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Argentines Doubtful US Documents on 'Dirty War' Will Lead to Justice - 2002-09-06

In Argentina, there is a great deal of ambivalence about documents released recently by the U.S. state department. Last month, the U.S. declassified 4,677 pages of testimony and communications shedding light on military atrocities committed during Argentina's Dirty War. Officially, 9,000 people disappeared between 1976 and 1983, though human rights groups put the number as high as 30,000. And few in Argentina believe these documents will help bring the alleged war criminals to justice.

Every Thursday in the heart of Buenos Aires, a group of aging and angry ladies marches into battle.

Flanked by loudspeakers and armed with pictures of their children who were kidnapped, tortured and killed, the women, known as the mothers and grandmothers of Plaza de Mayo, come ready to fight.

On this Thursday, they're taking on the United States.

"Your papers are stained with our blood," the speaker says. "We don't want them, and we don't need them!"

Two days earlier, the U.S. State Department declassified nearly 5,000 pages of evidence documenting violent crimes committed during Argentina's military dictatorship.

The release was supposed to shine light on the darkest period of Argentina's history.

But the mothers and grandmothers, whose children disappeared during the campaign aimed at wiping out left-wing insurgents, say the 5,000 pages of details are too little and 25 years too late.

"They don't serve us at all," says 77-year-old Mercedes Merońo. Her daughter Alicia is one of the disappeared.

"The Americans had these papers all this time," she says, "and now they're telling us things we already know."

The release of the pile of papers raised expectations the documents will help prosecutors who have been struggling to bring military leaders to justice to establish their case. At the very least, they raised hope the information would help families in the search for their loved ones.

"Perhaps the document might help shed some light on specific cases," says Argentine political analyst Felipe Noguera. He says in the end, the documents may not do much more than confirm the history most Argentines already believed to be true.

The military dictatorship that ruled Argentina from 1976 to 1983 waged what is now called a "dirty war" against political enemies.

The U.S. documents reveal then-Secretary of State Henry Kissinger and other top Ford administration officials, at first supported what Argentine dictators branded "a war against Communism." But the papers also reveal Washington knew people were being kidnapped, taken to far-away places, drugged, tied up, tortured with electrical prods, and, many of them, murdered.

They also reveal the Carter administration tried to crack down on human rights abuses and that the Reagan administration let up in the name of maintaining good relations with Argentina's government.

"They show the United States knew what was going on, and therefore, it puts the U.S. in not such a positive light," he says.

Mr. Noguera says it's not clear if the papers will help Argentine prosecutors who are trying to hold the military leaders who are still alive accountable.

But the declassification is seen by many as a small victory in what has been mostly a losing battle.

In the mid-to-late 1980s, democratically elected President Raul Alfonsín passed amnesty laws complicating the prosecution of more than 1,000 military leaders who were suspected of abusing human rights. In 1989, President Carlos Menem pardoned every war criminal who had been convicted and many who were facing trial.

Since then, a number of judges have declared the amnesty laws null and void, and a number of cases have been reopened.

But Mercedes Merońo shakes her head and her fist. They always lie to us, she says.

Even though the dictatorship's first president, Jorge Videla, has been placed on house arrest and accused death-squad leader, former President Leopoldo Galtieri, was recently taken into custody. Ms. Merońo and the other madres who march at the Plaza de Mayo wonder if they'll ever get justice.

"So many of the assassins have already died," she says. The madres and other human rights groups demand to see more documents. "The CIA and U.S. Defense Department," she says, "still haven't declassified their files or their intelligence, which could bring more evidence, and maybe, more arrests."

In the meantime, the madres march and suspected war criminals walk free. And though some facts about the violent crimes and abuses have slowly come to light, so much of what happened during Argentina's dirty war remains buried in this country's dark past.