Argentine torturers took military courses in Spain — and vice versa

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A cordial letter from the Spanish ministry of exterior relations to the Embassy of Argentina in Madrid. Note the date stamp: September 14, 1979. Even at the height of the junta’s horrors, Spain was awfully chummy with Argentina.

Spain supposedly reverted to democracy, after decades of fascist dictatorship, with the death of Generalissimo Franco in 1975. At about the same time, Argentina’s already rampant authoritarianism was deepening into outright fascism; the following year, a military coup brought to power a junta that would reign by way of terror and ample bloodshed from 1976 until 1983. But how “democratic” was Spain really, so soon post-Franco? A report by the Spanish alternative site LibreRed has some intriguing answers:

The Videla régime [of Argentina] and Suárez government [of Spain] maintained an active collaboration in terms of repression, according to secret archives from both countries.

The Argentine lieutenant Antonio “Trueno” Pernías, currently in a Buenos Aires prison for crimes against humanity, was a man of action: through his hands — and his torture chamber — passed many men and women who still have not reappeared today. His comrade Enrique Scheller, alias “Pingüino”, was also accused by various survivors as a sadistic torturer. Between 1978 and 1980, both individuals worked for the Argentine embassy in Spain, where they dedicated themselves to persecuting and controlling the large group of Argentine refugees who lived in that land. In spite of the denunciations against them, the Suárez government gave them passports and permitted them to carry revolvers.

Their names are not an isolated case. As confirmed by diverse documents held in public reserves, the Argentine diplomatic delegation was utilized as one of the principal centres of operations for the dictatorship in Europe, with a double mission: Controlling the exiles, and counteracting international denunciations against the junta. All went about armed there, thanks to licences which the government of Adolfo Suárez granted without a murmur. According to secret archives, ambassador Leandro Enrique Anaya had permission to use a Smith & Wesson .38 calibre pistol. His secretary, Jorge Vigano, carried an Astra revolver, while the economic and commercial consul, Carlos Vailati, carried a Colt revolver. Nor did they lack for gunpowder in the Consul General’s office in Madrid, where the chief, Luis Vila Ayres, enjoyed a “carrying permit for weapons of personal defence”, a Browning 7.65 calibre pistol.

Besides giving armaments to their functionaries, the Argentine military junta mounted an espionage service with principal seat in the embassy of Madrid, and subsidiaries in the consular offices of Barcelona, Bilbao and Cádiz. In this tight-woven network, not only functionaries of the diplomatic installations participared, but also soldiers who were sent to Spain under the pretext of taking “training courses” in the installations of the Spanish army and navy.

One of the first to complete these functions was Lt.-Col. Antonio José Deimundo Piñeiro, who attended the school of the Army High Command in Madrid in 1976-77. In or out of the school, Piñeiro had the authorization of the Spanish governmetn to carry a Colt .38 calibre “detective model” revolver and an official passport, along with his wife and children. Upon returning to Argentina in 1977, the proven officer dedicated himself to co-ordinating the savage repression in the Misiones province, in northern Argentina.

Documents received by LibreRed confirm that Spain and Argentina maintained a close-linked interchange of military and police officers completing official courses. On September 23, 1977, Edmundo René Ojeda, the Chief of Federal Police in Argentina — one of the repressive forces which kidnapped, tortured and killed anti-dictatorship militants — sent the Spanish government an annual plan of scholarships for that body. For the first time, the Videla dictatorship’s offer included members of the Civil Guard and the Police.

The Suárez government would not reject the Argentine junta’s offer. On November 25, 1977, the minister of the Exterior, Marcelino Oreja, confirmed via letter that an officer of the Civil Guard and another from the Armed Police would study in Argentina. The chosen officers would complete a course in explosives, which began on October 23, 1978, and lasted 10 days, in which the attendees received training in the “handling, disarming and transportation of incendiary artefacts and/or explosives and the completion of investigations or judicial reports”.

During those same days, the Moncloa Palace responded to the generosity of Argentina with a very special proposal to one of its naval officers, the frigate lieutenant Jorge Osvaldo Troitiño. According to a confidential document of the Argentine Navy, Troitiño travelled to Europe to “serve in the Naval attachement” of the embassy in Madrid, although he used that as camouflage for his participation in the High Command course in the Navy War School. Thanks to permission granted by the Civil Guard, he was allowed to carry a Smith & Wesson .38 calibre revolver in his belt. On May 6, 1978, his Spanish professors chose him to conduct an exposition on Argentina, so that he could explain to his comrades the generosities of the “political régime” of Videla and its “future development”.

Troitiño was one of the most active “students” sent by the dictatorship to Spain, but not the only one. According to official listings, 33 Argentine militaries passed through the military dependencies of Spain between 1976 and 1983. Seven of them attended the High Command course of the Army Superior School, while others did their stint in the Military War School. Among these last is the navy officer Carlos José Pazo, one of the torturers who worked in the concentration camp of the Navy Mechanics’ School (ESMA), one of the principal centres of extermination in Argentina.

Another of his fellow torturers, Lieutenant Néstor Savio, was also gifted with a trip to Spain to complete a course of Command of Naval Infantry in San Fernándo (Cádiz), while Ricardo César Arajuo — a naval officer very active in the so-called “anti-subversive fight” — managed to be sent by his naval chiefs to Madrid “on permanent commission” — which granted him governmental protection — to attend the course on “Command and High Command of Naval Infantry”.

According to a confidential note of the Naval High Command of Argentina, Araujo was to stay in Spain between August of 1980 and November 1981. In his dossier, his chiefs recognized his “active participation” in the “fight against subversion” in Bahía Blanca, a city 600 kilometres from Buenos Aires. Precisely for that, three decades later, a tribunal from that locality accused him of “having formed part of a criminal, clandestine and illegal plan to kidnap, torture, murder and cause disappearance of persons”. When he went to Spain, Araujo already had all those despicable acts behind him.

The participation of the 33 Argentines in courses taught by the Armed Forces was reciprocated by the Suárez government with the journey of 14 Spanish officers to Buenos Aires to study various subjects in the schools of the Army and Navy. “The courses taken by these officers took place amid an exchange of alumni and as a consequence of accords signed in reciprocity with countries with which diplomatic relations were maintained for many years, and which continue to the present day.” Thus, in 1998, did the Spanish ministry of defence justify it in the face of a freedom-of-information request by Spanish judge Baltasar Garzón, who was then trying to investigate crimes against humanity in Argentina.

According to the list distributed at that time by the ministry, between 1979 and 1983 eight members of the Spanish Army took the intelligence course offered by the dictatorship. Some of them visited the ESMA, the same installation which served as a concentration camp. Then-commandant Cristóbal Gil y Gil would admit as much to Garzón, before whom he had to testify on June 16, 1998. According to his testimony, Gil y Gil — who worked for Spanish intelligence — had travelled to Buenos Aires in April 1981 to participate in a course of “personnel studies”, aimed at “teaching police techniques of identifying fingerprints and microfilms of documentation, as well as techniques of modernization of the Intelligence Service”.

When consulted about his visits to the ESMA, the officer affirmed that he had been there on three occasions. When Garzón asked him the names of his hosts, he replied that he could not remember any. In the face of his lack of memory, the judge showed him various photos of the repressors who moved through that centre, but it didn’t help; Gil’s mind remained blank. Prosecuting attorneys asked him if he had received instructions “over forms of combatting subversion”, to which Gil y Gil also replied evasively: “Those were techniques known in Spain and every other western country.”

Nor was the CESID commander aware of the use of the ESMA as a concentration camp, an aspect that has been denounced on numerous occasions at an international level by human-rights organizations. In his statement, Gil y Gil alleged that he never even knew that there were disappeared persons in Argentina. Like many, he believed that there existed a “confrontation between military authorities and disparate ideological groups.” The toll was 30,000 persons murdered by way of state terrorism.

Translation mine.

So we know that Spain and Argentina, despite their supposedly different politics of the day, were not so different below the surface. Military repressors and torturers went back and forth between the two countries, receiving training of a highly suspicious nature. The word “intelligence” alone has sinister connotations here, since the Argentines used torture to extract information from captured “subversives” in order to kidnap, torture and kill others. Many active leftists had to flee Argentina under those circumstances. Many landed in neighboring South American lands, but others went as far as North America and Spain. Far from being safe in Europe, they were continually harassed and persecuted there, thanks to the fact that Spanish military attachés and embassy and consular functionaries were allowed to carry pistols and conduct those persecutions while the Suárez government — “democratic”, cough cough — looked politely the other way. It was not until the late 1990s, with the rise of the intrepid crusader judge Baltasar Garzón, that Spain began to show some genuine democratic leanings, or at least in the general direction of human rights.

What we still don’t know is why the government of Spain looked the other way when it had to be at least dimly aware that something was not kosher in Argentina. Were they still so accustomed to oppression that Argentina’s horrors — easily equal to those of Franco during and after the Civil War — simply didn’t look so bad to them? Or was — IS — there some sinister undercurrent at work in the Spanish military, something that might spring back to life even now, at any moment — should there arise any “subversion” on the part of Spain’s still-existing (and increasingly restless) anarchists, communists, Catalan and Basque separatists, and socialists?

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