekly protest at the Plaza de Mayo that quickly drew national and international attention. Growing human rights demonstrations, the junta's poor economic policies, and the defeat in the Falklands/Malvinas War against a victorious United Kingdom ushered in the fall of the regime. A transitional military government assumed power in June 1982, and free general elections were held in October 1983. Raúl Alfonsín won overwhelmingly, and he became president of Argentina on 10 December 1983. He inherited a country that was anxious about the fate of the disappeared and bewildered by the military repression that had profoundly damaged people's trust in the Argentine state, each other, and themselves.
Trust and Betrayal
How is trust created among people? The child psychologist Erik Erikson has sought the answer in early human development: "The infant's first social achievement . . . is his willingness to let the mother out of sight without undue anxiety or rage, because she has become an inner certainty as well as an outer predictability" (Erikson 1963:247). This basic trust or "parental faith" (250) is tested in games of peekaboo, when the mother covers her eyes and then reappears with a smile without producing any anxiety or rage in the baby. The mother has become a loving, trusted caretaker and the baby a trustworthy person who has mastered the fear of separation. However, the peekaboo game also harbors a subtle menace of betrayal that, when enacted unpredictably by an untrustworthy parent, may harm the cultivation of basic trust (Erikson 1963:248). According to Erikson (248) and Robert Laing (1960:40), basic mistrust or ontological insecurity is then created that may lead to a weak trusting relation between parent and child, an unstable identity, and difficulty forming trusting bonds in adulthood. Violence, exploitation, and incest are, unfortunately, all-too-common violations within the home that disturb the human development of children. Selective neglect may also be caused by extreme poverty, as was shown in a groundbreaking ethnographic study of maternal attachment and infant death in a starving shantytown in Northeast Brazil (Scheper-Hughes 1992, 2014).
The mutual trust of parents and children is not based on an obligation or a contract, even though it might be cultivated in those terms, but arises in a nurturing, loving relationship that continues to be reproduced among family members after childhood. Family members know that they can rely on one another and may express this trust in sensorial ways, as is shown in the following example of an Argentine mother and her adolescent son who were blindfolded and forcibly separated during a repressive operation by the Argentine police.
On 15 April 1976, five men disguised with wigs and false beards shot their way into the house of Floreal Avellaneda, who was being sought out for forbidden union activities. He escaped through a window and survived the dictatorship in hiding. The assailants decided to abduct his wife and their fourteen-year-old son instead. In her account from 1985, Iris Etelvina Pereyra de Avellaneda recalled how she and her son Floreal Edgardo were beaten and then taken out into the street.
I was holding him by the hand. At a certain moment they indicated that we had to lean against the top of a car. That was the last time I saw my son, looking at me while they were putting a blindfold on my eyes and a hood as well. I can still sense its filthy smell. We had our hands free and instinctively I searched for those of my son but I didn't find them. I then raised my voice asking for him, and the police commissioner answered unwillingly: "I'll bring him right now." And, in fact, they put us together in the same vehicle. They put us in the back seat. My son squeezed my right hand as if to give me courage. We remained silent. (El Diario del Juicio 1985, 2:2)After having been tortured at the police station of Villa Martelli to disclose the whereabouts of Floreal Avellaneda, mother and son were separated. A torturer told her that she was going to be executed, and he granted her three final wishes. "I asked him about my son," she recalled nine years later during her court testimony, "and he answered that I shouldn't ask anymore because 'Your son, we already tore him to pieces'" (El Diario del Juicio 1985, 2:3). She was released in July 1978, and heard that her son's body had washed ashore on the coast of Uruguay in mid-May 1976. The autopsy report stated that his death had been the result of impalement (Almirón 1999:194; Feitlowitz 1998:208).
The sensorial expressions of trust by mother and son attenuated the anxiety about their forced separation and served to affirm the parental safety guaranteed by their trusting relationship. Trust caused abducted mothers to try to protect their children against the repressive state at great personal cost. María Elisa Hachmann de Lande endured forty-eight hours of torture to conceal her son's whereabouts. "At that time they thought that it would be easier to force the mother to say something, no? Or say where they were. But if I gave life to my son, would I then bring him death?" (interview on 13 April 1990). Luis José Bondone, who had been abducted together with his two adult sons, became alarmed when a torturer told him that they would now break one of his sons, just as they had already broken his other son: "It didn't come to my mind that they were young athletes, far better capable of resisting than me. Is it the sentiment of protection that all parents have inside which makes us think that our children are always vulnerable or more vulnerable than us, their parents?" (Bondone 1985:19). In addition to the traumatizing violence against a person's life, the attack on the parent's provision of safety can be traumatizing in and of itself (Charuvastra and Cloitre 2008:309). Torturers tried to exploit the inability of captive family members to protect one another. They harmed the basic trust of these victims by attacking their faith in the certainty of parental protection nurtured during childhood, as Jacobo Timerman (1981:148) observed during his time in captivity: "The entire affective world, constructed over the years with utmost difficulty, collapses with a kick in the father's genitals, a smack on the mother's face, an obscene insult to the sister, or the sexual violation of a daughter. Suddenly an entire culture based on familial love, devotion, the capacity for mutual sacrifice collapses." The torture of family members by placing one physically on top of the other or in each other's presence was particularly damaging because they experienced the reality that ultimately, in extreme situations, they could not expect any mutual protection from external threats. Children are especially vulnerable because their basic trust has not yet been sufficiently strengthened by the development of social trust outside the home. This precariousness is revealed in the case of thirteen-year-old Pablo Miguez, who was tortured in the presence of his helpless mother, Violeta, according to one eyewitness: "And when Pablito returns, he says: 'They tortured me,' and he was hurting all over, then the mother—who was a very strong woman of great human quality and moral strength—explained that they had tortured Pablito in front of her, and all this because Violeta had apparently not given them the title deed of her house" (El Diario del Juicio 1985, 14:319).
Trust and security seem natural allies when children are young or under direct threat, but they can become opposites when the lives of parents and children grow apart. Some Argentine parents chose to be supportive of their children when they joined a guerrilla organization, instead of persuading them to flee abroad to safety. "I knew that it was best not to argue with the children when they took such a decision. What I most wanted was that they wouldn't lose their trust in me. One way or the other I was always at their side, and I thought that the worst I could do was to leave them unprotected, that they would feel abandoned by their mother. Society was already hostile enough to them" (Herrera 1987:182). Matilde Herrera struggled to accept her children's political choices. She tried to maintain the routines of a normal household and continued with the weekly family dinners, but she had mental flashes of her children's uncertain lives and felt as if she was drowning in her emotions. "I became more anxious with each day that passed. I began to cry everywhere: in buses, on the street. I used dark sunglasses and repeatedly felt that tears were running down my face. I was afraid to draw attention" (Herrera 1987:183). Within one year, Matilde Herrera's daughter Valeria, her sons Martín and José, her daughters-in-law María Cristina and Electra, and a grandchild born in captivity had all disappeared.
Other mothers chose safety over trust but equally struggled with the impossible choice. Elsa Sánchez de Oesterheld cut off all contact with her husband and four daughters when they went into hiding for belonging to the Montoneros. By doing this, she hoped to protect them from detection, but the loss of communication also prevented her from helping them survive. The five family members disappeared nonetheless (Robben 2005a:261-262). Their death continued to haunt her. "It is not death as such, but how they died. Because the fact of knowing the humiliation, torture, and horror our disappeared endured before dying makes me think that an execution, for example, would have been much more humane. . . . Death doesn't make me anxious because I know that my daughters, my husband, were at peace once they died. What worries me, what torments me, what makes me crazy is what happened before their death" (interview on 15 April 1991). Elsa's inability to protect her children, and to be at their side when they died, troubled her in her restless sleep, year after year.
Trust, love, and longing became key motivating forces behind the steadfast search by parents and relatives for the disappeared (including their ossified remains in anonymous graves), as well as for the protests, commemorations, and demands for truth and justice. Publicly, the moral legitimacy of protecting one's children made the presence of the mothers at the Plaza de Mayo obvious, and therefore so hard for the Argentine military to handle. On a personal level, the disappearances made the mothers feel that they had let their children down by having failed to protect them. Feelings of survivor's guilt, of having been responsible for the abduction, of being an unworthy mother, and maybe even of having betrayed the relationship of love and trust—however unfounded these emotions may be—made the mothers determined to find their children, even if they were dead (Robben 2000b:82). Trust was for mothers a wellspring of energy and emotion that could still move them to tears and provoke anger decades later when recalling their children's disappearance. This spiritedness roused them to political action because parental trust extends beyond the home into different social domains. Fathers were generally less involved in the search, for reasons I explained in my previous book (Robben 2005a:305-306). The most relevant reason for this discussion of trust was given by Matilde Herrera, who emphasized the emotional bond between mother and child forged during delivery: "I'm just someone who has lost in a brutal way the entire product of her insides. I think that a man can understand that, but I don't know if all men are able to feel it" (Gabetta 1983:57).
Can basic trust—an attachment nurtured in the home—be applied to other realms of civil society and used as a concept to analyze state repression? Eisenstadt and Roniger (1984:31-41) have argued that the basic trust developed in early childhood is extended later in life to other interpersonal relationships that are pursued because of people's emotional yearning for the original trust. This expansion into the world diminishes the basic trust between parents and children as competing spheres of social interaction come into play, precisely what happened to Matilde Herrera and Elsa Sánchez de Oesterheld when their children decided to join the guerrilla movement. Anthony Giddens also situates basic trust at the foundation of society. It instills an ontological security that allows people to interact with strangers in an unpredictable social and political environment. Basic trust provides "a sort of emotional inoculation against existential anxieties. . . . a defensive carapace or protective cocoon which all normal individuals carry around with them as the means whereby they are able to get on with the affairs of day-to-day life" (Giddens 1991:39-40; emphasis in original). Of course, the caveat must be made that this protective cocoon is not spun in an unsafe home. Homegrown social mistrust carries into the outside world because "as people enter public life they bring with them their intimate experiences of trust and mistrust, and the lessons about their social world thus produced" (Ystanes 2016:38).
Trust and trustworthiness are thus not limited to the basic trust nurtured during early childhood. Trust is continuously shaped and reshaped through complex interactions beyond the home in civil society and with the multifaceted state. In this book, I will use the term social trust for interpersonal and group relations in society, including the home, and political trust for interactions with state agents and state institutions because people's trust in the state is tied to their experience with its officials and authorities (Levi and Stoker 2000:495). But how does trust work itself out in social and political practice? Social scientists agree that trust is a social glue that binds people and societies together and that social relations corrode when mistrust takes over. They accept trust as a given of social reality, and concentrate their research on its functional properties and consequences. But what, ultimately, is the nature of trust?
Marcel Mauss and Georg Simmel asked this fundamental question at the beginning of the twentieth century. They argued that trust contains "some part of oneself" (Mauss 1990:12) or "some additional affective, even mystical, 'faith' of man in man" (Simmel 1950:318) that maintains social relations despite the many uncertainties involved. Mauss (12) observed that trust emerges in the act of giving: "to make a gift of something to someone is to make a present of some part of oneself . . . [and therefore] one must give back to another person what is really part and parcel of his nature and substance." Trust cannot be reduced to the interacting individuals or the gifts themselves because trust exists but for the grace of the relationship. Mauss (13) could not imagine a society of purely contractual, conflicting, or repressive relations because a society without bonds of trust would be at war with itself. Simmel shared this understanding: "without the general trust people have in each other, society itself would disintegrate" (Möllering 2006:2). In fact, we know that trust can even survive under the most extreme circumstances, such as concentration camps and forced labor camps (Todorov 1996). Also, Argentina remained a functioning society during and after the dictatorship because certain social realms and relations were not affected as much by betrayal and mistrust as others.
Mauss and Simmel did not explain precisely what they meant by the faith of trust. I will turn to Mauss further below, but as far as Simmel is concerned, I follow the lead of Guido Möllering. Möllering (2006:109-111) has argued in the spirit of Simmel that trust involves the suspension of the doubt that relations may go awry. People make a leap of faith when they trust others on the basis of limited knowledge and reasonable expectations, and thus they take the accompanying uncertainties and vulnerabilities for granted. This bracketing of doubt and uncertainty is understandable under the routine conditions of everyday life in a stable home or society, but betrayal is always just around the corner in the form of domestic violence and political conflict as well as war, revolution, or authoritarian rule, as becomes immediately clear in the case of Argentina.
In March 1976, the Argentine armed forces assumed control of the country. According to Lieutenant-General Videla, the malfunctioning state and the discordant society had to be thoroughly reorganized, "through order, work, the full observance of ethical and moral principles, justice, the complete realization of man, and through the respect of his rights and dignity" (Verbitsky 1988:148). Instead, the military rulers violated people's rights and multiple trusting relations by ordering illegal operations. The enforced disappearances betrayed the state's trustworthiness as the guardian of the nation's well-being, and attacked the trusting relationships among family members. Searching relatives were met with denial, and the trust of the disappeared in their fellow human beings became severely damaged when they were tortured by their interrogators and betrayed by their broken comrades. Some survivors remained forever mistrustful of society and the state because they could not accommodate their traumatic experiences into an everyday world of trust. However, to supporters of the military regime, the authoritarian state proved trustworthy by defending the constitution against a violent insurgency at the price of temporarily suspending people's rights for the common good.
Betrayal can damage relationships. People are disappointed when their expectations are not met or when they are cheated or lied to. Psychologists consider betrayal to be commonplace in social relationships but add that this does not prevent people from entering into new relations, because humans have a fundamental need for companionship (Jones, Couch, and Scott 1997). In fact, trust implies that one accepts the possibility of betrayal. Furthermore, people may also maintain troubled relationships that include betrayals because they have hopes for improvement or are trapped in dependency. Betrayal, suspicion, mistrust, and manipulation are present in human relations because social conflicts and power struggles exist in the heart of society and the state. Anthropologists have shown the existence of mistrust in social and political relations in many cultures. They define betrayal as the violation of trust or the breaking of a secret. Of course, keeping a secret may imply both trust and betrayal because these terms are ambiguous. They may carry different moral values for people with opposing interests. For example, Argentine commanders who met with searching relatives face-to-face pretended to be truthful and trustworthy when they denied their involvement in the enforced disappearances because they were unwilling to break the secret of concealed operations and state terrorism.
The stakes were so high in dictatorial Argentina that mistrusting relations between officers and civilians were maintained even with awareness of the ongoing betrayal. Commanders kept up the appearance of compassion, while searching parents sustained a friendly demeanor in the hope that their military relatives and acquaintances might help them. Behind these outward niceties, the commanders mistrusted the parents for having failed to raise their children to become patriotic citizens and for lying about their political activism. The searching parents, in turn, did not trust the officers, and suspected them of hiding the truth about the disappearances. Trust and betrayal were thus complementary constituents of social and political relations in dictatorial Argentina and persisted in areas of national contestation after the junta fell from power. This permanent tension between trust and betrayal added a processual mutability to those relations or, in the formulation of Kelly and Thiranagama (2010:17): "The fear of betrayal is at the productive core of social and political interaction." Trust is then no longer the bracketing of betrayal or the suspension of doubt that a relationship may go awry, as has been argued by Simmel and Möllering, but rather becomes defined through betrayal. This recognition leads to mistrusting relations because there is always the doubt that relations may be disappointed. It is this ongoing conscious awareness of uncertainty that drives the dynamics of trust and betrayal.
What makes betrayal the violation of trust? Simmel and Möllering did not ask this question, but Marcel Mauss provides an important lead with his understanding of gift-giving. If reciprocity means "that one must give back to another person what is really part and parcel of his nature and substance . . . some part of his spiritual essence, of his soul" (Mauss 1990:12), then betrayal is the appropriation of that part. Mauss implies here that the gift, whether understood culturally as a part of the spirit, the soul, or the person's constitution, is taken and not returned. What is at stake here, in my opinion, is not something that belongs to the donor but the relationship between the two persons. Betrayal is not about taking something owned by another, as in the case of theft; betrayal appropriates the relationship forged through social trust. In more general terms, betrayal imperils a relationship's reciprocal potential and the future social exchanges that maintain the relationship. Betrayal can therefore end a relationship when the deceit is discovered, but the relationship may also remain open when the betrayed person is unaware of the betrayal or because he or she still has hopes of reaping some benefit, as was explained earlier in the case of personal meetings between Argentine commanders and searching relatives.
Torture is one of the most extreme forms of betrayal because torturers enter the social constitution of people by appropriating and then inserting themselves in the attachment relation that originated the victims' basic trust. Torturers dissolve the inner certainty and outer predictability of security that was nurtured between parent and child, and use pain to create a perverse relationship of absolute dependency in its stead. Torture victims are known to call out in vain for their mother or father, feeling abandoned by their last emotional anchor in life, and then surrender to the torturer in utter helplessness. Torturers turn their victims into extensions of themselves through violence and subjugation, as in the case of one Argentine guard who treated a captive as his pet. "He would make him wag his tail, bark like a dog, lick his boots. It was impressive how well he did it, he imitated a dog as if he really were one, because if he didn't satisfy the guard, he would carry on beating him. . . . Later he would change and make him be a cat" (CONADEP 1986:72).
The effects of torture may extend to society. Jean Améry (1980:40), who had been tortured by the SS during World War II, had this to say about this humiliating disintegration of social trust: "Whoever has succumbed to torture can no longer feel at home in the world. The shame of destruction cannot be erased. Trust in the world, which already collapsed in part at the first blow, but in the end, under torture, fully, will not be regained." The harm done by torture may make survivors experience a lasting anxiety in the presence of other human beings, and even of close family members, as has also been observed among children abused by parents, siblings, or relatives. Betrayal is thus not limited to interpersonal relations but can extend to society as a whole when a repressive regime creates a culture of fear or commits political betrayal through an untrustworthy state.
Betrayal is the apostasy of trust. This abandonment of the bracketing of doubt in social and political relations, and the heedfulness to uncertainty, creates increased social distance and adversity. For example, the division of the Mothers of the Plaza de Mayo in April 1986 into two organizations, each with its own human rights agendas and street protests, was experienced by both as betrayal—a betrayal of the bond forged during the collective search for their children and the defiant demonstrations at the Plaza de Mayo, a bond of unconditional trust that had withstood even the disappearance and torture of several mothers.
Betrayal carries substantial emotional costs. "Regardless of the specific type of betrayal, all forms of betrayal result in loss; loss of trust; loss of a relationship or friendship; loss of a sense of security and predictability, loss of time, energy, and effort devoted to that relationship or friendship; loss of integrity; and loss of self-esteem" (Kowalski 2009:174). These losses need to be mourned, and the more so when the betrayal affects people in their most intimate relationships and attachments. The mourning of such betrayal was complicated in Argentina by the knowledge that the bereaved relatives were being betrayed knowingly about the true fate of the disappeared and that this betrayal continued for decades on end.
The term betrayal carries negative moral connotations, but what was betrayal for the victims, survivors, and critics of the Argentine dictatorship created legitimacy and trust among its advocates and beneficiaries for serving higher national interests that superseded the suffering of individual citizens. This greater good justified in their eyes the distribution of false information to searching relatives, the complicity of the judiciary, and the repressive infrastructure that affected many Argentines. These dynamics of trust and betrayal were most prominent during the years of military rule, but remained operative during democracy.
"To articulate the past historically does not mean to recognize it 'the way it really was' (Ranke)," wrote Walter Benjamin in 1940 during his exile from Nazi Germany in Paris: "It means to seize hold of a memory as it flashes up at a moment of danger" (Benjamin 1999:247). I have tried to capture such memories of the past in Argentina whenever they arose during public and political confrontations about the dictatorship's long aftermath. My research was conducted in Buenos Aires during my principal fieldwork period between April 1989 and July 1991 and during periodic visits in the decades thereafter. In addition, I have followed events in Argentina daily by reading the national newspapers Clarín, La Nación, and Página/12, and kept a log book to track emergent issues of contention and conflict.
My fieldwork comprised several research methods. Participant observation was conducted at commemorations, political rallies, protest marches, human rights demonstrations, and criminal trials. I also witnessed the exhumation of a mass grave and the excavation of a former torture center and attended the reburial of exhumed disappeared persons. I attended public presentations by retired army commanders and religious masses said in honor of officers killed by the guerrilla insurgency. Literature research was carried out in public and private libraries, and archives were consulted to obtain court records, legal documents, clandestine publications, and secret battle orders. I conducted more than one hundred in-depth interviews that elicited life histories and combined open questions with topic lists. The interviewees were mostly historical protagonists of the armed forces, guerrilla organizations, the human rights movement, and the Catholic Church who had occupied leading positions during the dictatorship. Most interviewees were thus public figures, and I have therefore used their real names in this book. Also, prosecutors, lawyers, social and political scientists, forensic anthropologists, journalists, and activists working on behalf of either the military or the human rights movement were approached. Most interviews were tape-recorded and transcribed. I discouraged off-the-record remarks and took them seriously only when they could be verified by other interviewees.
Through my years of residence in Buenos Aires, I have had many informal conversations with the doormen at my apartment building, the newspaper vendors at the street kiosk, grocers, booksellers, and a string of storekeepers. They were not actively involved in any activity or organization related to my research, and neither were most of my Argentine friends, but we did discuss the dictatorship and current political events as they unfolded. These conversation partners were not representative of Argentine society, but our casual exchanges, if only for a few minutes but also during long conversations that ended in the wee hours of the morning, were nevertheless important to give me a sense of the different opinions circulating in Argentine society.
The question of reliability cannot be avoided in a book about trust and betrayal. The large number of interviewees made cross-checking among kindred spirits quite easy and allowed me to delineate their shared arguments and viewpoints. Significant differences occurred between conflicting groups, however, because each tried to persuade me of their side of the story and the morality of their conduct. These partial, partisan truths were conflicting discourses among people who occupied other positions of power and had different judicial statuses. I was very conscious of the fact that a former disappeared revolutionary, a retired general, and a mother searching for her son spoke in different registers because they were not equal interlocutors. Certain information could of course be confirmed or dismissed via contemporary documents, court records, and testimonies, but of greater value for my research were their discourse and points of view. The events described in my concise history of political violence in Argentina can be understood only within the discourse of my interviewees. I have therefore made the conflicting accounts and interpretations central to my analysis because their juxtaposition defines the areas of national contestation that organize this study. I will have much more to say about my interviews in the book's conclusion, but let me say here that at times I sensed a certain suspicion toward me. My affinity with the human rights movement and abhorrence of the systematic torture and enforced disappearances were evident to everyone, but my willingness to speak with all parties involved—including sworn enemies whose lives were connected by an enforced disappearance—raised some eyebrows about my intentions and sympathies.
The areas of national contestation that are this book's subject matter were identified through a grounded theory methodology. I used the inductive approach common in ethnographic research (Bernard 2006:492; Charmaz and Mitchell 2008). General themes and analytical categories emerged from close readings of field notes, transcribed interviews, and written texts. These diverse sources also provided the quotes, illustrations, and exemplars that give an empirical content to the book's main themes. The comparison of data within the emergent themes, their interpretation with different theoretical concepts, and the search for plausible connections among themes in the wider Argentine historical context helped me delineate the key areas of national contestation in Argentina. These areas related to the most disputed sequels of the dictatorship, such as the historical reconstruction of the political violence and the accountability of perpetrators. This method may seem rather intuitive, but the hermeneutic spiraling among emergent themes and the larger research universe—interpreting the part from the whole and vice versa rather than tacking back and forth between part and whole—served to advance my knowledge of the issues at stake (Hoy 1978). This process yielded eight areas of national contestation that make up the eight empirical chapters of this book. The selection of topics was made easier by the writing of several comparative articles about Chile and Argentina (Robben 2010a, 2010b, 2014, 2015). The contrasts and similarities between the two post-authoritarian countries sharpened my understanding of how the two military states influenced the transition from dictatorship to democracy in other ways.
In line with the grounded theory approach (Charmaz 2006; Glaser and Strauss 1967), my examination of the ethnographic data within each area of contestation generated a theoretical concept that provides each chapter with its analytical focus. These concepts made it possible to compare fundamental disagreements among social groups and analyze their conflicts within the context of Argentine political history. Thus I present in each chapter's introduction my conceptual approach to the ensuing ethnographic analysis.
A comparison of the eight areas of national contestation yielded finally the dynamics of trust and betrayal that tie them together, and helped to fine-tune the analysis. This demarcation of areas is necessary because post-authoritarian Argentine society is not paralyzed by betrayal and mistrust. Most people lead their lives, go to work, come home, and maintain friendships and family ties in a functioning society. My grounded conceptual framework guides my analysis to those areas of national contestation that manifest Argentina's ongoing struggle with the legacies of its repressive dictatorship. This framework has been designed specifically for the Argentine context. Some of its key concepts will not apply elsewhere but others very well may, such as the dynamics of trust and betrayal. I believe therefore that this approach can be of use to the study of other societies that have awakened from repression, war, and political violence.
Argentina's Areas of National Contestation
This book examines the sequels of Argentina's brutal military repression from the perspective of trust and betrayal through an analysis of the conflicting discourses, practices, and courses of action in eight areas of national contestation. Chapter 1 explains the interplay of political violence and sociocultural traumas between 1945 and 1983 that resulted in the complicated aftermath analyzed in later chapters. Sociocultural trauma is the struggle to mourn and understand indelible violent events and massive human losses, together with the reliving of troubling memories in the present and fears about renewed outbreaks of violence in the future. Extended periods of state repression and certain intrusive violent events caused sociocultural traumas in Argentina that incited more political violence with still more traumatizing consequences. These violence-trauma-violence dynamics occurred on four interrelated levels of social complexity, namely the public, political, domestic, and mental domains. The dynamics became manifested in violent crowd contests, armed confrontations between the Argentine military and revolutionary insurgents, families touched by the repression, and the selves and subjectivities of captives harmed by prolonged torture and disappearance. The betrayal of basic, social, and political trust through torture, disappearance, armed conflict, and the repression of public protest percolated through the four social domains and has affected Argentina up to the present.
Chapter 2 describes four historical periods of Argentine memory politics whose most important discursive frames were dirty war, the two-demons theory, state terrorism, and genocide. The Argentine military regime had done its utmost to erase the traces of repression. Memory politics was practiced with each disappearance, cremated body, and death flight. Chapter 2 demonstrates how the spirals of violence and trauma ensured a collective memory composed of parts of the conflicting social memories of human rights organizations and military interest groups, in competition with an Argentine state that tried to impose various national narratives. The conflicting social memories were generated in conjunction as contesting parties denounced each other's rendition as a betrayal of the past for ignoring the histories of political violence experienced by the adversarial groups. These conflicting social memories were set in different discursive frames, which provided internal coherence and interpretational direction to the partisan social memories, commemorative practices, and material representations.
Testimonies represent people's personal experiences much more closely than the social memories discussed in Chapter 2. Chapter 3 focuses on the trustworthiness of witnesses of military repression and the credibility of testimonies whose truth came in several guises. Mistrust toward the testimonies of adversarial groups characterizes this area of contestation. Accusations of betrayal against other witnesses, which implied the deliberate infliction of legal, political, and emotional harm with false testimonies, were less common. Denunciations of abduction, torture, and disappearance were presented to human rights organizations and international fact-finding missions during the dictatorship. They were consistently dismissed by the military for being false and politically motivated. Testimonial narratives, known in Latin America as testimonios, were published during the regime's latter years to evoke empathy for the victims of persecution. After the arrival of democracy in December 1983, these testimonios were succeeded by depositions to a truth commission created to find information about the disappeared and document the military state's repressive structure. The most compelling denunciations were incorporated in the 1985 trial against nine junta commanders. Witnesses for the prosecution faced hostile lawyers who disputed their trustworthiness and accused them of collusion. The amnesties and pardons of the late 1980s made these different forms of testimony obsolete, and testimonial chronicles appeared that sought to record the past with close attention to everyday life, emotion, agency, and subjectivity.
Chapter 4 addresses the betrayal of searching relatives and the Argentine people by state agents during and after the dictatorship. It delineates a range of discursive strategies from secrecy and silence to denial, justification, and partial confession. The trustworthiness of perpetrator testimonies was doubted because of the constitutional guarantee against self-incrimination, but the appeal to the right of silence was often regarded as a sign of guilt and a betrayal of the victims. The Argentine armed forces remained silent during the dictatorship about the structure of military repression, and dismissed critical international reports as a coordinated campaign against Argentina. The overwhelming evidence from witness testimonies, exhumations, and written documentation gathered in the first years of democracy caused a change from silence to denial. High-ranking officers and their lawyers brought to mind the tragedies of war, the legitimate self-defense against the guerrilla insurgency, and the imminent danger to nation and Christian culture. Eventually, a few officers admitted to their participation in state terrorism, but at the cost of intimidation and physical assault by former comrades who wanted them to maintain the pact of silence and withhold their secret knowledge from the Argentine people.
The military pursued their sovereign control over Argentina through necropower and territoriality. Necropower refers to the capacity to decide over life and death. Territoriality implies the dominion over the country and its inhabitants. Chapter 5 examines how the armed forces and police took control of Argentina's sovereignty through the disappearance and assassination of sovereign bodies and their burial in anonymous graves throughout the country's territory. The military believed that the future of the country was at stake when the political violence increased after Perón's death in July 1974. Determined to secure Argentina's sovereignty by monopolizing state power, they staged a coup d'état in March 1976, closed the country's democratic institutions, and began abducting and assassinating guerrilla insurgents and political opponents. They also betrayed people's political trust by concealing and destroying the bodies of the assassinated captives. The final destination of these disappeared is at the center of an area of national contestation. The relatives of the disappeared united on the basis of social trust into a protest movement that challenged the authoritarian state and ushered in a democracy that reclaimed national sovereignty and restored the rule of law. Exhumations became a means to reclaim political, territorial, and corporeal sovereignty from the military during democracy.
Chapter 6 analyzes the principal types of accountability that have constituted a dynamic area of contestation in Argentina. It shows how justice became an increasingly heterogeneous process as the decades passed, and the state came to be regarded as unreliable. A trustworthy state protects its citizens and holds offenders accountable, irrespective of their social position. Maintenance of the rule of law is particularly important when a country is in the midst of a political transformation and people's political trust in the state has yet to be earned. In December 1983 President Alfonsín created a truth commission (CONADEP) to examine the massive disappearances during the dictatorship and to determine the authoritarian state's responsibility. He also brought the military juntas to trial. Five junta commanders were convicted in December 1985, and hundreds of officers were indicted. Growing disgruntlement in military ranks about the trials, together with the government's desire to reconcile Argentine society, resulted in sweeping amnesty laws and presidential pardons in the late 1980s that seriously damaged people's political trust in the multifaceted state. Frustrated about this impunity, children of the disappeared brought popular justice to the doorstep of amnestied torturers through public shaming. The admission by an army commander that the Argentine military had a standard operating procedure for kidnapped babies led in 1998 to the renewed arrest of many officers. Shifting political forces, and especially pressure from the human rights movement, achieved the derogation of amnesties and pardons by the Supreme Court in the mid-2000s. It was the start of many human rights trials. The detained officers felt betrayed by an untrustworthy state that had retracted the impunity laws and by their former commanders who refused to assume responsibility for the repressive structure. More than two thousand defendants were indicted between 2006 and 2016.
The resumption of the trials in 2006 occurred in the midst of a discursive shift from state terrorism and crimes against humanity to genocide. The representation of Argentina's military repression as genocide has made the process of justice more complex. State terrorism by military forces against insurgents and political opponents, however horrible the abuses may have been, contains a repressive logic that is missing from the indiscriminate extermination of people. Chapter 7 demonstrates that genocide remains a contested discursive frame in Argentina that revolves around the question whether disappeared captives were assassinated for who they were or for what they did. The proponents believe that only the historically laden term genocide is commensurate with the loss, betrayal, and sociocultural trauma inflicted during the dictatorship. The genocide discourse has resulted in a call to accountability for a growing number of civilians. After members of the armed forces and police were prosecuted by the thousands, judges, journalists, and businessmen have been accused of complicity with the dictatorship. Ultimately, Argentine society as a whole is considered collectively responsible. The consequence is a spreading of social and political mistrust through Argentine society.
Argentina has been mourning the consequences of authoritarian rule and massive disappearances for nearly forty years, while at the same time trying to build a working democracy and establish the rule of law. How to attend to the losses of political violence and the sociocultural traumas has been an issue of frequent contestation in Argentine society. Generally regarded as separate processes occupying separate time frames, mourning is often understood as accepting painful losses, whereas recovery implies building a new future on the ruins of the past. Instead, Chapter 8 argues that relegating the dead to the past is a betrayal of basic and social trust. They deserve to be actively remembered, according to the bereaved, and to leave their mark on Argentina. National mourning is conceptualized in Chapter 8 as a dual process that involves a politics of oscillation in which conflicting social groups and the multifaceted state try to impose their desired combination of loss- and recovery-oriented measures on society. National mourning also includes perpetrators who are forced to face the havoc they wrought and therefore try to influence the reconstitution of society and how it deals with the traumatic past. Loss orientation has become manifested in exhumations, trials, memorials, and commemorations. Recovery orientation has involved economic and symbolic reparations, amnesties and pardons, and initiatives of national reconciliation. Loss orientation was dominant between 1983 and 1990, but the oscillatory dynamics of the dual process of national mourning leaned increasingly toward recovery orientation and became the prevailing mode of coping between 1990 and 1998 through amnesties, pardons, and reparative measures. The renewed prosecution of Argentine perpetrators in 1998, and then again in 2006, increased the attention to loss orientation. By 2016, numerous human rights trials and sites of memory combined loss- and recovery-oriented coping through a comprehensive dual process of national mourning.
In the concluding chapter, I will argue that trust in Argentina is not the suspension of doubt that a social relation may go awry but that trust is conditioned by the suspicion of betrayal. The awareness that people may have hidden motives and ulterior interests resulted in mistrusting relationships between adversarial groups and the multifaceted state. These dynamics of trust and betrayal also influenced my rapport with the research participants, whether these were mothers of the disappeared, former military and guerrilla commanders, or bishops and politicians. The varying degrees of trust and mistrust in these relations were reflections of the ambiguous relations in Argentine society itself, as became clear on the Day of Memory in 2010. Mothers who had defied the dictatorship with unusual courage out of love and trust for their abducted children and continued their protests despite the disappearance of their fellow protesters were three decades later mistrustful of each other's political projects and the public remembrance of their greatest loss, as if time was corroding a social trust forged under years of hardship and borne out of their most intimate but violated bond.