Argentina: Dismantling an Authoritarian Legacy

September 25, 2007

BUENOS AIRES—The new administration of Fernando de la Rúa has taken several important steps to reduce the power of the Argentine intelligence apparatus, a legacy of the military dictatorship (1976-1983). In January and February, the President ordered the dismissal of hundreds of agents from two notorious intelligence structures, the army's Battalion 601 (renamed the Center for Military Intelligence in the 1980s) and the Secretariat of State Intelligence (SIDE), and said that Battalion 601 would be dissolved and its intelligence headquarters sold. Battalion 601 and SIDE played a central role in the state terrorism of the so-called "dirty war." Both harbor extreme right, anti-Semitic and antidemocratic factions. The administration also reduced SIDE's budget, from around $360 million in 1999 to $138 million in 2000, and announced a $150 million reduction in the military budget.

The administration discharged some 1,100 civilian and military personnel and at least 1,000 contracted agents from SIDE, and 500 civilian agents from Battalion 601. Many were holdovers from the dictatorship, with histories of extortion and kidnapping, torture, disappearances and assassination; some were associated with Operation Condor. One ex-army captain in Battalion 601, Rafael López Fader, was part of a 1970s paramilitary group linked to infamous extortion and kidnapping cases. He was also an adviser to the Contras in Central America—and was reportedly decorated by the CIA for his role. Two SIDE operatives, Rubén Visuara and Eduardo Ruffo, were part of a 1970s death squad based in Automotores Orletti, a clandestine detention and torture center for Operation Condor.

The Menem Administration (1989-1999) cultivated close relations with the security and intelligence forces and incorporated numerous military officers and political personnel from the former dictatorship into government bureaucracies and intelligence structures. The Menem years saw recurrent scandals involving intelligence forces that illegally spied on Argentine citizens. In one 1993 scandal, for example, official surveys were sent to teachers nation-wide asking about the ideological tendencies and political activities of students. In 1996, the Gendarmería, a militarized police force, conducted secret surveillance of shantytown dwellers and priests. Menem was also criticized for using SIDE and "parallel" intelligence groups against his political opponents. He awarded SIDE large secret funds from "reserved accounts" that escaped congressional oversight. SIDE is also suspected of impeding investigations of two unsolved bombings, of the Israeli Embassy in 1992 and the Jewish-Argentine Mutual Association in 1994. During the 1999 presidential campaign, the Alianza, the coalition of the centrist Radical Civic Union (UCR) and the center-left Frepaso that de la Rúa represents, pledged to bring SIDE under democratic control or even abolish it.

The purge of Battalion 601 takes place after recent military spying scandals that cast doubt on the view held by many observers that the Argentine military is thoroughly democratized. In 1998, the intelligence division of the air force was found to be conducting illegal surveillance of journalists and a women's group that had criticized the air force's management of airports. In a more explosive 1999 case, a judge in Córdoba discovered that the intelligence branch of the Third Army Corps was carrying out surveillance of witnesses and lawyers involved in a trial investigating baby kidnapping by the military during the "dirty war."

The Córdoba investigation gradually uncovered army surveillance of students, the media, judges, unionists, well-known political party leaders and the governor-elect of the province. Some had received death threats. Intelligence reports discussed internal conflicts in the UCR, the Peronist electoral campaign, and activities within the national university. The Third Army Corps commander said that the spying was done by marginal groups "nostalgic for the nefarious practices of the past." But judicial sources told the media they had proof that intelligence operatives in Córdoba reported to the chiefs of Army Intelligence and Counterintelligence. These scandals demonstrated that the Argentine military continued to carry out vast political intelligence operations against "internal enemies"—a function expressly forbidden by law.

The de la Rúa Administration's purge of the intelligence apparatus is a significant—and overdue—step. Throughout Latin America, politicized intelligence forces inherited from military dictatorships continue to operate with little democratic control. But other government initiatives are less encouraging. The administration is reportedly considering a recently retired general, Ernesto Bossi, to head a key executive intelligence agency. Bossi has repeatedly argued for military internal security and intelligence capabilities to combat "narcoterrorism," a mission prohibited by Argentine law. Also, the new administration has backed the promotions of officers accused of dirty war abuses despite protests from human rights groups. Democratizing the state in Argentina is an ongoing struggle.

J. Patrice McSherry is an Associate Professor of Political Science at Long Island University-Brooklyn and author of Incomplete Transition: Military Power and Democracy in Argentina (New York: St. Martin's Press, 1997). She is also a member of NACLA's editorial board.


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