BUENOS AIRES – Former Argentine dictator Jorge Rafael Videla, who presided over that country’s so-called dirty war in which up to 30,000 dissidents were murdered or disappeared, died of natural causes Friday while serving a 50-year prison sentence. He was 87.
Videla led a rebel military group that in 1976 overthrew President Isabel Peron and then installed a reign of terror lasting seven years in which thousands of leftist politicians and activists were taken from their homes and workplaces, often in the dead of night, tortured and killed.
The military junta that Videla led as president until 1981 was finally toppled in 1983 after public dissatisfaction grew as a result of economic instability and the country’s loss of the Falklands War with Britain.
Military reaction to leftist insurgencies and poor economies led to dictatorships not only in Argentina but also Chile, Brazil, Uruguay and Peru in the 1970s. Argentina and other countries are still coming to grips with atrocities committed during that period.
An unrepentant Videla issued a harangue in March urging his former military colleagues to confront leftist President Cristina Fernandez de Kirchner, whom he accused of using human rights issues as “an instrument of political pressure.”
A tall, mustachioed and blade-thin army general, Videla was serving his third prison term for his role in the coup and dictatorship.
In 1985, two years after the return of democracy, Videla and his accomplices were sent to prison but then pardoned in 1990 by then-President Carlos Menem as part of a reconciliation gesture.
But in 1998, Videla was imprisoned again when it was determined that he and other military leaders had committed crimes against humanity that were not subject to pardons. At first he was allowed to serve out his sentence at home but in 2008 was sent to a common jail. Then in 2010 he was again freed when a judge found the sentence to be unconstitutional.
Videla was re-incarcerated last year when a federal judge condemned him to 50 years for “generalized and systematic baby theft” for his role in the taking of hundreds of children from captive mothers during the 1976 to 1983 dictatorship.
Many of the children were turned over to military families to be raised and were never told who their real parents were. In recent years, DNA testing has helped many relatives of terror victims identify the offspring.