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Solving the Dirty War's mysteries

A quarter century after the end of dictatorship, Argentina struggles to heal wounds.

That ambivalence has been writ large throughout the last quarter century of Argentine history. Immediately after the end of the dictatorship, the new democratic government set up the world's first truth commission, which then opened the way for trials. Within five years, however, laws had been passed that limited prosecutions, and by 1990, then-President Carlos Menem had issued pardons for many of the former military leaders, saying that Argentina could not live “bound to the past.”

But starting in 2003, the Supreme Court and a new government began to overturn the pardons, opening a new stage in Argentina's self-interrogation. In a ruling last month on the life sentences of the two former military commanders, the national appeals court upheld the constitutional "impossibility of granting pardons for crimes against humanity." Patricia Valdez, director of the organization Open Memory, says that this reckoning is the only way for society to move forward.

President Cristina Fernandez de Kirchner, continuing the trajectory of her husband, previous president Nestor Kirchner, promised to finish all prosecutions of Dirty War criminals by the end of her term in 2011. In February, however, the president complained of judicial delays, saying that “justice has still not been served.”

And in some cases, justice may never be served. There has been a string of suicides of indicted former military officers — three this year. According to the Center for Legal and Social Studies (CELS), 176 suspects are deceased and another 40 are fugitives from justice. CELS suspects 1,129 people of “state terrorism,” and 419 already have charges pending against them.

The convictions are piling up. Last year there was a record-high 28 convictions, according to the newspaper Clarin. In July, a former commander of La Perla detention center — where Julia Delgado's parents were held and where only 17 of more than 2,200 prisoners survived — got a life sentence for the torture and murders he oversaw.

There have also been exercises in memory. Among other former jails for the disappeared, La Perla has become a national memorial and the infamous Navy Mechanics School is now a museum. The building itself is material evidence in what CELS calls an ongoing “mega-case,” a trial involving 148 defendants and thousands of victims.

But like everything else in Argentina, memory is political. The dictatorship's campaign of extermination was ideologically motivated, a right-wing reaction to left-wing extremism, and these fault lines are still visible here.

Open Memory's Valdez has seen how memory unfolds in different countries across Latin America — she spent years in Peru, and directed El Salvador's truth commission. “There are people that say that the past in Argentina doesn't pass, and is always present,” Valdez said. “I think they're right.”

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