Argentina Revisits 'Dirty War': Will General Be Tried?
By LARRY ROHTER
TUCUMÁN, Argentina — This summer, Antonio Domingo Bussi parlayed
his fame as the hardest of Argentina's hard-line generals into a narrow
victory in the
mayoral election here.
But there are now doubts about whether he will make it to his inauguration: under house arrest, he is facing either a trial here in Argentina or, failing that, extradition to Spain, where he is also wanted for crimes against humanity.
With a congressional vote in August overturning a pair of amnesty laws
approved in the 1980's, Argentina has finally decided to confront its violent
past. As military
commander and governor here, General Bussi personified the excesses of the "dirty war" of the 1970's, but his case demonstrates the practical difficulties of bringing
human rights abusers to justice.
His partisans in this pleasant provincial capital of 500,000 at the
foot of the Andes contend that the will of the people must be respected
and that he should be
permitted to take office on Oct. 29. Others say that he should never have been allowed to run for office and that not pursuing the case against him would violate
another democratic principle, the rule of law.
"If ever there were anyone morally unfit to hold public office it is Antonio Bussi," said Virginia Duffy, coordinator of the Permanent Assembly for Human Rights here.
Even in a military renowned for brutality, General Bussi had a reputation
for gratuitous and unusual cruelty. The Spanish request for extradition
contends that he
insisted on supervising many executions himself, personally shooting prisoners in the back of the neck so as to encourage his subalterns not to falter.
Former policemen testified that he began one killing session by executing
a 16-year-old honor student, Ana María Corral, who had been abducted
from her school.
"Prisoners were bound with cable and made to kneel at the edge of a previously excavated pit that they were forced to look into before being blindfolded and shot,"
the indictment reads.
Human rights groups have documented 680 disappearances during General Bussi's tenure in Tucumán.
"The actual number is probably more than 2,000," said Laura Figueroa,
a human rights lawyer here, adding that with the killers still free, "family
members were too
frightened to report relatives who went missing and the police refused to acknowledge petitions for habeas corpus."
General Bussi, under house arrest at a daughter's house in Buenos Aires, is refusing interviews, his advisers said, to avoid saying anything that could further complicate his situation. But in an interview here, Ricardo Bussi, a member of Congress who is the general's son, dismissed the accusations as concocted by the left to damage his father politically.
"Antonio Domingo Bussi never killed or tortured anyone and is an exemplary
instance of the Argentine soldier," he said. The official government reports
indictments detailing his father's human rights abuses "contain a huge amount of lies, errors and exaggerations."
Mr. Bussi acknowledged that hundreds of people were killed during the
time his father dominated Tucumán. But he attributed that to "the
inevitable excesses that
occur during a war" and said that President Néstor Kirchner was stirring up old grievances to divert attention from Argentina's current problems.
"Argentina is never going to be able to move ahead so long as it insists on dredging up the past and getting bogged down like this," he said.
General Bussi won in June by only 17 votes, out of more than 200,000. The balloting was laden with symbolism if only because his main opponent, Gerónimo Vargas Aignasse of the Peronist party, is the son of a Peronist senator who disappeared the day after the March 1976 military coup and was never seen again.
"Bussi is not a political adversary, like anyone else," Mr. Vargas said in an interview. "He is an enemy, who has taken advantage of the shortcomings of democracy to lie to society, restore his sullied image and install himself as the political boss of this province."
Mr. Vargas, a 33-year-old lawyer, was only 5 when his father was abducted,
and has no memories of the period. Even though "Bussi symbolizes death
represent life," he said, "I have avoided putting the theme of the past into debate because we have already suffered a lot here and I don't want to obtain political
advantage out of that."
After democracy returned in 1983, General Bussi was in fact accused
of kidnapping, torture and murder. But the amnesty laws, passed three years
later, saved him
from a trial, and in 1991 he set up his own highly successful provincial political party, the Republican Force.
But his troubles with the law have continued. During four years as provincial
governor, corruption charges that are still pending were filed against
him and the military
disciplined him because he falsely denied having a bank account in Switzerland. When he was elected to Congress in 1998, his fellow legislators would not allow him
to be seated, on the ground that he lacked "moral fitness."
Political analysts find it hard to explain General Bussi's continued
popularity in Tucumán. Mismanagement by the two traditional political
parties accounts for some of
it, they say, as does his emphasis on law and order.
Volunteers on downtown street corners here are circulating a petition
calling for his release. More than 60,000 people have already signed —
many more than the
number who are openly supporting a petition that calls for him to be put on trial.
"Tucumán was a garden, absolutely clean and safe, when Bussi
was in charge," said Armando Villagra, a retiree whose nephew was abducted
and killed during the
dictatorship. "Besides, what was Bussi supposed to do, let this place become another Cuba? There is no point in hashing this over again now."