What Did Reagan Know About the Argentine Dictatorship's Baby Thefts?
Stay up to date with the latest headlines via email.
An Argentine court has convicted two of the nation’s former right-wing dictators, Jorge Rafael Videla and Reynaldo Bignone, in a scheme to murder leftist mothers and give their infants to military personnel often complicit in the killings, a shocking process known to the Reagan administration even as it worked closely with the bloody regime.
Testimony at the trial included a videoconference from Washington with Elliott Abrams, then-Secretary of State for Latin American Affairs, who said he urged Bignone to reveal the babies’ identities as Argentina began a transition to democracy in 1983.
Abrams said the Reagan administration “knew that it wasn’t just one or two children,” indicating that U.S. officials believed there was a high-level “plan because there were many people who were being murdered or jailed.” Estimates of the Argentines murdered in the so-called Dirty War range from 13,000 to about 30,000, with many victims “disappeared,” buried in mass graves or dumped from planes over the Atlantic.
A human rights group, Grandmothers of the Plaza de Mayo, says as many as 500 babies were stolen by the military during the repression from 1976 to 1983. Some of the pregnant mothers were kept alive long enough to give birth and then were chained together with other prisoners and pushed out of the planes into the ocean to drown.
Despite U.S. government awareness of the grisly actions of the Argentine junta, which had drawn public condemnation from the Carter administration in the 1970s, these Argentine neo-Nazis were warmly supported by Ronald Reagan, both as a political commentator in the late 1970s and as President once he took office in 1981.
When President Jimmy Carter’s human rights coordinator, Patricia Derian, berated the Argentine junta for its brutality, Reagan used his newspaper column to chide her, suggesting that Derian should “walk a mile in the moccasins” of the Argentine generals before criticizing them. [For details, see Martin Edwin Andersen's Dossier Secreto.]
Reagan understood that the Argentine generals played a central role in the anti-communist crusade that was turning Latin America into a nightmare of unspeakable repression. The leaders of the Argentine junta saw themselves as something of pioneers in the techniques of torture and psychological operations, sharing their lessons with other regional dictatorships.
Argentina also took the lead in devising ways to fund the anti-communist war through the drug trade. In 1980, the Argentine intelligence services helped organize the so-called Cocaine Coup in Bolivia, violently ousting a left-of-center government and replacing it with generals closely tied to the early cocaine trafficking networks.
Bolivia’s coup regime ensured a reliable flow of coca to Colombia’s Medellin cartel, which quickly grew into a sophisticated conglomerate for smuggling cocaine into the United States. Some of those drug profits then went to finance right-wing paramilitary operations across the region, according to other U.S. government investigations.
For instance, Bolivian cocaine kingpin Roberto Suarez invested more than $30 million in various right-wing paramilitary operations, including organizing the Nicaraguan Contra rebels in base camps in Honduras, according to U.S. Senate testimony in 1987 by an Argentine intelligence officer, Leonardo Sanchez-Reisse.
Sanchez-Reisse testified that the Suarez drug money was laundered through front companies in Miami before going to Central America. There, Argentine intelligence officers — including Sanchez-Reisse and other veterans of the Cocaine Coup — trained the fledgling Contra forces.
After becoming President in January 1981, Reagan entered into a covert alliance with the Argentine junta. He ordered the CIA to collaborate with Dirty War experts in training the Contras, who were soon rampaging through towns in northern Nicaragua, raping women and dragging local officials into public squares for executions. [See Robert Parry’s Lost History.]