ObituaryTuesday, November 9, 2010
‘Conspirator, blackmailer, murderer’
By Andrew Graham-Yooll
For the Herald
Emilio Eduardo Massera, former Argentine admiral, was the most complex character of the three commanders who ruled Argentina in the 1970s in the most savage and cruel dictatorship in twentieth century Latin America. He was also the most perverse, a conspirator, blackmailer and murderer of his political captives at clandestine detention centres. He was nobody’s friend, he even sent members of his government to their death.
Marguerite Feitlowitz, a US academic who wrote A Lexicon of Terror (OUP 1998), described Massera as “the grand orator of the dictatorship... master of the majestic rhythm, learned tone, and utterly confounding, but captivating, message.” As a young man he had studied philology, and language was a life-long obsession. In one of his speeches as a member of government on “the infidelity of words to their meanings” in ideological warfare, he announced that, “the only safe words are our words,” which may sound surreal, but appeared to set the tone of his absolute intolerance of opponents.
Massera came from immigrant stock and entered the elite naval academy in 1942 to be catapulted into an upper class of Argentine business and landowners. These had always seen in the navy an ally against Peronism, ever since Juan Perón founded the party in 1945. In 1956, as a young officer, aged 31, a year after the overthrow of Perón, Massera was appointed to a lectureship at the naval college, where he returned to teach in 1971. However, his early anti-Peronism was to suffer some editing.
By the early seventies Massera was a rear-admiral planning his path to power. After the death of Perón in July 1974, in his third term in government, and as Argentina broke up into a series of political phobias, hatreds, obsessions and murders, which would lead to the “dirty war,” Massera ostentatiously supported Perón’s widow, María Estela Martínez Cartas de Perón, who had inherited the presidency. This apparent loyalty was rewarded with promotion to admiral on 23 August 1974, and he became naval commander-in-chief.
While still sympathetic to Mrs Perón, Massera became part of a conspiracy to install a military dictatorship with the aim of wiping out active urban guerrilla groups. From Mrs Perón he secured two laws which were later vital to the future dictatorship, a catch-all security law and another ordering the “annihilation” of the guerrillas. Massera’s duplicity worked in the two worlds of the terror state, one of public order, moral and religious righteousness, another that was clandestine, murderous with no moral restrictions whatsoever on the financial ambitions of its members.
While Massera espoused a hatred of the Peronist guerrillas whom he described as a Cold War threat from Marxism to the nation, he demanded that his union boss chum, metal workers’ leader Lorenzo Miguel, who died on 29 December 2002, should convince Mrs Perón to resign to save the constitutional system and prevent a coup. Miguel, whose life Massera later saved when he was captured by the army after the 1976 coup, refused on the grounds of his admiration for Juan Perón.
Massera played the double deal all the time. While he announced a crackdown on “subversives and speculators” on the black market, he would send a sailor in uniform to the Reuters building press centre to collect the rent for an apartment leased in US dollars to foreign correspondents as the admiral’s own little hedge against devaluation of the peso. He was greedy even for the small change.
He was prominent from day one in government after the military coup of 24 March 1976, and will be remembered for his most sinister creation, the torture and extermination centre set up at the NCO’s naval mechanical school (ESMA) in an elegant area of the capital. In that place of detention where hundreds, perhaps thousands of the “disappeared” people went to their deaths, he would lunch with his officers and discuss the list of victims. He took pride in “breaking” captives, and releasing a few of them with orders to tell the world they had been well treated. He also encouraged his officers to take women prisoners out as escorts to service dinners and parties, in a scene of control and betrayal reminiscent of Hitlerian rule. The looting of the homes of guerrilla captives, complete with removal vans, was encouraged, and considered as war booty, and the product of these nightly forays was stored at the mechanical school for resale and distribution of the cash.
One of his early and least-known actions was to order the murder in 1976 of general Omar Actis, then head of Argentina’s 1978 World Cup Committee, for which he blamed the Montoneros guerrillas. To suit Massera’s plans for power, he replaced Actis with a weak general, Antonio Merlo, who was dominated by his deputy, Rear-Admiral Carlos Lacoste, whose career took him to vice-president of FIFA. Admiral Massera then befriended the sinister Licio Gelli, leader of Italy’s P2 lodge, which operated an international network of influence-peddling and financial fraud.
Early in the dictatorship, Massera set up an “information centre” in Paris intended to trap exiled guerrillas and their agents. The centre used former captives who had “turned” under torture to betray their fellow activists. When a diplomat at the Argentine Embassy in Paris, Elena Holmberg, aged 47, the niece of former president Alejandro Lanusse, discovered that the aim of the “information centre” involved a web of corruption and murder, she returned to Buenos Aires to report the anomaly to the junta president, General Jorge Videla, by then involved in a bitter feud with his navy colleague. Massera had Holmberg murdered on 20 December, 1978.
A year before, another diplomat, the Argentine ambassador to Venezuela, Héctor Hidalgo Sol, suspicious of naval visitors in Caracas who were a source of pressure and embarrassment, returned to report this in Buenos Aires and was murdered on orders from Massera on 18 July, 1977.
Two other cases of murder, of businessman Fernando Branca and advertising executive Marcelo Dupont, were attributed to Massera in a case of blackmail and extortion by the naval chief.
Massera always declared himself a true anti-Communist. In 1977 he praised the late Nicaraguan dictator, Anastasio Somoza, as a “custodian of the spirit of the West”, and called Paraguay’s dictator, Alfredo Stroessner, a ‘true democrat‘. And with the dictators of Bolivia, Brazil, Chile, Paraguay and Uruguay, Massera was the driving force of the Condor Plan, set up to co-ordinate action against political enemies in the hemisphere.
When the Junta, badly split by service rivalries, made way for a succeeding junta in 1979, Massera used the backing of an unexplained fortune, which included an interesting collection of art at his offices on the city centre Cerrito street, to form his own Party for Social Democracy, and financed a newspaper to represent the navy’s political line, Convicción (which was printed on the presses of Jacobo Timerman’s closed and expropriated La Opinión).
Massera’s come-uppance came in 1985, when a federal court, set up by the constitutional government of Raúl Alfonsín, found him and the junta members guilty of crimes against humanity, sentenced him to life in prison, and stripped him and general Videla of their rank and pension (by the way, that did not affect the late general Leopoldo Fortunato Galtieri, he of Falklands invasion fame). Massera was pardoned by former president Carlos Menem in 1990, on the grounds that he could not govern a country with political prisoners inherited from the past.
Although Massera appeared to escape punishment, on 28 March 1996, a federal court put him under house arrest on charges of murder and the theft of the babies of pregnant political captives who were killed after giving birth. The arrest followed a request for his extradition to Spain on charges of murder filed by Spanish Judge Baltasar Garzón. From then on Massera was under house arrest, regularly summoned to testify on dozens of cases in local courts, but breaking his detention order and seen out shopping or dining on more than one occasion. On Thursday, 12 December, 2002, he entered hospital after a stroke. Unconscious, he was put on a respirator. In 2005, a federal judge declared him unfit to face trial. His wife took him home, where he remained, allegedly bedridden.
Emilio Eduardo Massera, former dictator and navy admiral in Argentina. Born 19 October 1925, in Buenos Aires. Married Delia E. Vieyra, 1956. Two sons, Eduardo Enrique and Emilio Esteban. Died in Buenos Aires, 8 November 2010.