Reporter remembers fear in Videla's Argentina

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Photo -   FILE - In this March 24, 1976 file photo, Gen. Jorge Rafael Videla, center, is sworn-in as president at the Buenos Aires Government House accompanied by Adm. Emilio Massera, second from left, and Brig. Orlando Agosti, second from right, members of the junta that overthrew President Isabel Peron. The former Argentine dictator died of natural causes Friday, May 17, 2013, while serving life sentences at the Marcos Paz prison for crimes against humanity. Videla took power in a 1976 coup and led a military junta that killed thousands of his fellow citizens in a dirty war to eliminate "subversives." He was 87. (AP Photo/Eduardo Di Baia, File)
FILE - In this March 24, 1976 file photo, Gen. Jorge Rafael Videla, center, is sworn-in as president at the Buenos Aires Government House accompanied by Adm. Emilio Massera, second from left, and Brig. Orlando Agosti, second from right, members of the junta that overthrew President Isabel Peron. The former Argentine dictator died of natural causes Friday, May 17, 2013, while serving life sentences at the Marcos Paz prison for crimes against humanity. Videla took power in a 1976 coup and led a military junta that killed thousands of his fellow citizens in a dirty war to eliminate "subversives." He was 87. (AP Photo/Eduardo Di Baia, File)
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BUENOS AIRES, Argentina (AP) — It was just about a day after Argentine strongman Jorge Rafael Videla had seized power in March of 1976, and the bloodletting was already beginning.

I had trekked out to isolated Neuquen province looking for Maria Estela Martinez de Peron, the constitutionally elected leader that Videla and his military cohorts had just toppled. Working for The Associated Press, I wanted to talk to her, her captors or anyone else to get the story.

As it turns out, I could have been one of the military junta's first victims that sunny afternoon.

The waters of the giant Nahuel Huapi lake, protected by the Andean mountain range, were rough and troubled, as I walked along its shores toward El Messidor castle, where de Peron was rumored to be held.

I was literally on top of the world. The sunlight reflected off the eternal snows capping the towering peaks around me.

Then a gruff, martial voice brought me back to earth, piercing me like a frozen blade: "What are you doing here? Who are you?"

An enormous officer headed a patrol of about a dozen angry-looking soldiers, all dressed in olive green, approaching from the castle.

I responded uneasily, "I'm a journalist."

The officer's response was quick and menacing: "We don't want journalists or Peronists; give me your documents."

On one side were the soldiers, on the other the castle.

Just hours after the coup, an iron lid of silence had already clamped shut on the whereabouts and condition of de Peron, and I knew trying to find her would be risky. Even before the coup, people were being killed or going missing during the back-and-forth between the military and leftist militants.

I was the only reporter anywhere near that lake, and in that era before cellphones, my only defense was my pen and notepad.

About 9,000 people were ultimately killed or disappeared during Argentina's 1976-1983 dictatorship, according to an official accounting after democracy returned. Human rights activists believe the real number was as high as 30,000. The dead were not only those who had been involved in armed conflict, but journalists, dissidents, unionists and citizens caught in the crossfire.

My life during the dictatorship quickly became a surreal and dangerous search for the truth in a country convulsed by violence.

At one point, I had to tour all the public restrooms in central Buenos Aires because the Montoneros and People's Revolutionary Army urban guerrillas left their communiques behind toilets, mirrors or inside spouts or pipes. A spokesman for the guerrillas would call the office and let us know which bathroom they had written their missive in, and I'd rush there to check.

At the center of it all was the lanky, mustached Videla, whom many dubbed "Panther," because his gait resembled that of the "Pink Panther" in the popular movies and cartoons. With Videla's death Friday at age 87, many Argentines are remembering those dark days.

We watched the "panther," surrounded by his fellow junta leaders, jumping in celebration and shouting "goal!" at River Plate stadium as Argentina beat Holland during the 1978 World Cup final. To improve his image, Videla was portrayed as playing a role in helping Argentina win the title.

Less than a kilometer (about half a mile) away from the stadium was the Navy Mechanics' School, the largest clandestine detention and torture center during Argentina's "dirty war." Thousands of people were taken there, never to be seen again.

I passed the school every time I went to the stadium, which seemed so placid and well-maintained, at least from the outside. I never suspected what was going on inside.

Among the people who were killed or disappeared after entering its doors were French nuns Alice Domon and Leonie Duquet, Argentine journalist and writer Rodolfo Walsh and Azucena Villaflor, one of the founds of the Mothers of the Plaza de Mayo human rights group.

My AP colleague at the time, Oscar J. Serrat, was abducted for a day by soldiers and only released following intense lobbying.

I myself was targeted for sticking to the AP style of using the phrase "alleged guerrillas (or terrorists)" when writing about armed confrontations with soldiers. Videla didn't like the words "alleged" or "suspected." To him, they were guerrillas or terrorists, without qualifications.

I received unidentified threats, including once while I was at my mother's house. I later also learned that that my name had appeared along with those of other journalists considered undesirable in a book edited by the military regime.

All that horror, however, still awaited Argentina that afternoon by the lake and mountains.

My immediate challenge was getting by the soldiers, who were just launching their hunt for political enemies.

The officer had grown impatient with my repeated response to his questions, that I was a journalist and had traveled there to ask about the whereabouts of de Peron, the widow of leader Juan Domingo Peron.

"Weeeeell, weeeeell," said the officer, menacingly extending his words.

Then, in a slightly friendlier tone, he concluded: "I'm returning your documents and you can go."

But before I left, he shouted: "Go! Walk with your hands up, but don't look back. Do you understand me?"

He aimed his gun at me, which looked as big as a cannon.

I didn't walk, I didn't raise my hands, I didn't ask for mercy. I couldn't move for fear. I cursed my bad luck as my shoes sunk in the muck left by last night's rain or by floodwaters from the lake.

"I can kill you, throw you in the lake and no one would find you," he told me.

But then an expression that resembled a smile appeared on his face and he lowered his gun. He ordered me to take the next plane home and he walked away with his patrol.

I stayed two nights longer, though I kept away from the danger zone. I collected information and testimony that allowed me to confirm that de Peron was in the castle, an exclusive that was widely published.

I had survived my first days under Videla's brutal rule, but the nightmare had only just begun.

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