As the first Argentine to die in the invasion of the Falkland Islands 30 years ago, Lt. Pedro Giachino was awarded the country’s highest medal for valor in combat and had streets named in his honor.

Argentina may have suffered a stinging defeat in trying to take the frigid archipelago from Britain but could comfort itself in heroes such as Giachino.

But in a country grappling with the past — particularly the iron-fisted rule of the military junta that had taken Argentina to war on April 2, 1982 — not everything has been what it seems when it comes to the men who fought in the Falklands.

And so it was with Giachino, who before bleeding to death in a firefight with Royal Marines had been a henchman and interrogator in Argentina’s military dictatorship.

“We didn’t know the full story then, that the officers who were there had also been the ones who led the local task forces,” said Anahi Marroche, 58, referring to the secretive intelligence teams that killed thousands of Argentines, including her brother. “We began to discover the two sides of the story much later.”

Argentine President Cristina Fernandez throws flowers into the Bahia de Ushuaia waters to pay homage to the fallen soldiers during the Falklands War in Ushuaia April 2, 2012. (STRINGER/ARGENTINA/REUTERS)

As Argentina has in recent years put on trial figures from the dictatorship, which ended in 1983, stories have begun to emerge about how some of those accused of human rights abuses had been heroes in the Falklands, which Argentines call Las Malvinas.

They had served a junta that seized power in a 1976 coup and then ruthlessly rounded up suspected leftist guerrillas and their sympathizers. Human rights groups say as many as 30,000 people were killed, having been shot and buried in unmarked graves or sedated and tossed from planes over the Atlantic.

With Argentina’s economy unraveling and its leaders condemned internationally for rights abuses, the junta launched an invasion of the Falklands to unify the country and solidify popular support. When Britain won 74 days later, reclaiming the islands and leaving Argentina’s military government weaker then ever, Argentines began to question what had gone wrong.

New details quickly surfaced about some of those who had fought, such as Alfredo Astiz, a navy commando whose face was splashed on newspapers worldwide after his surrender to British forces. Victims who recognized him soon came forward to describe how Astiz had infiltrated a human rights group in the 1970s, leading to the abduction of three of its founders and two French nuns.

More recently, Vice Adm. Carlos Busser, who oversaw the landings of Argentine troops on the Falklands, has faced charges of torture and disappearances. Horacio Losito, a highly decorated officer who was badly injured in combat, went to prison in 2008 for his role in a 1976 massacre.

Confronting history

Today in democratic Argentina, people overwhelmingly condemn the military dictatorship. But the disclosures about many officers who went to war have been awkward, especially now as President Cristina Fernandez renews a diplomatic effort to press Britain into negotiating the future of the islands.

While lobbying for harsh sentences against military men convicted of crimes, the president has also extolled “those on whose chests shine medals, the decorations they won with honor and bravery on the field of battle.”

“There cannot be a double standard — they’re either heroes or they are oppressors. And for us, Giachino is the first oppressor to die in Las Malvinas,” said Ernesto Alonso, a teenage conscript in the war who heads a veterans group that works with rights organizations. “We have to understand that it is not some other armed forces that went to the Las Malvinas. It was the same one. They are the same military men.”

According to the official story, Giachino had been deployed from the naval base in this picturesque seaside city to lead a commando unit that surrounded Gov. Rex Hunt’s home in Stanley, capital of the Falklands. The mission was to force a quick and bloodless surrender of Hunt and a Royal Marine detachment.

But a fierce firefight broke out, and Giachino, 34, was mortally wounded.

His death became a rallying cry in Argentina, with photographs of the lantern-jawed officer reprinted in newspapers and shown on television as the invasion unfolded. And when Argentina lost its brief control of the Falklands to a large British fleet, Giachino’s sacrifice became the stuff of military lore. He was posthumously promoted to captain and even had a stamp issued in his honor.

Conflicting images

Karina Giachino, one of his two daughters, recalls a loving father, a devoted Catholic and a patriotic officer.

“I see him as a hero who gave his life for all of us,” said Giachino, who is 37 and raising three daughters in a tranquil, prosperous Mar del Plata neighborhood. “He carried out his operation. I cannot feel anything but to be proud of him.”

But in the past few years, Pedro Giachino’s name began to come up in the trials of other officers facing charges for rights abuses in Mar del Plata, where hundreds had gone through interrogations at the naval base where he had been assigned.

Gabriel Della Valle, who first recognized Giachino when his photograph was reprinted after his death, was among those who had been interrogated here.

“I froze up — it is a face that I will never forget, never,” said Della Valle, 56, a psychologist, who told his story in judicial hearings last month. “It was the face of the person who interrogated me in Mar del Plata.”

Another witness to emerge was Alfredo Molinari, a former navy corporal, who told a federal judge in 2010 that his superior, Giachino, had ordered him to shoot a detainee in the head in 1977. He said he refused to carry out the killing.

Victor Basterra, now 67, who had been held by the military during the dictatorship at the notorious Navy Mechanics School in Buenos Aires, said in an interview that Giachino had also worked there. More than 5,000 prisoners were processed there, most of whom were killed.

Once Giachino’s history as an interrogator had been pieced together, Carlos Diaz, 57, leader of a human rights group in Mar del Plata, successfully lobbied for the removal of a portrait honoring Giachino from the City Council chamber.

“If Giachino had not died,” Diaz said, “he would at the very least be detained if not convicted for crimes against humanity.”

The portraits of 11 other servicemen from Mar del Plata who died on the Falklands remain on the wall, as do grainy black-and-white photographs of more than 400 people who were interrogated here and never seen again.