Finally, however, Reagan sided with British Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher whose counterattack drove the Argentines from the islands and led to the eventual collapse of the dictatorship in Buenos Aires. However, Argentina only slowly began to address the shocking crimes of the Dirty War.
The trial of Videla and co-defendant Reynaldo Bignone for the baby snatching did not end until 2012 when an Argentine court convicted the pair in the scheme to murder leftist mothers and farm their infants out to military personnel, a shocking process that was known to the Reagan administration even as it worked closely with the bloody regime in the 1980s.
Testimony at the trial included a videoconference from Washington with Elliott Abrams, Reagan's Assistant Secretary of State for Latin American Affairs who said he urged Bignone to reveal the babies' identities as Argentina began a transition to democracy in 1983. Abrams said the Reagan administration "knew that it wasn't just one or two children," indicating that U.S. officials believed there was a high-level "plan because there were many people who were being murdered or jailed."
A human rights group, Grandmothers of the Plaza de Mayo, says as many as 500 babies were stolen by the military during the repression from 1976 to 1983.
General Videla was accused of permitting -- and concealing -- the scheme to harvest infants from pregnant women who were kept alive in military prisons only long enough to give birth. According to the charges, the babies were taken from the new mothers, sometimes after late-night Caesarean sections, and then distributed to military families or sent to orphanages.
After the babies were pulled away, the mothers were removed to another site for their executions. Some were put aboard death flights and pushed out of military planes over open water.
One of the most notorious cases involved Silvia Quintela, a leftist doctor who attended to the sick in shanty towns around Buenos Aires. On Jan. 17, 1977, Quintela was abducted off a Buenos Aires street by military authorities because of her political leanings. At the time, Quintela and her agronomist husband Abel Madariaga were expecting their first child.
According to witnesses who later testified before a government truth commission, Quintela was held at a military base called Campo de Mayo, where she gave birth to a baby boy. As in similar cases, the infant then was separated from the mother.
What happened to the boy is still not clear, but Quintela reportedly was transferred to a nearby airfield. There, victims were stripped naked, shackled in groups and dragged aboard military planes. The planes then flew out over the Rio de la Plata or the Atlantic Ocean, where soldiers pushed the victims out of the planes and into the water to drown.
According to a report by the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights, the Argentine military viewed the kidnappings as part of the larger counterinsurgency strategy.
"The anguish generated in the rest of the surviving family because of the absence of the disappeared would develop, after a few years, into a new generation of subversive or potentially subversive elements, thereby not permitting an effective end to the Dirty War," the commission said in describing the army's reasoning for kidnapping the infants of murdered women. The kidnapping strategy conformed with the "science" of the Argentine counterinsurgency operations.
According to government investigations, the military's intelligence officers also advanced Nazi-like methods of torture by testing the limits of how much pain a human being could endure before dying. The torture methods included experiments with electric shocks, drowning, asphyxiation and sexual perversions, such as forcing mice into a woman's vagina. Some of the implicated military officers had trained at the U.S.-run School of the Americas.
The Argentine tactics were emulated throughout Latin America. According to a Guatemalan truth commission, the right-wing military there also adopted the practice of taking suspected subversives on death flights, although over the Pacific Ocean.
Gen. Videla, in particular, took pride in his counterinsurgency theories, including clever use of words to confuse and deflect. Known for his dapper style and his English-tailored suits, Videla rose to power amid Argentina's political and economic unrest in the early-to-mid 1970s.