Release of Argentina’s ‘Dirty War’ archives a win for transparency in Latin America

Pope Francis. (Credit: Republic of Korea/Flickr)

The Vatican and Argentina’s Catholic Church have decided to open their archives from the country’s ‘Dirty War.’ The move raises hope that other Latin American countries that also suffered under military dictatorships will do the same.

The two church bodies announced the decision in a joint statement on Tuesday, vowing to release some 3,000 letters between the Roman Catholic Church and family members of the dictatorship’s victims – a fraction of the documentation believed to be in the possession of the Argentine church.

“We are not afraid of the archives. They contain historical truth,” said Buenos Aires Archbishop Mario Poli at a news conference. He did not provide a date for the release.

Human rights activists, war victims and their relatives have long accused the church of covering up abuses by the junta when it was in power. The Guardian reported that about 13,000 people were killed or disappeared in a government-sponsored crackdown on leftist dissidents during Jorge Rafael Videla’s dictatorship from 1976-1981, though human rights activists believe the real number is closer to 30,000.

Tuesday’s statement said the decision to open the archives was made by Pope Francis, who was the Jesuit superior in Argentina during the country’s dictatorship. He promised to open the archives after continued pressure from relatives of Argentina’s “desaparecidos” (disappeared) – nearly 40 years after the recovery of the country’s democracy.

“The important thing is that we do it,” Poli said. “In the Vatican, the archives are usually saved about 70 years before being made public.”

The decision has raised hope that the Pope will do the same in other Latin American countries where members of the church have been criticized for their alliance with right-wing military dictatorships that targeted leftists.

In El Salvador, about 75,000 deaths and 8,000 disappearances were attributed to the country’s civil war during the 1980s and early ’90s, as well as a million refugees, most of whom found refuge in U.S. cities. This summer, the Salvadoran Supreme Court struck down an amnesty law from 1993 that had protected soldiers, paramilitary groups and guerrilla fighters over their wartime crimes. But the impoverished country’s political polarization and weak institutions still make it difficult to carry out credible and fair prosecutions.

Thousands are also waiting to see justice in Chile, whose socialist government was overthrown by a right-wing military coup in 1973, leading to the rise of the dictator Augusto Pinochet for the next seven years. The coup was later considered one of the most violent events in Chilean history, with various investigations estimating that tens of thousands of people were detained, tortured, killed or subjected to enforced disappearance. According to Human Rights Watch, 262 individuals have so far been sentenced for human rights violations dating back to Pinochet’s rule.

Numerous other dictators and military juntas controlled Latin America throughout the 20th century, from Fulgencio Batista, the dictator of Cuba from 1952 to 1959, to Anastasio Somoza, whose corrupt administration ruled Nicaragua from 1936 to 1956.

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Lisa Nikolau

Lisa Nikolau is a Madrid-based reporter for Humanosphere, covering gender equality, indigenous rights and poverty in Latin America and worldwide. Find her on Twitter at @lisanikolau, email lisa.nikolau@humanosphere.org or see her latest work at www.lisanikolau.com