EL JUICIO (The Trial) portrays one of the most pivotal events in the struggle for truth and justice in Argentina's recent democratic history: the 1985 trial of members from the three military juntas responsible for the disappearance of tens of thousands of people during their seven year reign over the country. It was the first criminal trial in Latin America held against a former dictatorial military regime before a civilian court. The road to that point was fraught with difficulty.
After the fall of dictatorship in December 1983, the new, democratically elected President Raúl Alfonsín issued Decree No. 158, which ordered the prosecution of junta members. At that time, the military still wielded considerable power, so only the high-ranking officers responsible for the order of criminal acts were brought to justice. Exempt from prosecution were the many lower-ranking soldiers and police officers who claimed they were merely following orders.
Originally, the prosecution was to be carried out by the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces—a military court composed of former officers. After months of stalling, however, the council sided with the perpetrators, acquitting them on the basis of allegedly insufficient evidence. The military tribunal was also very hostile to victims that took the stand. The intimidating nature of the questioning inhibited witnesses, especially since the court members themselves could have been perpetrators or at least their accomplices. Jurisdiction was eventually transferred from the military court to a civilian court. On 22 April 1985 began the criminal trial featured in EL JUICIO. In the five months of the trial, 709 cases were handled. Over 800 witnesses gave their testimonies. On 9 December, the court pronounced its verdicts.
Over 18 chapters, condensing over 500 hours of video recordings of the trial into just under three hours, EL JUICIO documents how the court hearings laid bare important aspects of state repression. In their verdict, the judges found that the dictatorship pursued a systematic and organised plan of persecution and extermination, conducted throughout Argentina with the goal of reorganising society both economically and ideologically.
In order to realise this goal, the military and police forces abducted anyone they considered to be opponents of the regime, with around 500 secret detention and torture centres were set up across the country. The military's so-called “anti-subversive war” aimed, on the one hand, to end state intervention and redistribution policies and, on the other, to destroy the social and political forces that supported these policies. Although tens of thousands of victims of this plan remain missing to this day, many others have survived. Thanks to their testimonies, both the trial of the juntas and today’s criminal trials remain possible.
The prosecution of the military juntas had immense impact on the victims and on Argentine society as a whole. However, the junta trial was hampered by various legal and political obstacles, preventing it from providing stronger reparations for the victims. One such obstacle was the fact that only nine military leaders were prosecuted, leading to disappointment. Many of the perpetrators were still in the armed forces, pursuing their careers as if nothing had happened. As a result, victims continued to feel at risk.
Threats from the Dock
Even though EL JUICIO never leaves the courtroom, it offers comprehensive insight into the prevailing political and social climate of the years immediately following the dictatorship. The constant ridicule, the cynical comments of the defence lawyers, and the persistent threats made during the trial by various actors on the side of the military can be seen in a number of scenes. For example, in Chapter 6, even the public prosecutors complain of having received threats during the trial hearings. The military and their lawyers tried to justify their crimes by arguing that the dictatorship was engaged in an unconventional war against terrorists. This narrative—still present in the discourse of many military leaders even today—portrays them as war heroes who became victims through the process itself (see Chapter 2).
EL JUICIO, on the other hand, offers a comprehensive overview of various aspects of the dictatorship's repression—with Chapter 1 highlighting how human rights violations had already begun before the 1976 coup d'état. It becomes very clear over the course of the film how the dictatorship persecuted different groups labelled as “subversives”: Chapter 4, for example, deals with students, Chapter 5 with the anti-Semitic nature of the dictatorship and the persecution of Jews, Chapter 9 with the opposition to political and trade unions. In addition, the film emphasises the role certain civil institutions played in propping up the dictatorship, namely the Catholic Church (Chapter 5), the Chamber of Commerce (Chapter 6) and the judiciary (Chapter 12), even if their representatives claim they were not aware of the human rights violations committed.
In Chapter 7, prominent journalists report on the censorship of the press to cover up the disappearances. Affected families tell how various state institutions denied abducting or detaining their relatives. These statements contrast with statements made by defence lawyers during the trial who claimed that the disappeared were still abroad.
After the Trial
After the trial, further charges of crimes against humanity were filed against other members of the armed forces and the police. As a result, a large number of criminal cases were initiated. But with the passing of two so-called “impunity laws” in 1986 and 1987, prosecution of further perpetrators was no longer possible. And those who had already been convicted were released before long.
Although the victims' and human rights organisations' demands for transparancy and justice continued, it was not until the election of Néstor Kirchner in 2003 that hope was restored. During his term in office, the impunity laws were first repealed by parliament and then declared null and void by the Supreme Court. Afterwards, criminal proceedings were extended to cover the entire spectrum of crimes. Since then, several members of the security forces have been tried for human rights violations across the country. From 2006 to 2022, more than 1000 people were convicted of crimes against humanity.
The trial of the juntas, despite its limitations, was an important precedent for these current cases. While they continue to face many obstacles and challenges, they have also ushered in great progress; after years of struggle for justice, truth, and democracy, they constitute a pivotal recognition of the victims. This democracy, which most definitely still leaves room for improvement, will celebrate a milestone birthday this year—40 years after the end of the bloodiest dictatorship the country has ever known.
Rosario Figari Layús is a researcher in the Department of Peace Studies at the Justus Liebig University of Gießen and author of several books on human rights in Latin America.
Translation: Claire Cahm