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“Las Madres y las Abuelas” Have Not Forgotten: The Dictatorship Period of Argentina

Updated: Nov 27, 2023


Photo by Matias Jacobi on Unsplash


For the past four decades, Las madres y las abuelas (“the mothers and grandmothers'') have marched every Thursday afternoon in the central plaza of Buenos Aires, Argentina. [1] In the early days, they tied around their necks the cloth diapers of their children, who were forcibly taken by the Argentine military dictatorship in the 1980s. [2] Between then and now, Las madres y las abuelas have organized over 2300 marches. Their neck and head scarves are now white pieces of cloth embroidered with the names and dates of their disappeared kin.[3] This article presents the story of how Las madres y las abuelas de Plaza de Mayo became a human rights group fighting for justice and the truth around the atrocities committed during the Argentine military junta’s regime. Their relentless work serves as a reminder to all of us to remember, because they certainly Have Not Forgotten.


Argentina's dictatorship (1976-1983) is known as "La Guerra Sucia'' - "the Dirty War". The term was initially coined by the military junta to justify their actions as necessary to combat "subversion" and "terrorism". It soon became widely used amongst citizens to describe the junta's ruthless methods. [4] The military junta came to power through the United States-backed coalition known as Plan Condor, which brought together the dictatorships of Bolivia, Brazil, Chile, Paraguay, and Uruguay. [5] The aim of the U.S. lead operation was to prevent the spread of communism. The U.S. thus provided military and economic aid to the Argentine military junta, who overthrew the democratically elected president, Isabel Peron, in 1976. [6] Terror unfolded. Repression became increasingly commonplace, as the military forces, known as the Argentine Anti-communist Movement, targeted political opponents, activists, students, intellectuals, labor leaders, and anyone that was perceived as a “threat”. [7] Citizens would be detained, tortured, and executed without proper process. Fundamental principles of democracy like freedom of expression, association, and assembly were brutally suppressed and violently condemned.


Forced disappearances were among the biggest human rights violations that occurred. Countless citizens were abducted and never seen again, earning them the moniker los desaparecidos, “the disappeared ones”. [8] Families were torn apart, tortured by unanswered questions regarding the fate of their loved ones. Approximately thirty thousand people disappeared in La Guerra Sucia, earning them the moniker los desaparecidos, “the disappeared ones”. [9] As the mothers frantically searched for their loved ones in police stations, courthouses, churches, and more, they began connecting with one another, realizing they were not alone in their anguish. [10] By 1976, a group of fourteen mothers took to the streets, seeking answers about the fate of their children, and seeking justice in the face of their anger. [11]


On April 30 in 1977, the mothers marched in the public square located in front of the presidential palace for the first time. [13] The Argentine military began derogatorily calling them as Las Locas de la Plaza de Mayo (“The Crazy Women of the Plaza de Mayo”). [15] But this did not stop them from marching; and it did not stop their numbers from growing. The mothers’ white headscarves became a symbol of justice and resistance; and the photographs of the missing children that they held became a powerful reminder of those whom the government had sought to erase from Argentina's memory. [14]

The mothers faced expulsion from the public square, incarceration, and even the risk of losing their lives. After publishing an advertisement that included the name of their disappeared children on December 10th, 1997, one of the founders, Azucena Villaflor, and other members of the activist group were kidnaped.[16] It took twenty-eight years for Azucena Villaflor's family members to finally receive confirmation of what happened to her. [17] She was taken to a concentration camp alongside other kidnapped women, including a group of French nuns. [18] They were later placed on a “death flight”, thrown alive into the sea, and then dumped in a mass grave.[19]


Refusing to be silenced by the military regime’s threats and intimidation tactics, the mothers continued their weekly marches, and their numbers continued to grow. A sub-group emerged known as las abuelas (“the grandmothers”), whose daughters and grandchildren had been abducted by the Argentine military. Approximately five hundred pregnant women were kidnapped by the Argentine military solely based on suspicions of holding leftist beliefs. [20] These women were forced to deliver their babies in prison hospitals. They were subjected to fatal acts of violence, and their bodies were discarded in the South Atlantic, dumped from aircrafts. Their infants were given to families who endorsed the military regime. [21] United in their grief, Las madres and Las abuelas became Las madres y las abuelas de la Plaza de Mayo. By mid-2014, Las abuelas y las madres had been able to locate 114 of their missing children. [22] They have been able to do so thanks to their pioneering work in developing forensic techniques such as the grandparenthood index and later creating a genetic database.[23] Their persistence stands as a powerful testament to the enduring pain shared by many Argentine citizens. But their heroic efforts have been marred by inaction and even amnesia on the part of Argentine governments.


The end of the dictatorship marked the transition towards democracy. In the name of reconciliation, those who committed human rights abuses were granted amnesty. Although this approach facilitated a peaceful transition and limited further violence, it also impeded the pursuit of justice and any sort of reparations for victims. Despite many efforts to address the human rights violations, such as the creation of truth commissions established such as Argentina’s National Comission on the Dissapearance of People (CONADEP), to uncover the truth, hold perpetrators accountable and provide reparations, impunity remains the primacy legacy of Argentina’s dictatorship. This impunity has persisted and remains entrenched because of many factors such as amnesty laws, and delays in prosecutions. The testimonies of those who fiercely fought for justice, as well as the victims who suffered so greatly, demand that we continue the pursuit of justice, truth, and accountability. It is not only necessary, but our duty to remember what Las madres y las abuelas refuse to forget, and to this day fight for.


Endnotes:

[1] Rabe, S.G. (2016) The killing zone: The United States wages cold war in Latin America. New York etc: Oxford University Press

[2] La Historia de las Madres (no date) Asociacin Madres de Plaza de Mayo. Available at: https://madres.org/la-historia-de-las-madres/ (Accessed: 04 August 2023).

[3] Ibid.

[4] ‘Newly Declassified Documents Outline America’s Bloody History in Argentina ’ (2019) Pacific Standard [Preprint]. Available at: https://psmag.com/social-justice/the-history-of-american-intervention-in-argentina (Accessed: 2023).

[5]Ibid.

[6]Ibid.

[7] Porta, C.D. et al. (2020) Argentina’s dictatorship was not a ‘Dirty war.’ it was state terrorism., Jacobin. Available at: https://jacobin.com/2020/06/argentina-dictatorship-dirty-war-military/ (Accessed: 04 August 2023).

[8]Rabe, S.G. (2016) The killing zone: The United States wages cold war in Latin America. New York etc: Oxford University Pres, xxxiii

[9]Ibid.

[10] Cecchini, D. (2021) La incansable lucha y la terrible muerte de Azucena Villaflor, Fundadora de Madres de Plaza de Mayo, infobae. Available at: https://www.infobae.com/sociedad/2021/12/20/la-incansable-lucha-y-la-terrible-muerte-de-azucena-villaflor-fundadora-de-madres-de-plaza-de-mayo/ (Accessed: 04 August 2023).

[11]Ibid.

[12]Ibid.

[13]Ibid.

[14]Ibid.

[15]Medina, W. (2022) Las ‘Locas De Plaza de Mayo’ Siguen Marchando, Nuevatribuna. Available at: https://www.nuevatribuna.es/articulo/global/locas-plaza-mayo-siguen-marchando/20220325114356196756.html (Accessed: 04 August 2023).

[16]Cecchini, D. (2021) La incansable lucha y la terrible muerte de Azucena Villaflor, Fundadora de Madres de Plaza de Mayo, infobae. Available at: https://www.infobae.com/sociedad/2021/12/20/la-incansable-lucha-y-la-terrible-muerte-de-azucena-villaflor-fundadora-de-madres-de-plaza-de-mayo/ (Accessed: 04 August 2023).

[17]Ibid

[18]bid

[19]Ibid

[20]Rabe, S.G. (2016) The killing zone: The United States wages cold war in Latin America. New York etc: Oxford University Press

[21]Ibid

[22]Ibid

[23] Las Abuelas de Plaza de Mayo y su revolución en la ciencia (no date) Ministerio de Cultura de la Nación. Available at: https://www.cultura.gob.ar/mariana-herrera-las-abuelas-generaron-una-revolucion-en-el-mundo-de-la-8459/#:~:text=Las%20Abuelas%20empezaron%20a%20pensar,hablaba%20de%20ADN%20hasta%20entonces. (Accessed: 10 September 2023).

Citations:

Rabe, S.G. (2016) The killing zone: The United States wages cold war in Latin America. New York etc: Oxford University Press

La Historia de las Madres (no date) Asociacin Madres de Plaza de Mayo. Available at: https://madres.org/la-historia-de-las-madres/ (Accessed: 04 August 2023).

‘Newly Declassified Documents Outline America’s Bloody History in Argentina ’ (2019) Pacific Standard [Preprint]. Available at: https://psmag.com/social-justice/the-history-of-american-intervention-in-argentina (Accessed: 2023).

Porta, C.D. et al. (2020) Argentina’s dictatorship was not a ‘Dirty war.’ it was state terrorism., Jacobin. Available at: https://jacobin.com/2020/06/argentina-dictatorship-dirty-war-military/ (Accessed: 04 August 2023).

Cecchini, D. (2021) La incansable lucha y la terrible muerte de Azucena Villaflor, Fundadora de Madres de Plaza de Mayo, infobae. Available at: https://www.infobae.com/sociedad/2021/12/20/la-incansable-lucha-y-la-terrible-muerte-de-azucena-villaflor-fundadora-de-madres-de-plaza-de-mayo/ (Accessed: 04 August 2023).

Medina, W. (2022) Las ‘Locas De Plaza de Mayo’ Siguen Marchando, Nuevatribuna. Available at: https://www.nuevatribuna.es/articulo/global/locas-plaza-mayo-siguen-marchando/20220325114356196756.html (Accessed: 04 August 2023).

Las Abuelas de Plaza de Mayo y su revolución en la ciencia (no date) Ministerio de Cultura de la Nación. Available at: https://www.cultura.gob.ar/mariana-herrera-las-abuelas-generaron-una-revolucion-en-el-mundo-de-la-8459/#:~:text=Las%20Abuelas%20empezaron%20a%20pensar,hablaba%20de%20ADN%20hasta%20entonces. (Accessed: 10 September 2023).


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