General Albano Harguindeguy: Minister who waged the 'Dirty War' in Argentina


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The Independent Online

As Interior Minister during most of Argentina's 1976-83 military dictatorship, General Albano Harguindeguy won an infamous reputation as el cerebro [the brain] behind the nation's "Dirty War" – the murder, torture or disappearances of at least 30,000 of his compatriots.

Harguindeguy's boss, General Jorge Videla, was the public face of the military dictatorship but it was up to Harguindeguy, in charge of the federal police and citing a "communist threat" to his nation, to decide who lived, died or simply disappeared.

His years as Interior Minister (1976-81) were probably the bleakest and most tragic in his nation's history. There was never any evidence that Harguindeguy personally shot a human being but there is much evidence that he ordered his police officers to "disappear" opponents of the military government. Much of the Argentinian media to this day label him El Genocida [the Genocide Man].

When Harguindeguy died he was under house arrest and on trial – in what the Argentinian media call la Megacausa [the Mega-Case] – for crimes against humanity, which prosecutors predicted would bring him life imprisonment. Given his age, his lack of remorse, at least publicly, and his ongoing military connections, he knew he was never likely to be in the sort of bare jail cell experienced by his alleged victims (those who were "fortunate" enough to make it to jail).

In the end, Harguindeguy, who had long since forfeited the right to be called General, died without being convicted of a single crime – death, torture or disappearance – a fact which has caused anguish among tens of thousands of relatives of his alleged victims. He was also due to face trial next March for his alleged key role in the so-called Plan Condor, under which the South American military regimes of the time co-operated to get rid of their opponents even beyond their own borders.

When Argentinians took to the streets to demand a return to democracy in the late 1970s, Harguindeguy – the name is of Basque origin – famously appeared on national TV and said: "Las urnas está* bien guardadas" – the ballot boxes are well-guarded. The message was clear: any vote would be controlled by the military or his police. Many years later, confronted by families of his alleged victims and facing trial for crimes against humanity, he said: "We committed errors. If we didn't commit errors, we'd be Gods."

Albano Eduardo Harguindeguy was born in the village of Villa Valeria, in Argentina's Córdoba province, in 1927, entering the Military Lyceum in 1943 at the age of 16. One of his classmates was Raúl Alfonsí*, who would become Argentina's first democratically elected president after the military dictatorship collapsed in 1983. Harguindeguy graduated as a second lieutenant in the 9th Cavalry Regiment and by then was a fine polo player who became nationally known as a referee. Having moved through the military ranks, he was appointed chief of the federal police in 1975 by the then president María Estela Martínez de Peró*, nicknamed Isabelita, widow of the former president Juan Peró*. For Isabelita, appointing him was a mistake. He was widely seen as backing the coup which ousted her in 1976 and launched seven years of military dictatorship, and with it the Falklands war and the domestic "Dirty War". The new de facto president, General Jorge Rafael Videla, euphemistically calling his regime a Process of National Re-organisation, appointed Harguindeguy as Interior Minister on 29 March 1976, a job he held for five years to the day.

Videla, now 87, eventually accepted full responsibility for what he called "the internal war". He is serving life in prison for multiple murders and a concurrent 50 years for the systematic kidnapping of the children of many of the regime's victims, most of them for "adoption" by military personnel. In 1990, the Argentinian president Carlos Menem, under the old boy's network, pardoned Videla, Harguindeguy and others for their alleged crimes but a judge later overturned Menem's ruling, allowing the former military leaders to face trial.

Until his house arrest Harguindeguy was a fervent big game hunter who travelled regularly to Africa, often with his friend José Alfredo Martínez de Hoz, who was Minister of the Economy during the military dictatorship and is currently under house arrest facing similar charges relating to the Dirty War.

Albano Harguindeguy died in his home in Eva Peró* street in a suburb of Buenos Aires now known as Malvinas Argentinas, in reference to the Argentinians' claim to the Falkland Islands. Details of his family survivors were not immediately known.

Albano Eduardo Harguindeguy, army general and politician: born Villa Valeria, Argentina 11 February 1927; died Buenos Aires 29 October 2012.