Gen. Videla, whose family was entrenched in the elite ranks of the country’s military and political life for generations, was the last surviving member of the three-man junta that seized power in Argentina in 1976.
He had spent his final decades consumed by legal battles stemming from the dictatorship and, in recent years, was convicted of human rights abuses such as the systematic abduction of infants from suspected left-wing radicals.
Skeletal in appearance and outwardly colorless except for a prominent moustache, Gen. Videla was a central, wily and ruthless player in the military dictatorship’s reign of institutionalized terrorism. He served as president from 1976 to 1981, the worst years of bloodletting before the military stepped down in 1983.
“They wanted to believe they were fighting this third-world war against communism while the rest of the world was sleeping,” said Robert Cox, the editor of the Buenos Aires Herald who endured constant threats for his coverage of the forced disappearances.
Economic turmoil and extreme violence by left-wing groups in the 1970s gave initial legitimacy to the junta, which overthrew President Isabel Perón. The military government promised to stamp out subversives — who orchestrated hundreds of kidnappings and killings of business leaders and government officials — and return the country to normalcy.
The United States was among the first countries to recognize the new regime, but subsequently became critical of it when President Jimmy Carter declared preservation of human rights a U.S. policy priority.
Even before taking power, Gen. Videla had not been averse to airing his unorthodox perspective on killing to achieve stability.
“As many people as necessary must die in Argentina so that the country will again be secure,” he told an audience of military leaders from throughout the Americas in 1975.
In the “dirty war” that followed a military coup led by Gen. Videla in 1976, between 13,000 and 30,000 suspected subversives were “disappeared,” tortured and then killed based on the flimsiest of evidence. Suspected leftist guerrillas and their alleged sympathizers were drugged and thrown out of airplanes into the Atlantic Ocean or River Plate. Many were buried in mass graves.
Concentration camps and clandestine torture centers became commonplace horrors, and women who gave birth under those circumstances often were killed. Reputedly hundreds of their children were then stolen and, under false papers, given to childless military families.
Gen. Videla expanded the definition of subversives to include members of the political opposition, Jews, authors, intellectuals and journalists such as Jacobo Timerman, who survived torture to write the harrowing account “Prisoner Without a Name, Cell Without a Number.” A terrorist, Gen. Videla said, was “not only someone who plants bombs but a person whose ideas are contrary to western, Christian civilization.”