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An Argentine Army NCO searching a guerrilla hideout (1975)

Operativo Independencia (Spanish for "Operation Independence") was the code-name of the Argentine military operation in the Tucumán Province, started in 1975, to crush the ERP (Ejército Revolucionario del Pueblo or People's Revolutionary Army) guevarist guerrilla group which attempted to create a "revolutionary foco in this remote and mountainous province, in the north-west of Argentina." It was the first large-scale military operation of the "Dirty War."

Contents

Prologue

After the return of Juan Perón to Argentina, marked by the June 20, 1973 Ezeiza massacre which led to the split between left and right-wing Peronists, and then his return to the presidency in 1973, the ERP shifted to a rural strategy designed to secure a large land area as a base for military operations against the Argentine state. The ERP leadership chose to send Compania de Monte Ramón Rosa Jimenez to the province of Tucumán at the edge of the long-impoverished Andean highlands in the northwest corner of Argentina. By December 1974, the guerrillas numbered about 100 fighters, with a 400 person support network, although the size of the guerrilla platoons increased from February onwards as the ERP approached its maximum strength of between 300 and 500 men and women. Led by Mario Roberto Santucho, they soon established control over a third of the province and organized a base of some 2,500 sympathizers.[1] The Montoneros' leadership was keen to learn from their experience, and sent "observers" to spend a few months with the ERP platoons operating in Tucuman.[2]

February 1975 "annihilation decree"

Military zones of Argentina, 1975-1983 (Tucuman Province is in zone 3, the smallest province in the middle).

The military operation to crush the insurgency was authorized by the President of the lower house, Ítalo Argentino Luder, who was granted executive power during the absence (due to illness) of the President María Estela Martínez de Perón, better known as Isabel Perón, in virtue of the Ley de Acefalía (law of succession). Ítalo Luder issued the presidential decree 261/1975 which stated, against the letter of the Constitution, that the "general command of the Army will proceed to all of the necessary military operations to the effect of neutralizing or annihilating the actions of the subversive elements acting in Tucumán Province."[3][4]

The military operation

The Argentine military used the territory of the smallest Argentine province to implement, within the framework of its national security doctrine, the methods of the "counter-revolutionary warfare" taught first by the French military, then by The Pentagon. These included the use of terrorism, kidnappings, "forced disappearances" and concentration camps where hundreds of guerrilleros and their supporters in Tucuman were tortured and assassinated. The logistical and operational superiority of the military, headed first by General Acdel Vilas, and starting in December 1975 by Antonio Domingo Bussi, succeeded in crushing the insurgency within a few months and destroying the links between the ERP, led by Roberto Santucho, and the local population.

General Acdel Vilas deployed over 4,000 soldiers, including two companies of elite army commandos, backed by jets, dogs, helicopters and a naval Beechcraft Queen Air B-80 equipped with IR surveillance assets.[5] The ERP enjoyed considerable support from the local population and its members moved at will among the towns of Santa Lucía, Los Sosa, Monteros and La Fronterita[6] around Famaillá and the Monteros mountains, until the Fifth Brigade came on the scene, consisting of the 19th, 20th and 29th Regiments.[7] and various support units. The guerrillas who had laid low when the mountain brigade first arrived, soon began to strike at the commando units. It was during the second week of February that a platoon from the commando companies was ambushed at Rio Pueblo Viejo and took some losses including its platoon commander. Three months of constant patrolling or on 'cordons and search' operations, with helicopter-borne troops, soon reduced the ERP's effectiveness in the Famaillá area, and so in June, elements of the Fifth Brigade moved to the frontiers of Tucumán to guard against ERP and Montoneros guerrillas crossing into the province from Catamarca, and Santiago del Estero.

In May 1975, ERP representative Amilcar Santucho, brother of Roberto, was captured along with Jorge Fuentes Alarcon, a member of the Chilean MIR, trying to cross into Paraguay to promote the Revolutionary Coordinating Junta (JCR, Junta Coordinadora Revolucionaria) unity effort with the MIR, the Uruguayan Tupamaros and the Bolivian National Liberation Army. During his interrogation, he provided information that helped the Argentine security agencies destroy the ERP. A June 6, 1975 letter from the United States Justice Department shows that Robert Scherrer, a FBI official, passed on information revealed by the two men to the Chilean DINA. By this point,Operation Condor, the campaign of repressive cooperation between Latin American intelligence agencies, had already begun, the third phase of which included assassinations of political opponents in Latin America and abroad. Fuentes was then "released" and sent to Chile, where he was last seen in the torture center of Villa Grimaldi before becoming a desaparecido.[8]

Wreckage of the C-130 in flames on the airstrip in Teniente Benjamín Matienzo International Airport from San Miguel de Tucumán (now closed)

Nevertheless the military was not to have everything its own way. Later in August 1975 a culvert bomb was planted at the Tucumán air base airstrip by Montoneros, as a support action to their comrades the ERP. The blast destroyed an Air Force C-130 transport carrying 116 anti-guerrilla Gendarmerie commandos heading for home leave, killing five and wounding forty, one of whom subsequently died.[9]

By July 1975, the commandos were mounting search-and-destroy missions in the mountains. Army forces discovered Santucho's hideout in August, then raided the ERP urban headquarters in September.

Most of the Compania del Monte's general staff was killed in October and the guerrilla unit was in disarray by the end of the year. While the leadership of the movement was mostly eradicated, many of the ERP militants and sympathizers were taken into custody as political prisoners.

Efforts to restrict the rural guerrilla activity to Tucumán, however, remained unsuccessful despite the use of troop-transport helicopters. In early October the 5th Brigade suffered a major blow once again at the hands of Montoneros, when over one-hundred or perhaps several hundred[10] militants carried out the most elaborate operation in the so-called "Dirty War". Its code name inside Montoneros was Operación Primicia ("Operation Scoop"). The action involved the hijacking of a civilian airliner, bound for Corrientes from Buenos Aires. The guerrillas redirected the plane towards Formosa province, where they took over the provincial airport. Along with a party which provided local support, they broke into the 29th Infantry Regiment's barracks, firing automatic weapons and throwing hand grenades. They met fierce resistance from a group of conscripts and NCOs who reacted after the initial surprise. In the aftermath, 12 soldiers and 2 policemen were killed and several injured; Montoneros lost 16 men.[11] Once the operation was over, Montoneros made good their escape by air towards a remote area in Santa Fe province. The aircraft, a Boeing 737, eventually landed on a crop field not far from the city of Rafaela. The sophistication of the operation, and the hideouts they used, suggest that several hundred guerrillas and supporters were involved.

In December 1975 most 5th Brigade units were committed to the border areas of Tucumán with over 5,000 troops deployed in the province. There was, however, nothing to prevent infiltrating through this outer ring and the ERP were still strong inside Buenos Aires. Mario Santucho's Christmas offensive began on 23 December 1975. The operation was dramatic in its impact, with ERP units, supported by Montoneros, mounting a large scale assault against the army supply base Domingo Viejobueno in the industrial suburb of Monte Chingolo, south of Buenos Aires. The attackers were defeated and driven off with heavy casualties. In this particular battle the ERP and Montoneros guerrillas had about 1,000[12] deployed against 1,000 government forces. This large-scale operation was made possible not only by the audacity of the guerrillas involved, but also by their supporters who provided houses to hide them, supplies, and the means of escape.

During their 1975 stint in Tucumán the Fifth Mountain Brigade killed 160 guerrillas at a cost of 22 officers and 21 other ranks killed.[13] This figure does take into account police and Gendarmerie troops killed in Tucuman, and the 12 soldiers of the 29th Mountain Infantry Regiment that were killed defending their barracks in Formosa province on 5 October 1975. Tucumán kept the 5th Brigade occupied, in 1976 it was still necessary to provide military aid to the local security forces, and help to hunt down the one-hundred or so ERP and Montoneros guerrillas who still roamed the jungles and mountains. During February 1976 the Montoneros had sent in reinforcements in the form of a company of their "Jungle Troops" and the ERP had backed them up with a company of their own guerrillas from Cordoba.[14] In 1976 there were 24 clashes that resulted in deaths of 74 guerrillas and 18 soldiers and police in the province.[15]

Generalisation of the state of emergency

By mid-1975, the country was a stage for widespread violence. By the end of 1975, a total of 137 servicemen and police had been killed that year by left-wing terrorism.[16] Extreme right-wing death squads used their hunt for far-left guerrillas as a pretext to exterminate any and all ideological opponents on the left and as a cover for common crimes. Assassinations and kidnappings by the Peronist Montoneros and the ERP contributed to the general climate of fear. In July, there was a general strike.

During his brief interlude at the head of the executive power, Ítalo Luder then extended the operation to the whole of the country through decrees 2270, 2271 and 2272 issued on 6 July 1975. The July decrees created a Defense Council headed by the president and including his ministers and the chiefs of the armed forces.[17][18][19] It was given the command of the national and provincial police and correctional facilities and its mission was to "annihilate … subversive elements throughout the country". Military control and the state of emergency was thus generalized to all of the country. The "counter-insurgency" tactics used by the French during the 1957 Battle of Algiers (relinquishing of civilian control to the military, state of emergency, block warden system (quadrillage), etc., was perfectly imitated by the Argentine military.

These "annihilation decrees" are the source of the charges against Isabel Perón which led to her arrest in Madrid more than thirty years later, in January 2007, and subsequent extradition to Argentina. The country was then divided into five military zones through a 28 October 1975 military directive of "Struggle Against Subversion". As had been done during the 1957 Battle of Algiers, each zone was divided in subzones and areas, with its corresponding military responsibles. General Antonio Domingo Bussi replaced in December 1975 Acdel Vidas as responsible of the military operations.

References

  1. ^ Guerrillas and Generals: The Dirty War in Argentina, Paul H. Lewis, page 105, Greenwood Publishing Group, 2002
  2. ^ Terrorism in Context, Martha Crenshaw, p. 230, Penn State Press, 1995
  3. ^ Spanish: el commando general del Ejército procederá a ejecutar todas las operaciones militares que sean necesarias a efectos de neutralizar o aniquilar el accionar de los elementos subversivos que actúan en la provincia de Tucumán
  4. ^ Decree No. 261/75. NuncaMas.org, Decretos de aniquilamiento.
  5. ^ Burzaco, Ricardo: Infierno en el Monte Tucumano. Ed. RE editores, 1994. OCLC 31720152. Page 64
  6. ^ Guerrillas and Generals: The Dirty War in Argentina, Paul H. Lewis, page 107, Greenwood Publishing Group, 2002
  7. ^ Adrian J. English , Armed Forces of Latin America: Their Histories, Development, Present Strength, and Military Potential, Janes Information Group, 1984, p. 33.
  8. ^ Operation Condor by John Dinges, from Fathom archive of Columbia University
  9. ^ Burzaco, pp. 108-109
  10. ^ Crenshaw, Martha: Terrorism in Context. Penn State Press, 1995, p. 236
  11. ^ Montoneros ataca a un Regimiento del Ejército Argentino.
  12. ^ Review of the River Plate: A weekly journal dealing with commercial financial and economic affairs, 30 December 1975, p. 1021
  13. ^ Guerrillas and Generals: The Dirty War in Argentina, Paul H. Lewis, page 113, Greenwood Publishing Group, 2002
  14. ^ Guerrillas and Generals: The Dirty War in Argentina, Paul H. Lewis, page 126, Greenwood Publishing Group, 2002
  15. ^ Operativo Independencia
  16. ^ State Terrorism in Latin America: Chile, Argentina, and International Human Rights, Thomas C. Wright, p. 102, Rowman & Littlefield, 2007
  17. ^ Decree No. 2770/75. NuncaMas.org, Decretos de aniquilamiento.
  18. ^ Decree No. 2771/75. NuncaMas.org, Decretos de aniquilamiento.
  19. ^ Decree No. 2772/75. NuncaMas.org, Decretos de aniquilamiento.

See also

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