Jorge Mario Bergoglio has been pope for less than a week, but his past is already starting to give him trouble. Pope Francis, as he is now known, has been caught up in allegations that he was too passive in the face of atrocities committed during the so-called ‘dirty war’ in his native Argentina in the 1970s, when he served as provincial superior for the Society of Jesus. There are even accusations that he betrayed two Jesuit priests to the government’s security forces. (One cardinal has described these accusations as “a smear and a lie.” The Vatican has also defended the pontiff, calling the charges a fantasy of “the anticlerical left.”
But those who are weak on South American history may need to take a step back at this point. What’s the dirty war, anyway? Here’s a quick explainer.
1. It lasted almost 10 years.
The term describes a violent, dark period in Argentina’s history, from the mid-1970s to the early 1980s, when the ruling military junta was at war with its left-wing opponents. The right-wing military had seized control in 1976 after a period of instability, and decided to purge their enemies. As Shannon O’Neil, a Latin America expert at the Council on Foreign Relations puts it, the military’s thinking was this: “We’re going to get rid of the cancer that is in our society—i.e., the left wing. And these people that have communist ideas, and other vaguely communist-leftist ideas.” Trade unions, the press, students, and their sympathizers were all targeted.
Amnesty International pegs the total number of abductions at the hands of the government’s security forces at 30,000, “many of whom,” the group says, “are still unaccounted for.” People were tortured and executed.
2. It was “dirty” because it was secretive.
The conflict was “dirty” in the sense that people disappeared and their fate was unknown—as opposed to a more “clean” war with battlefields and numerable casualties. Government forces “were coming in the middle of the night in Ford Falcons—that was their car of preference—and they’d pick somebody, and then they’d disappear them, and then you’d never see them again,” says O’Neil. “You’d go to the police, you’d go the military, and try to look for your son or daughter, and they’d be like, ‘No we don’t have them, maybe they ran off with their boyfriend, or their girlfriend,’ and people would never see them again.” One of the scariest aspects was that people could be picked up for just having a casual association with another person who had been detained.
“The rules of engagement were quite opaque,” says O’Neil, who hastens to add that it was a two-way street. On the other side, the guerrilla groups were “not angels either,” as O’Neil describes it. “They would set off car bombs, and there were other things they would do too. But there’s a consensus that the show of force on the military side in response was much heavier.” One of the most well known opposition groups was the Montoneros, a violent group known for staging kidnappings and bank robberies in order to extract ransoms.
3. The context is complicated.
The 1970s were an emotional, tense time in Argentina. “You had big factions, often the upper classes, but some of the middle classes, who really wanted law and order established in their society,” says O’Neil. “They felt like it was dangerous, there were these guerrilla groups—there were groups that asked the military to step in; it wasn’t sort of [like] they came out of nowhere.”
4. Living in Argentina at the time was a brutal experience.
When Christopher Hitchens visited Argentina in 1977, he encountered what he described as a “pall of fear” over Buenos Aires—he acknowledged that the term was a cliché but that it was still the best way to evoke the situation. “People spoke to foreigners with an averted gaze, and everybody seemed to know somebody who had just vanished,” he recounts in his memoir, Hitch-22. “The rumors of what had happened to them were fantastic and bizarre though, as it turned out, they were only an understatement of the real thing.” He cites a book by an Argentine named Adolfo Scilingo who says that (as Hitchens paraphrases it) the way torture victims were discarded was “by being flown out way over the wastes of the South Atlantic and flung from airplanes into the freezing water below.” The torture center, Hitchens notes, was the government’s Navy Mechanics School. Hitchens spoke with a doctor whose daughter had been tortured there. “What do you say,” Hitchens asks rhetorically, “to a doctor and humanitarian who has been gutted by the image of a starving rat being introduced to his daughter’s genitalia?”
5. It took a botched war to finally end the madness.
The dirty war came to a conclusion in 1983. Argentina’s economy was bad, and the military government, says O’Neil, wasn’t “particularly good at running the economy.” So, as a strategy to “deflect from their unpopularity,” they launched a war over the Falkland Islands, a small archipelago off the Argentinean coast, in 1982—and lost. The United States came down on the side of Britain, which defeated Argentina in the conflict. “They got beaten in the war, and that was basically the end,” says O’Neil. An election followed in 1983, as did the creation of the National Commission on the Disappearance of Persons.
6. The dirty war has inspired some great films.
Watch the 1985 film The Official Story, which picked up an Oscar for Best Foreign Language Film. The plot focuses on an Argentine mother’s quest to find out the story of her adopted baby—whose real family may have been disappeared during the military dictatorship. Another good one is The Secret in Their Eyes. More recently, an excellent film called NO, about a bold and inventive ad campaign that helped bring about the end of Augusto Pinochet’s dictatorship in neighboring Chile in the late 1980s, explores similar themes and has gotten good reviews.
7. Effects are still being felt—and not just in Vatican City.
Just last year, a trial found Jorge Videla, the country’s dictator from 1976 to 1981, guilty of the crime of stealing babies. (It’s hard to imagine a worse thing.) The infants were taken from their mothers, who were killed, and given to families that supported the military. The point of this Nazi-like system was to weaken the opponents of the military government. Videla received a sentence of 50 years in prison for this unthinkable crime. (Pope Francis says he had direct contact with Videla at least once during those years. In 2010, the pontiff testified that he had met personally with the dictator to arrange the release of two kidnapped priests.)
Videla is far from being the only former member of the junta to be put on trial and convicted, and in fact, Amnesty International notes that it is satisfied “with the progress made by the Argentinean justice system” in bringing human rights offenders to justice.
Another way the legacy of the dirty war still influences events: when an Argentine woman named Maxima Zorreguieta married Holland’s Prince Willem-Alexander in 2002, her father was not welcome at the wedding because of his role as a minister in the Argentine dictatorship.
In 2002, the U.S. made public 4,000 documents that have provided more information about this period of Argentina’s history. And even a former secretary of State has had his reputation tainted by the dirty war: One document released in 2004 speaks to an interaction that Henry Kissinger had in 1976 with Argentina’s foreign minister in which Kissinger, in the words of a New York Times report, “raised no protest against human rights violations.”