As Argentinian president Cristina Fernández de Kirchner flew over Buenos Aires, a voice interrupted the helicopter’s radio communication. “Kill her, kill the ‘mare’,” it said, before playing a military march – the one used by the junta that “disappeared” 30,000 workers, students, intellectuals and political activists during its rule from 1976 to 1983.
Across the city, just as the threats were made against the president, 17 men entered a courtroom. The “mega-trial” for the Navy Mechanics School (ESMA) had begun.
“It can’t be a coincidence that the president was threatened at the exact moment when the press were taking photos of those facing trial,” says journalist Diego Martínez, a human rights specialist here in Argentina.
2009 was a year in which Argentina took important steps forward in redressing human rights abuses committed during the military’s dictatorship. Thirty two convictions in 11 different trials were followed by the start of six more trials, and the confirmation of another five to begin this year.
Of all the trials, the ESMA trial attracted the most interest from the media – both in Argentina and abroad. The ESMA building is seen as a defining symbol of the military’s repression. An estimated 5,000 were taken there and “disappeared” in the notorious “death flights”, where victims were drugged and thrown into the sea.
It is also the detention centre where one of the most notorious officers, Alfredo Astiz, operated.
He was responsible for the kidnapping and disappearance of the Swedish student Dagmar Haglin, two French nuns and the founders of the Mothers of the Plaza de Mayo group – the group that continues to march every Thursday at 3pm outside the presidential palace to demand justice.
As the first day of the ESMA trial drew to an end, Astiz stood and held up a book titled To Kill Again. The gesture was not just an insult and provocation towards the victims’ families, but also an admission of guilt and a further demonstration of his ideological convictions.
Astiz is not alone. On the same day the ESMA trial began, former general Luciano Benjamín Menéndez was handed his third life sentence in Córdoba.
“We had to take action in the war started by the Marxist terrorists,” Menéndez said before sentencing. “No country has ever tried its armed forces for what its government asked of it,” he added in his defence and in protest at the trials. He was quoting an article published in the conservative La Nación that day.
The article’s author, Abel Posse, had just been designated education minister for Buenos Aires by city governor Mauricio Macri, sparking public outrage.
As Argentine ambassador in Spain during the dictatorship, Posse was part of the international cover-up of crimes committed by the regime. By objecting to the trials his article implicitly defended the military’s crimes during the dictatorship.
Posse was forced to resign from his post after public protests. Yet more voices from the right soon echoed his opinion.
Diego Guelar, international relations secretary for the right wing PRO party, called for an amnesty for the military and a referendum to decide on the issue.
Yet while the right try to maintain a public debate about the legitimacy of the trials for crimes committed during the dictatorship, their rhetoric is backed up by acts of intimidation.
First there were the threats made to the president and calls to the homes of public prosecutors working on the trials.
Then, on 30 December men broke into the human rights secretary’s office in the Greater Buenos Aires province and stole several files containing testimony and information that has yet to reach the courts.
“There are threats because they are angry,” says Adrian Gomez, one of the lawyers working on the ESMA trial. “They never thought they would be brought to justice, but they now know they will be condemned.”
For the victims and human rights organisations, the trials are to be celebrated, but their work is not over. Hundreds have yet to face justice.
“We never imagined this day,” said Graciela Daleo, who was detained for over a year during the dictatorship.
“We are here because we never abandoned our fight, but this trial must not be the ceiling. We have to keep working till every single person responsible is tried and punished.”