General Jorge Videla, Argentina’s de facto president at the height of its “Dirty War” against leftist activists, died on Friday in prison while serving time for crimes against humanity. He was 87.
Videla launched a crackdown on leftists and suspected supporters when he took power in 1976. As many as 30,000 people were kidnapped and “disappeared” by the Argentine military, and suspected regime opponents were put in secret prisons, tortured and murdered.
In his last public appearance on Tuesday, an unrepentant Videla, who left office in 1981, told a court that his subordinates acted under his orders and assumed “full military responsibility for the actions of the army in the war against terrorism.”
The prison doctor on duty found Videla in the morning “sitting on the toilet in his cell,” the official prison report said.
“It is important that he died of natural causes in a regular prison,” Argentine Secretary of Human Rights Martin Fresneda said. “There was justice, not revenge, and he leaves as the person that was responsible for the main horrors that the Argentine people endured.”
The federal judge with jurisdiction over the prison ordered an autopsy to dispel any doubts that Videla died of natural causes.
In 2010, Videla was sentenced to life behind bars for the disappearance of 31 prisoners and to another 50 years’ jail last year for the theft of children born to female prisoners.
In 1985, he was convicted of abuses committed under his regime, but pardoned five years later by then-Argentine president Carlos Menem. That pardon was declared unconstitutional in 2006 as Argentina reopened one of the darkest chapters in its history with trials of former military officials.
A wiry officer with a brush mustache and a passionate hatred of communism, Videla showed little remorse for the systematic abuses.
“Let’s say there were 7,000 or 8,000 people who had to die to win the war against subversion. We couldn’t execute them by firing squad. Neither could we take them to court,” Videla said, according to journalist Ceferino Reato.
Military leaders agreed that secretly disposing of their prisoners “was a price to pay to win the war,” Videla was quoted as saying by Reato in his book, Final Disposition. “For that reason, so as not to provoke protests inside and outside the country, the decision was reached that these people should be disappeared.”
Videla later said he had been misquoted, but Reato insists the general reviewed his handwritten notes and approved the manuscript.
Videla led the Argentine army in 1976 when the military overthrew Isabel Peron, the wife of former Argentine president Juan Peron.
The junta suspended the constitution, outlawed political parties and imposed censorship on television and radio.
It also sent police and soldiers against leftist guerrillas, a crackdown that quickly broadened to include relatives, labor organizers, politicians, clergy, students, journalists, artists and intellectuals.
Victims included French nuns Alice Domon and Leonie Duquet, Catholic bishop Enrique Angelelli and members of Argentina’s diplomatic corps.