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Reynaldo Bignone, last leader of Argentina’s murderous junta, dies at 90

Gen. Reynaldo Bignone, the last leader of Argentina’s bloody junta, at a religious ceremony in Buenos Aires in 1982. (Daniel Muzio/AP)

Reynaldo Bignone, a former Argentine general who was the last leader of his country’s 1976-83 dictatorship, and who was convicted of crimes against humanity — including the abduction of babies from alleged dissidents and the murder of dozens of purported subversives — died March 7 at a military hospital in Buenos Aires. He was 90.

Argentina’s state-run news agency Telam reported the death but did not disclose the cause. At his death, Gen. Bignone (pronounced bin-YO-nay) was serving multiple life sentences for human rights abuses stemming from his involvement in Argentina’s “dirty war.” He died just over a week after another retired Argentine general, Luciano Menéndez, who received 14 prison terms and 12 life sentences, more than any other military leader of the dictatorship.

Gen. Bignone played a central role in a regime that defined itself as a defender of Christian civilization during the Cold War, fighting a brutal war against communist radicals and leftist guerrillas in South America’s Southern Cone. He was among the last surviving leaders of a junta that was responsible for the killing, torture and “disappearances” of an estimated 30,000 people, according to human rights groups.

Years of economic turmoil and violence by left-wing groups gave initial legitimacy to the junta, which ended President Isabel Perón’s erratic rule over South America’s second-largest country. The military leaders, who maintained Perón’s murderous paramilitary security apparatus, 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. priority in foreign policy.

Despite lip service to reducing such abuses, the junta continued its reign of institutionalized terrorism. Concentration camps and clandestine torture centers became commonplace horrors, and women who gave birth in those circumstances were often killed. Reportedly hundreds of their children were then stolen and, under false papers, given to childless military families.

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Jorge Rafael Videla presided over much of the dictatorship and, after he relinquished power in March 1981, Argentina was led by short-lived military heads of state until Gen. Bignone, who had just retired from the army, was installed as de facto leader on July 1, 1982. With his balding pate, wire-rimmed glasses and stated belief in free-market economic policies, he was often described in media accounts as “mild-mannered” in relative contrast with more openly hawkish junta officials.

He oversaw the military government in its wobbly final year, after a humiliating defeat in the Falklands War against England that June. His inability to tame a long-mismanaged economy besieged by inflation and foreign debt, and his loosening of free-speech restrictions led to public demonstrations and strikes against authoritarian rule.

Gen. Bignone was credited with paving a way for a return to democracy, but not before orchestrating the shredding of documents that could implicate the junta in atrocities and declaring a blanket amnesty covering military officials. He stepped aside soon after Raúl Alfonsín, a centrist civilian politician, was elected in late 1983.

Over the next decade, under Alfonsín and his successor, Carlos Menem, civilian governments navigated a tricky economic and political path forward in an effort to maintain the support of the armed forces and a restive population.

In 1990, Menem issued a blanket amnesty that sheltered most military leaders and former terrorists during the dirty war from prosecution for human rights violations. Argentina’s supreme court struck down that decree in 2005, as the left-leaning President Néstor Kirchner sought a reckoning on human rights cases stemming from the junta.

Two years later, an Argentine federal judge ordered the prosecution of Gen. Bignone. The aging general was placed under house arrest and, in 2010, was convicted of human rights violations. He was sentenced to 25 years in prison for his complicity in the abduction and murder of 56 detainees at the Campo de Mayo military base in the outskirts of Buenos Aires, where he was second-in-command from 1976 to 1978.

In subsequent years, the general received more long prison sentences: for overseeing a secret torture center inside a hospital; for the kidnapping and torture of more than 30 factory workers, many of them trade union activists; and for his role in the seizure of 34 babies from those the regime imprisoned (and often executed) as alleged subversives.

In 2016, he was sentenced to 20 years in prison for taking part in “Operation Condor,” an effort among right-wing Latin American regimes to eliminate political opponents even when they fled across borders.

Reynaldo Benito Antonio Bignone was born in Morón, a city in the Argentine province of Buenos Aires, on Jan. 21, 1928. He graduated from Argentine military and war colleges and rose through the ranks, becoming secretary general of the army under Videla.

His selection as president was controversial, with the navy and air force making their objections known publicly in the wake of the Falklands defeat.

“Bignone comes in to fix the broken plates after the Falklands,” said Carlos Osorio, director of the Southern Cone Documentation Project for the National Security Archive, an independent research center at George Washington University. “By this time, repression has diminished substantially, but trust in the society is shattered, and he had to transition to a civilian government.”

Gen. Bignone’s wife, the former Nilda Belén, and with whom he had three children, died in 2013. A complete list of survivors was not immediately available.

To the end of his life, Gen. Bignone defended his actions as necessary in a “battle against terrorism.” In his defense before his first sentence was read in 2010, Gen. Bignone said that the number of killings by the junta was far below what human rights groups claimed — 8,000 at most, he said — and that extreme times called for extreme measures.

“In times of peace the disappearance of a single person means one thing,” he said, “and in times of war it means something else.”

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