Undated file photograph showing former Argentine dictator Jorge Rafael Videla in Buenos Aires. Jorge Rafael Videla passed away in Argentina on May 17, 2013 at the age of 87. AFP PHOTO/NASTR/AFP/Getty Images (STR/AFP/GETTY IMAGES)

Jorge Rafael Videla, the remorseless Argentine army commander who came to power in a coup that launched the most barbaric period of the country’s modern history, including thousands of extrajudicial killings and kidnappings, died May 17 at a prison near Buenos Aires. He was 87.

A government spokesman announced the death. A cause was not reported.

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.”

With Argentina’s economy faltering and its reputation as an international pariah state growing, the junta ceded power after its disastrous attempt to retake the Falkland Islands from the British in 1982.

In the newly democratic Argentina, the ex-commanders including Gen. Videla were placed on trial in 1985 . A federal court sentenced Gen. Videla to life imprisonment after finding him guilty of homicide, kidnapping, torture and other crimes. He was also stripped of his rank.

He was imprisoned for five years until President Carlos Menem pardoned military and left-wing guerrilla leaders in what the president described as a gesture of national healing. The pardon was also seen as a maneuver to prevent another coup.

The decision bitterly divided the country, and efforts continued with minimal success to roll back 1980s-era immunity laws until the election in 2003 of President Néstor Kirchner, a leftist who had been briefly jailed during the junta years for his student activism.

Kirchner and his widow and successor, Cristina, accelerated efforts to prosecute aging junta leaders and functionaries. Old legal immunities were gradually wiped away, and Gen. Videla was ordered to stand trial for human rights abuses in 2010.

He was sentenced to life in prison for the deaths of more than 30 prisoners after the 1976 coup. While serving the life sentence at the civilian prison at the barracks at Campo de Mayo, Gen. Videla also was tried on charges of stealing babies. In July 2012, he was sentenced to 50 years in prison for his role in the abductions of dozens of infants. (Another former junta president, Reynaldo Bignone, received 15 years for the baby seizures in addition to his earlier life term for crimes against humanity.)

In his closing remarks at trial, Gen. Videla said, “All those who gave birth, who I respect as mothers, were active militants in the machinery of terror. They used their children as human shields.”

Francisco Madariaga Quintela, who had been taken as a child and was reunited with his birth father only in 2010, told reporters at the time of the sentencing: “It was the worst, the most perverse of the dictatorship, I think, what they did with us. It was a torture prolonged through time, for the grandmothers searching, for family members, everyone.”

Jorge Rafael Videla was born Aug. 2, 1925, in Mercedes, a city in Buenos Aires province. His father was an army colonel.

At 16, he entered the National Military College, considered Argentina’s West Point. He received a commission in 1944 and ascended the military hierarchy. In the early 1970s, he became commandant of the military college, where his wiry physique and reputation for cunning earned him the nickname “Pink Panther.”

In 1948, he married the former Alicia Raquel Hartridge, by whom he had seven children. A son died in 1971.

In 1975, Gen. Videla was named general commander of the army by Perón. She had served briefly as vice president under her husband, strongman Juan Domingo Perón, before being widowed into the presidency.

Isabel Perón, a former nightclub dancer, led a government in near-total anarchy. Armed militias, including a right-wing death squad operated by Isabel Perón’s personal secretary, placed the country in the grip of terror and set the groundwork for a bloodless military coup initially welcomed by members of the country’s business class. The human rights abuses of the Perón years were widely viewed as a precursor to the atrocities committed by the junta led by Gen. Videla.

As army chief, Gen. Videla orchestrated merciless anti-guerrilla campaigns. He instigated a policy of “no prisoners” and spent Christmas 1975 among his troops in the northern Tucuman province as they killed hundreds of alleged members of a group calling itself the People’s Revolutionary Army.

Gen. Videla made his move against Perón on March 24, 1976, arranging for air force pilots to fly her by helicopter to an isolated province. Gen. Videla, then 50, announced that he would be president, sharing executive powers with Gen. Orlando Ramón Agosti of the air force and Adm. Emilio Massera of the Navy.

Eradicating leftist subversion was of paramount concern to the new leaders. During the next several years, the U.S. State Department and human rights groups including Amnesty International released scathing reports about Argentina’s human rights record.

Findings by those agencies included widespread disappearances, killing and torture, including the use of an electric prod called the picana. Brutish security forces, often driving in Ford Falcons without license plates, swept up victims from sidewalks or in midnight raids on their homes.

When questioned about such actions, Gen. Videla said those missing were subversives who likely were either in hiding or else killed by their own as “traitors to the cause.”

In 2012, Argentine journalist Ceferino Reato wrote a book about the junta that included extensive jailhouse interviews with Gen. Videla. It was published as “Final Disposition: Videla’s Confession on the Disappeared,” and the general admitted “7,000 or 8,000 people” were made to disappear.

“There was no other alternative,” Gen. Videla was quoted as telling Reato. Military leaders “were in agreement that it was the price that must be paid to win the war against subversion and we needed that it not be obvious so society would not realize it. It was necessary to eliminate a large group of people who could not be brought to justice nor [openly] shot either.”