It was called the “dirty war,” Argentina’s bloody internal conflict in the 1970s and early ’80s. A military coup had deposed Isabel Perón and with the generals came a reign of fear: an estimated 20,000 people simply “disappeared.” People deemed “subversives”—activists, journalists, trade-union members, guerrilla fighters, leftists, communists, anyone who was suspected of dissident thought—were taken away in the night and never seen again.
The generals have now long gone, but one of the former cabinet members under the first general, Jorge Videla, agriculture minister Jorge Zorreguieta, has achieved a peculiar sort of fame in his old age. His daughter, Máxima, is now officially the future queen of the Netherlands. And in an effort to bring some justice to the legacy of their relatives, family members of “los desaparecidos,” the disappeared, have lodged a formal complaint in the Dutch judiciary claiming Zorreguieta should be held responsible for his apparent complicity with Gen. Jorge Videla’s regime. Many believe that the Argentina junta acted with the strong support of the country’s civilian political elite—a blanket suspicion that clearly covers Zorreguieta.
Dutch lawyer Liesbeth Zegveld, known for winning a case against the Dutch state for its soldiers’ failure to stop the massacre in Srebrenica during the Bosnia war, says there is enough evidence to warrant further investigation. “According to the latest research there were lists in circulation with names of people who needed to disappear. There was preparation. The coup was an agricultural coup, it was about crops, sugar, and land, about big landowners against small farmers. Large groups of small farmers disappeared and Jorge Zorreguieta was the man dealing with agriculture,” says Zegveld. “He was close to Videla, visited him at home. It is known that in a meeting shortly before the coup, he was present ... It is absolutely impossible that he was not partially responsible.”
But it is up to the Dutch public prosecutor’s office to decide if this sensitive case will ever come to trial. The 85-year-old Zorreguieta has not responded to these specific allegations but has stood firm in his denial of all knowledge of the crimes committed by the military regime throughout the years.
In December 2010, the Netherlands signed an international covenant about forced disappearances, making them a “continuous crime” with, in effect, no statute of limitations. That in turn gave grounds for Zegveld to renew a claim she had first filed in 2001. In the suit she is representing Alejandra Slutzky, whose father disappeared and was never heard of again—and Zegveld says the public prosecutor’s office is obligated to investigate further with this new legislation. “You can’t expect victims of forced disappearances to do it themselves, because entire records of the people in question have vanished. So they make an inquiry and get told ‘that person doesn’t exist, we know nothing about them,’” she says. “This is what makes action from the public prosecutors office so important. Don’t keep on saying ‘Your case is not complete.’ Of course it’s not, we can’t make it ‘complete’!”
According to Zegveld, there is no doubt that Zorreguieta is at least partially responsible. “You can’t work at a ministry where people are vanishing on the ground floor and you do nothing on the top floor. The superior has to intervene if there is knowledge of a crime and one could do something ... He said: ‘I didn’t know anything until 1984 about disappearances,’ that doesn’t work to his advantage.”
This was a case of active cooperation by the Ministry of Agriculture with the military regime, she says. “There was administrative cooperation with the military regime, like stopping contracts, salaries, and letting people disappear from the system. It means that there was an interaction, and information was being shared.”
The political background of Zorreguieta has been the subject of debate in the Netherlands before, during the early courtship and engagement of Princess Máxima with Prince Willem-Alexander, who is due to become king in April, now that his mother, Queen Beatrix, has announced her abdication.
It all started like a modern fairy tale. The couple met at a party in Sevilla, Spain, in 1999. When asked by a Dutch television host whether they liked each other from the start, Máxima resolutely answered “No.” The crown prince explained that the first time he saw his future wife, she was hiding behind the lens of a big camera. He gave her a dirty look and she asked, “Who is that man?” and walked off. When they started talking, later that night, their love reportedly ignited, and the rest is history.
“You can’t work at a ministry where people are vanishing on the ground floor and you do nothing on the top floor.”
Their romance first became public a few months later. But after the unblemished start of their relationship, the press got wind of Máxima’s fathers’ position under Videla, and a fierce debate ensued about Jorge Zorreguieta’s background and Máxima’s suitability as a future queen. In the beginning of 2001 when the couple announced their engagement, the crown prince even referred to the “pressure” they had been under.
Máxima publicly denounced the former Videla regime and said she had started to resent it back in 1983. She asked her father about what happened at the time, when the extent of the atrocities first became known to her, at the tender age of 12. According to Máxima, he said he had no idea.
The details about the regime are gruesome. In addition to the 20,000 disappeared, many more were tortured. Hundreds of people were drugged and thrown out of airplanes, thousands died in the regime’s dreaded interrogation rooms and their orphaned children given away for adoption by supporters of the regime.
The Ministry of Agriculture did not escape the iron grip of the regime as entire segments of the department headed by Zorreguieta were arrested or disappeared.
But it is only recently that the focus within this dramatic episode of Argentina’s history has shifted from the military powers to the involvement of civilian collaborators. Not until 2005 was the Argentine law that was passed in the 1980s—and that granted immunity from prosecution—ruled unconstitutional. With it, the protection enjoyed by members of the regime was lifted, leading to a flood of new court cases in Argentina.
Recently, the Argentine government has decided to release all the records of the Ministry of Agriculture from that time—or at least what is left of them. According to those papers, Zorreguieta held weekly meetings with his board of directors and had become a very powerful man, but no one has been able to prove that he had any direct involvement with the dirty war.
In Argentina, meanwhile, witnesses are coming forward and prominent Argentine human-rights lawyer Rodolfo Yanzon says he believes there is a strong-enough case to pursue. He, too, claims Zorreguieta and other civil leaders knew quite well what happened to the people abducted by the regime.
Alberto Golberg, a former employee of the Ministry of Agriculture during the dictatorship, is also trying to get Zorreguieta held legally responsible for the fate of his employees.
In a Dutch television broadcast just a few days ago, Golberg spoke out about the ordeal he went through. Three days after the coup by the military junta, he said, he was arrested and taken to prison. After a month of torture, he was visited in jail by someone from the agriculture ministry’s human-resource department and asked to sign his own resignation papers. But that and other papers have since vanished, as if the employees had never existed.
It took another two years of imprisonment before Golberg was finally let go. He was one of the lucky ones. His colleagues Carlos Costa, Gustavo Giombini Moser, and Marta Sierra never came back. Their wives and children are now joining Golberg in his legal steps against Zorreguieta. The four plaintiffs are also assisting the Dutch woman Slutzky in her complaint.
Although the whole story of these alleged violations is appalling, there seems to have been little impact on the Dutch public opinion of their princess. She is immensely popular—even more so than her husband. But on a more personal level, the cloud over Zorreguieta does have implications for the ceremonies in the days to come. Future Queen Máxima’s father is not welcome in the Netherlands on official occasions. This coming April 30th, Máxima will have to do without her father at her coronation.