Dirty peace

by Amaranta Wright

New Internationalist magazine, July 1998


When Argentina's military dictatorship fell 14 years ago, the kidnappers, torturers and contract killers nervously crept back into society and prepared themselves for hard times. They may have received official pardons for the 30,000 people they helped to 'disappear' in the Dirty War against 'left-wing subversives'. But the fear must still have hung over them that one day there would be a settling of accounts in the new democracy.

They need not have worried. Despite efforts to exclude them from public life, the men who carried out one of the worst atrocities in the history of Argentina have found a lucrative niche.

Noticias, Argentina's leading serious news weekly, revealed in a recent investigation that successful security firms are now being run by men who were once key figures in the Navy's 'intelligence unit'. The Navy was the dictatorship's most brutal arm: hundreds of live prisoners were thrown from its helicopters and planes.

The liberalized economy of Argentina has produced, as elsewhere, extremes of wealth and poverty accompanied by a growth in crime.

'The unstable climate has given these dictatorship strongmen the perfect opportunity to privatize their experience,' says Maria Caeati of the human-rights research group CELS. 'Security firms use ax-torturers because they have the experience to execute their tasks with more rigor and conviction than anyone.'

'Repressors have been able to set up companies and monopolize the market with all the money they made during the dictatorship,' says Laura Bonaparte, spokesperson for the Families of the Disappeared Commission. The organization estimates that $70 million was made from selling the property - and even the children - of the people they killed.

Former Economy Minister Domingo Cavallo first highlighted the issue in 1995 when he accused the country's leading entrepreneur, Alfredo Yabran, of hiring three ex-Navy intelligence officers as security chiefs for his murky business empire, which includes Argentina's private postal service.

Roberto Naya, a graduate of the Navy School (ESMA), worked for Alfredo Yabran's conglomerate and made it one of the biggest clients for the services offered by two of his former colleagues. Victor Dinamarca, who co-ordinated 42 torture centers in ESMA, and Adolfo Donda Tigel, who has also been identified as a leading torturer, now operate companies providing a wide range of security services.

All three have denied their violent past and their links with each other. But some of their contract workers - lesser-ranked torturers - show no sign of discretion and talk proudly of their accomplishments.

'I don't regret torturing and killing,' says Julian 'The Turk' Simon, a big, bushy man who transports valuables for one of the security companies (which he refused to name). 'If I was given a cause I believed in I would torture again. It is my profession. That is where my experience lies.'

'The Turk' is known in human-rights circles as having been one of the country's cruelest interrogators. He has been identified in 58 cases of torture at ESMA, but is suspected of many more. After the dictatorship he went into hiding. Today he sits in a grungy bar every morning, waiting for bloody errands that no-one else will do. If you calm his nerves and can be patient for long enough he will tell you how he tortured with electric shocks.

'I am not a dangerous man to normal people,' he says. 'I don't kill without a contract. But there are still too many leftist influences, too many intellectuals and too much scum in the country. If someone told me to take them out, I'd do it.'

Simon laments the fact that his principles make him too much of a liability for the company to employ him directly. He makes extra money in his spare time, selling candies and firearms But he is grateful that his former colleagues give him work from time to time. They do so out of nostalgia, he says.

Even if human-rights groups could expose the links between former torturers, because of the pardon there would be little they could do about it. While the thought of killers mingling with citizens on the streets of Buenos

Aires terrifies many, it doesn't seem to bother others who live in the rich security-guarded suburbs and private villages.

Martin Forrester knows the military past of the gatekeeper who greets him every day as he leaves his house in the plush suburb of San Isidro. 'We laugh with him because he keeps telling us there'll be a coup next month. He's crazy... But he keeps the robbers out. That's the main thing,' says Forrester.

However, men like 'The Turk', who seem to cherish their experience as torturers, are slowly giving up on Argentina. There are other campaigns to be fought in other parts of the world where their profession can be put to better - and more lucrative - use.

'I want to be employed for what I'm good at, in a cause where I'm appreciated,' says Simon. 'The war against narco-traffickers is the next one to be won. If any foreign institution requires my expertise, I'll be here, ready.'


Amaranta Wright is a freelance journalist based in Buenos Aires.

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