The Perónist movement, led by President Juan Perón, emerged out of a military dictatorship beginning in 1946 and helped polarize Argentine politics and society. After a military coup forced Perón from power in 1955, his supporters fought successfully to limit the ability of any party, group, or force to rule effectively in Argentina. Anti-Perónist factions within the military became increasingly frustrated with decades of struggle against the Perónist forces, which dominated labor unions.
As the military became more involved in Argentine politics, the political scene became increasingly violent and unstable. Student groups, Catholic reform groups connected to working-class and rural communities, and factions within the Perónist movement became radicalized. Influenced by successful guerrilla strategies in other settings—most notably the 1959 Cuban Revolution as assessed by Ernesto "Che" Guevara—opponents of the Argentine military armed themselves and trained for battle in the 1960s.
With the political process wholly discredited, groups on the Right and Left clashed violently beginning in 1969. On the Left a number of groups, led by the Montoneros and the Ejercito Revolucionario del Pueblo (ERP, Revolutionary Army of the People), kidnapped business leaders and government officials, robbed banks and businesses, attacked government sites, and challenged the authority of the military and its civilian allies. On the Right, groups such as the Argentine Anti-Communist Alliance, with ties to the military, police force, and conservative factions within the Perónist movement, also emerged.
The political chaos and violence had reached a crucial point by 1972. Pressure from all sides forced government authorities to allow Perón's return from exile, as activists across the political spectrum had fought to bring the ex-president back to power. The polarization of the political process had frustrated anti-Perónist elements in the military. Having failed at their attempts to rule without the Perónists, they accepted his return and inevitable election in 1973.
Perón's return brought no solution. Political and economic mayhem continued as rival factions fought for positions within the Perónist movement after 1973. Perón's 1974 death only added to the volatile environment. Behind the scenes, the military once again moved to take control of the country.
The Dirty War began in earnest with military-sponsored campaigns against guerrilla operations in northwestern Argentina in 1974. Combining political and security operations, military commanders seized authority across provinces and systematically detained, interrogated, and killed thousands of "subversives" whom its officers had identified as "enemies of order."
By 1975, using clandestine operations against real and suspected terrorist cells, the military had neutralized guerrilla forces throughout the country. At this juncture a second phase of the Dirty War began. Commanders of the armed forces deposed María Estela Martínez de Perón's government in 1976. The army, navy, air force, and police throughout the country then deployed antisubversive units that targeted enemies of the state for detention. The ensuing kidnappings, tortures, and murders launched a wave of state-sponsored terrorism that aimed at "disciplining" the population.
It is estimated that as many as 40,000 Argentineans may have been murdered in the Dirty War during 1974–1983. Working with military officials in Brazil, Chile, Uruguay, and Paraguay, the Argentine military dictatorship shared intelligence and coordinated actions against targeted enemies who had fled across borders to avoid capture. The military junta speciously justified its abhorrent actions as a broad and just campaign against international communism and in support of Christian civilization.
Understandably, the Dirty War generated significant domestic and international opposition. Although many of the dictatorship's officers had received training at the U.S.-backed School of the Americas, U.S. President Jimmy Carter cited human rights violations as justification for limiting aid to Argentina. The Mothers of the Plaza de Mayo, an organization of mothers of victims of the regime's policies that held silent marches near the presidential palace, led a growing domestic opposition that pressured the dictatorship.
Ultimately, economic mismanagement and military blunders forced the dictatorship from power and ended its campaign of political violence in 1982. Already by 1980, its misguided fiscal policies created inflation and capital flight that had destroyed Argentina's economy. In the hopes of distracting popular attention, the armed forces launched an expedition that captured the Falkland and South Georgian Islands in 1982. Believing that Great Britain lacked both the will and the interest to contest this move, Argentine military commanders hoped to build national support for their evolving political ambitions.
Before the dictators could capitalize on their "liberation" of these islands, however, the British government mounted a methodical campaign to take back the Falklands. The decision by U.S. President Ronald Reagan to assist the British with logistical support for their transatlantic campaign surprised the Argentine dictatorship and demoralized the operation's commanders. The success of the British invasion both discredited the regime and forced the military to accept a return to civilian rule.
Efforts to bring those involved in the Dirty War to justice continue. In turn, the term "Dirty War" has developed a broader connotation as revelations of government actions against political opponents in other Latin American countries during the 1960s–1980s have come to light.
Rock, David. Authoritarian Argentina. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1993.