Argentina 'Dirty War' dictator Videla dies

General Jorge Videla, Argentina's dictator at the height of its "Dirty War" against leftist activists, died Friday in prison while serving time for crimes against humanity. He was 87.

Videla launched a ferocious crackdown on leftists and suspected supporters when he took power in 1976.

As many as 30,000 people were kidnapped and "disappeared" by the military and suspected regime opponents were swept into secret prisons, tortured and murdered.

In his last public appearance Tuesday, an unrepentant Videla, who left office in 1981, told a court that his subordinates acted under his orders and assumed "full military responsibility for the actions of the army in the war against terrorism."

"It is important that he died of natural causes in a regular prison," said Human Rights Secretary Martin Fresneda.

"There was justice, not revenge, and he leaves as the person that was responsible for the main horrors that the Argentine people endured."

In 2010, Videla was sentenced to life behind bars for the disappearance of 31 prisoners, and to another 50 years' jail in 2012 for the theft of children born to female prisoners.

Earlier, in 1985, he was convicted of abuses committed under his regime, but pardoned five years later by then president Carlos Menem. The pardon, however, was declared unconstitutional in 2006 as Argentina reopened one of the darkest chapters in its history with trials of former military officials.

A wiry officer with a brush mustache, an intense gaze and a passionate hatred of communism, Videla showed little remorse for the systematic abuses.

"Let's say there were seven thousand or eight thousand people who had to die to win the war against subversion," Videla said recently in a prison interview, according to journalist Ceferino Reato.

"We couldn't execute them by firing squad. Neither could we take them to court," he was quoted as saying.

Military leaders agreed that secretly disposing of their prisoners "was a price to pay to win the war," Videla said, according to Reato in his book "Final Disposition."

"For that reason, so as not to provoke protests inside and outside the country, the decision was reached that these people should be disappeared."

Videla later said he had been misinterpreted, but the journalist insists the general reviewed his handwritten notes and approved them before publication.

The former dictator died at 0825 (1125 GMT) in the Marcos Paz prison southwest of Buenos Aires, where he spent his final days in a spartan cell with a wooden cross on the wall.

Videla "dies condemned by justice and repudiated by society," said Nora Cortinas, of the Mothers of the Plaza de Mayo rights group.

Adolfo Perez Esquivel, the 1980 Nobel Peace Prize winner who drew international attention to the junta's abuses, said Videla "never repented of the crimes and he is taking a lot of information with him."

Videla was head of the army in 1976 when the military overthrew Isabel Peron, the third wife of the late populist strongman Juan Peron.

Argentina's economy at the time was in tailspin, the government was rife with corruption and paralyzed by partisan gridlock, and leftists guerrillas and right-wing death squads were running rampant.

The junta suspended the constitution, outlawed political parties and imposed censorship on TV and radio in what it called a "process of national reorganization."

It also sent police and soldiers against leftist guerrillas, a crackdown that quickly broadened to include relatives, labor organizers, politicians, clergy, students, journalists, artists and intellectuals.

The regime's trademark became the unmarked Ford Falcon sedans that agents used to drive their captives to some 500 detention centers.

Victims included French nuns Alice Domon and Leonie Duquet, Catholic bishop Enrique Angelelli, Swedish student Dagmar Hagelin, the union leadership at Ford and Mercedes Benz, and even members of Argentina's diplomatic corps.

Argentina's dictators joined like-minded juntas in Chile, Brazil, Bolivia, Uruguay and Paraguay under "Operation Condor," sharing intelligence and helping capture each other's political enemies.

Videla was known for delivering strident speeches, but always seemed uncomfortable in public, wringing his hands as a nervous tick played across his cheeks.

Although aligned with the United States, Videla clashed with US president Jimmy Carter over the regime's human rights abuses and for refusing to join a US-backed grain embargo against the Soviet Union.

In 1981, Videla handed over power to General Roberto Viola to begin the slow transition to democracy.

The junta lasted until 1983, one year after a failed invasion of the Falkland Islands in a humiliating defeat by British forces.