Former dictator Jorge Rafael Videla, who took power in Argentina in a 1976 coup and led a military junta that killed thousands of his fellow citizens in a dirty war to eliminate people considered to be subversives, died in his sleep today while serving life in prison for crimes against humanity. He was 87.
Federal Prison Service Director Victor Hortel said Videla died in the Marcos Paz prison. He was found lifeless in his bed, according to an official medical report cited by the state news agency Telam.
Videla ran one of the bloodiest military governments during South America's era of dictatorships, and later sought to take full responsibility for kidnappings, tortures, deaths and disappearances when he was tried again and again for these crimes in recent years. He said he knew about everything that happened under his rule because "I was on top of everyone."
Videla had a low profile before the March 24, 1976, coup, but quickly became the architect of a repressive system that killed about 9,000 people, according to an official accounting after democracy returned to Argentina in 1983. Human rights activists believe the real number was as high as 30,000.
This "dirty war" introduced two frightening terms to the global lexicon of terror: "disappeareds" - people kidnapped and never seen nor heard from again - and "death flights," in which political prisoners were thrown, drugged but alive, from navy planes into the sea.
Complaints from families looking for missing loved ones were later heard internationally, and suggested that the regime many Argentines initially welcomed as an antidote to political violence and economic chaos was much bloodier than first thought. "The disappeareds aren't there, they don't exist," Videla told a news conference defensively in 1977.
Videla's dictatorship also stood out from others in Latin America for its policy of holding pregnant prisoners until they gave birth, and then killing the women while arranging for illegal adoptions of their babies, usually by military or police families. This happened hundreds of times, and the Grandmothers of the Plaza de Mayo rights group has relentlessly sought to reunite these children, now in their 30s, with their biological families. Last year, Videla was convicted and sentenced again, to a 50-year-term, for the thefts of these babies.
Adolfo Perez Esquivel, who spent 28 months in prison during the dictatorship and won the Nobel Peace Prize for his work documenting Videla's crimes, said the general's death should not be cause for celebration, and urged Argentina's justice system to keep investigating the dirty war era. "The death of Videla should not bring joy to anyone. We need to keep working for a better society, more just, more humane, so that all this horror doesn't ever happen, never again," Esquivel said.
Videla's regime, known as the "Process of National Reorganisation," ostensibly fought against armed leftist guerrillas, but these movements were already weakened and nearly destroyed at the time of the coup. The junta soon pursued political opponents, union members, student activists and social workers, rousting people from their homes and torturing them in secret detention centres. It closed Congress, banned political parties, intervened in unions and universities, and imposed an iron censorship over the media.
The high point of Videla's regime came in 1978, when Argentina hosted football's World Cup. Just blocks from the River Plate stadium where Argentina won the cup, detainees were being tortured inside the Navy Mechanics School, a leafy campus where thousands were taken, never to be seen again. Videla retired in 1981 and handed leadership to a succession of other generals. By then the government was already weakened, pressured by persistent inflation, a sluggish economy and explosive growth in foreign debts after nationalising the debts of leading private corporations.