The ’’reappearance’’ of Argentina’s disappeared reopens debate on human rights


The enforced disappearances which took place under the last dictatorship (1976-1983) have returned to the centre of public discussion in Argentina, ever since the country’s new government began questioning the number of disappearances, denouncing key human rights defenders and working to improve conditions for former repressors.

In 2014, Mauricio Macri, now president, announced that he would put an end to “human rights rip offs”. The organisations he was alluding to are warning of denialism.

In January 2016, Darío Lopérfido, Minister of Culture at the time for the Federal Capital (governed by Macrismo), said that the number of disappeared persons - estimated at 30,000 – had been “inflated” by human rights organisations.

Why? “The 30,000 figure was arrived at around a table to collect subsidies,” he claimed.

Following a public outcry and pressure triggered by the controversial statement, Lopérfido resigned from his post. He is now, however, director of the state-owed Teatro Colón opera house in Buenos Aires.

Some weeks later, the Argentine president weighed up public sentiment with statements of a similar vein. “I have no idea [if there were 30,000]. That’s a debate I’m not going to enter, whether there’s 9,000 or 30,000, whether it’s all those written on a wall or whether there’s many more,” he told BuzzFeed Latinoamérica. He also – although his spokespersons later qualified his remark – referred to the “years of lead” as the “dirty war”, the term coined by the repressers to justify state terrorism.

Marcos Peña, his cabinet chief, added: “The 30,000 figure is symbolic...the only official list is that of the CONADEP (National Commission on Disappearances), which quotes a lower figure.”

In the 1980s, 8,961 reported disappearances were recorded on this list. Some former human rights representatives – now close to the government - endorsed it. In terms of official records, however, the Human Rights Secretariat set the figure at 13,000 reported disappearances back in 2003.

Activists responded with outrage. Estela de Carlotto from the association of Grandmothers of Plaza de Mayo defended the estimate of 30,000: “Reports of disappearances are still coming in...there were whole families who were decimated and no one reported (the disappearances).”

For Nora Cortiñas, head of the non-governmental organisation Mothers of Plaza de Mayo Línea Fundadora, “The president has never cared about human rights. Although,” she adds with irony, “he’s better, perhaps, than Lopérfido.”

Already in 1978, five years before the dictatorship and the disappearances came to an end, the Chilean Intelligence obtained Argentinian military records setting the number of disappeared at 22,000. For human rights expert Marcos Tolentino, it would not be unreasonable for the figure to have risen to 30,000 or even more by 1983.

21st century human rights

Shortly after coming to power last December, Macri – who talks of prioritising 21st century human rights (education, health, employment) – made a series of accusations against activists linked to the government of his predecessor Cristina Fernández de Kirchner.

In January, Milagro Sala, a social activist, indigenous leader and Kirchnerista, was arrested. Her case was questioned by the United Nations and the Organisation of American States (OAS). Amnesty International denounced it as “a clear attempt to criminalise the exercise of the right to protest” and called for her release.

Another Kirchnerite, Hebe de Bonafini, president of the association of Mothers of Plaza de Mayo, was summoned for questioning in a corruption case. Eighty-seven-year-old Bonafini compared Macri’s government to the Mussolini dictatorship and Macri, in return, accused her of being “deranged.”

She refused to appear in court for questioning, pointing to collusion between the elements in the judiciary and the media ahead of her weekly march for the disappeared, the 2000th such procession.

The attempt to disperse members of the association and arrest her - with a show of force including troops, water cannon and helicopters – was frustrated by demonstrators forming a human shield around her.

Intellectual Dante Palma interpreted the episode as a “test” of public opinion which, in Sala’s case, did not prove to be as categorical. Palma suspects that the ultimate target of the “social test” is former President Kirchner (and, more specifically, the level of social acceptance for her potential imprisonment), who is currently under investigation for alleged corruption.

In the meantime, the granting of house arrest to those serving jail for genocide is also stirring controversy. The government claims is it a question of human rights. Organisations are pointing out that this only applies to convicts with health problems that cannot be dealt with in prison facilities, and are criticising the official decision not to appeal the rulings. According to the cabinet chief, Kirchnerismo “didn’t appeal either, save in emblematic cases.”

In the same way as there were imprisonments and executions without trial, bodies without burials, children who were stolen and deprived of their identities, some now fear the prospect of a genocide without figures and those denouncing it being turned into suspects.

According to Tolentino, “Suspicions are being presented without proof, deriding the whole thing. With the number of disappeared persons called into question and the leadership of human rights organisations brought under suspicion, doubt is cast over the consensuses reached after 40 years of fighting against forgetting.”


This article has been translated from Spanish.