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Reagan and Argentina's Dirty War

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Source: Consortium News
Ronald Reagan photographed in a cowboy hat at Rancho Del Cielo in 1976.

The death of ex-Argentine dictator Jorge Rafael Videla, a mastermind of the right-wing state terrorism that swept Latin America in the 1970s and 1980s, means that one more of Ronald Reagan's old allies is gone from the scene.

Videla, who fancied himself a theoretician of anti-leftist repression, died in prison at age 87 after being convicted of a central role in the Dirty War that killed some 30,000 people and involved kidnapping the babies of "disappeared" women so they could be raised by military officers who were often implicated in the murders of the mothers.

The leaders of the Argentine junta also saw themselves as pioneers in the techniques of torture and psychological operations, sharing their lessons with other regional dictatorships. Indeed, the chilling word "disappeared" was coined in recognition of their novel tactic of abducting dissidents off the streets, torturing them and then murdering them in secret -- sometimes accomplishing the task by chaining naked detainees together and pushing them from planes over the Atlantic Ocean.

With such clandestine methods, the dictatorship could leave the families in doubt while deflecting international criticism by suggesting that the "disappeared" might have traveled to faraway lands to live in luxury, thus combining abject terror with clever propaganda and disinformation.

To pull off the trick, however, required collaborators in the U.S. news media who would defend the junta and heap ridicule on anyone who alleged that the thousands upon thousands of "disappeared" were actually being systematically murdered. One such ally was Ronald Reagan, who used his platform as a newspaper and radio commentator in the late 1970s to minimize the human rights crimes underway in Argentina -- and to counter the Carter administration's human rights protests.

For instance, in a newspaper column on Aug. 17, 1978, some 2-1/2 years into Argentina's Dirty War, Reagan portrayed Videla's junta as the real victims here, the good guys who were getting a bad rap for their reasonable efforts to protect the public from terrorism. Reagan wrote:

"The new government set out to restore order at the same time it started to rebuild the nation's ruined economy. It is very close to succeeding at the former, and well on its way to the latter. Inevitably in the process of rounding up hundreds of suspected terrorists, the Argentine authorities have no doubt locked up a few innocent people, too. This problem they should correct without delay.

"The incarceration of a few innocents, however, is no reason to open the jails and let the terrorists run free so they can begin a new reign of terror. Yet, the Carter administration, so long on self-righteousness and frequently so short on common sense, appears determined to force the Argentine government to do just that."

Rather than challenge the Argentine junta over the thousands of "disappearances," Reagan expressed concern that the United States was making a grave mistake by alienating Argentina, "a country important to our future security."

He mocked U.S. Ambassador Raul Castro who "mingles in Buenos Aires plazas with relatives of the locked-up suspected terrorists, thus seeming to legitimize all their claims to martyrdom. It went unreported in this country, but not a single major Argentine official showed up at this year's Fourth of July celebration at the U.S. Embassy -- an unprecedented snub but hardly surprising under the circumstances."

The Cocaine Connection

Reagan's Argentine friends also took the lead in devising ways to fund the anti-communist crusade through the drug trade. In 1980, the Argentine intelligence services helped organize the so-called Cocaine Coup in Bolivia, deploying neo-Nazi thugs to violently oust the left-of-center government and replace it with generals closely tied to the early cocaine trafficking networks.

Bolivia's coup regime ensured a reliable flow of coca to Colombia's Medellin cartel, which quickly grew into a sophisticated conglomerate for smuggling cocaine into the United States. Some of those drug profits then went to finance right-wing paramilitary operations across the region, according to U.S. government investigations.

For instance, Bolivian cocaine kingpin Roberto Suarez invested more than $30 million in various right-wing paramilitary operations, according to U.S. Senate testimony in 1987 by an Argentine intelligence officer, Leonardo Sanchez-Reisse. He testified that the Suarez drug money was laundered through front companies in Miami before going to Central America, where Argentine intelligence helped organize a paramilitary force, called the Contras, to attack leftist-ruled Nicaragua.

After defeating President Carter in Election 1980 and becoming President in January 1981, Reagan entered into a covert alliance with the Argentine junta. He ordered the CIA to collaborate with Argentina's Dirty War experts in training the Contras, who were soon rampaging through towns in northern Nicaragua, raping women and dragging local officials into public squares for executions. Some Contras also went to work in the cocaine-smuggling business. [See Robert Parry's Lost History.]

Much as he served as a pitch man for the Argentine junta, Reagan also deflected allegations of human rights violations by the Contras and various right-wing regimes in Central America, including Guatemala where another military junta was engaging in genocide against Mayan villages.

The behind-the-scenes intelligence relationship between the Argentine generals and Reagan's CIA puffed up Argentina's self-confidence so much that the generals felt they could not only continue repressing their own citizens but could settle an old score with Great Britain over control of the Falkland Islands, what the Argentines call the Malvinas.

Even as Argentina moved to invade the islands in 1982, the Reagan administration was divided between America's traditional alliance with Great Britain and its more recent collaboration with the Argentines. Reagan's U.N. Ambassador Jeane Kirkpatrick joined the Argentine generals for an elegant state dinner in Washington.

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Robert Parry broke many of the Iran-Contra stories in the 1980s for the Associated Press and Newsweek. His latest book, Secrecy & Privilege: Rise of the Bush Dynasty from Watergate to Iraq, can be ordered at It's also available at

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