Former dictator Jorge Rafael Videla, who took power in a 1976 coup and led a military junta that killed thousands of his fellow Argentines in a war to eliminate “subversives,” died Friday while serving life sentences in prison for crimes against humanity. Federal Prison Service Director Victor Hortel said he died of natural causes in the Marcos Paz prison. Videla ran one of the bloodiest military governments in an era of South American dictatorships, and sought to take full responsibility for kidnappings, tortures, deaths and disappearances when he was tried again and again for those crimes in recent years. He said he knew about everything that happened under his rule because “I was on top of everyone.” Videla had a low profile before the March 24, 1976, coup, but quickly became the architect of a repressive system that killed about 9,000 people according to an official accounting after democracy returned to Argentina in 1983. Human rights activists believe the real number was as high as 30,000.
This “dirty war” introduced two frightening terms to the global lexicon of terror: “disappeareds” — people kidnapped and never seen or heard from again — and “death flights,” in which political prisoners were thrown, drugged but alive, from navy planes into the sea. “The disappeareds aren’t there, they don’t exist,” Videla told a news conference in 1977, when the complaints of families looking for their missing loved ones were raising concern internationally. Videla’s dictatorship also stood out from others in Latin America for its policy of holding pregnant prisoners until they gave birth, and then killing the women and arranging for illegal adoptions of their babies, usually by military or police families. This happened hundreds of times, and the Grandmothers of the Plaza de Mayo rights group has relentlessly sought to reunite these children, now in their 30s, with their biological families. Last year, Videla was convicted and sentenced again to life without parole for the thefts
of these babies.