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.
Gen. Bignone in 2009, at the courtroom where he is accused of human rights crimes. (Juan Mabromata/AFP via Getty Images)
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.
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.