|Part of Dirty War|
|Commanders and leaders|
|Mario Roberto Santucho||Antonio Domingo Bussi|
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), a Guevarist guerrilla group, which tried to create a Vietnam-style war front in Tucumán, in northwestern Argentina. It was the first large-scale military operation of the Dirty War.
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 "Compañía de Monte Ramón Rosa Jiménez" 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 Tucumán.2
The military operation to crush the insurgency was authorized by the President of the lower house, Ítalo Argentino Lúder, 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 Lúder issued the presidential decree 261/1975 which stated 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."34
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". These included the use of terrorism, kidnappings, forced disappearances and concentration camps where hundreds of guerrillas and their supporters in Tucumán were tortured and murdered. 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 after a year and by destroying earlier on the links the ERP, led by Roberto Santucho, had established with the local population.
Brigadier-General Acdel Vilas deployed over 4,000 soldiers, including two companies of elite army commandos, backed by jets, dogs, helicopters, US satellites5 and a Navy's Beechcraft Queen Air B-80 equipped with IR surveillance assets.6 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 Fronterita7 around Famaillá and the Monteros mountains, until the Fifth Brigade came on the scene, consisting of the 19th, 20th and 29th Regiments.8 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 Río Pueblo Viejo and took some losses including the death of its platoon commander First Lieutenant Héctor Cáceres. On 24 February an army UH-1H helicopter while supporting troops on the ground, crashes near the town of Ingenio Santa Lucia killing its pilot First Lieutenant Carlos María Casagrande and the co-pilot Second Lieutenant Gustavo Pablo López. On 28 February 1975, army corporal Desidero Dardo Pérez is killed while inspecting an abandoned car rigged with an explosive charge in the city of Famaillá in Tucumán. Three months of constant patrolling and '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 Amílcar Santucho, brother of Roberto, was captured along with Jorge Fuentes Alarcón, 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 6 June 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, was already being planned, 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.9
Nevertheless the military was not to have everything its own way. On 28 August 1975 a bomb was planted at the Tucumán air base airstrip by Montoneros, in a support action for their comrades in the ERP. The blast destroyed an Air Force C-130 transport carrying 116 anti-guerrilla Gendarmerie commandos heading for home leave, killing six (Sergeants Juan Rivero and Pedro Yáñez and Corporals Marcelo Godoy, Raúl Cuello, Juan Luna and Evaristo Gómez) and wounding 60.10 The following day saw the derailment of a train carrying troops back from the guerrilla front about 40 miles south of the city of Tucumán, without casualties on this occasion.11
By July 1975, the commandos were mounting search-and-destroy missions in the mountains. Army special forces discovered Santucho's hideout in August, then raided the ERP urban headquarters in September.
With the underground network of ERP supporters in the form of Montoneros sympathizers largely uprooted in the capital of Tucumán province, the last week of the month of August 1975 saw a large number of armed actions on the part of the left-wing guerrillas in the city of Córdoba in order to divert the 2nd and 14th Airborne Infantry Regiments ordered to assist the 5th Mountain Infantry Brigade, which resulted in the death of at least 5 policemen and practically the whole of the elite 4th Airborne Infantry Brigade was called in to restore order and stand guard at strategic points around the city of Córdoba for the remainder of the year, after the bombing of the local police headquarters and radio communications centre.12
Most of the Compañía de Monte's general staff was killed in a special forces raid in October but the guerrilla unit continued to fight. Between 7 and 10 October 1975, a senior corporal (First Corporal José Anselmo Ramírez) and 5 privates (Pío Ramón Fernández, Rogelio René Espinosa, Juan Carlos Castillo, Enrique Ernesto Guastoni and Fredy Ordoñez) and over 30 rural guerrillas were reported killed in clashes in Tucumán province.13On 24 October in a night action that takes place on the banks of Fronterista River the 5th Brigade suffers three killed: Second Lieutenant Diego Barceló and Privates Orlando Aníbal Moya and Carlos Humberto Vizcarra. Between 8 and 16 November 1975 there were other engagements in which the 5th Brigade suffered another three killed: First Corporal Wilfredo Napoleón Méndez and privates Benito Edgar Pérez and Miguel Arturo Moya.
The country had become the stage for widespread violence during 1975, and by December, a total of 137 servicemen and police had been killed by left-wing terrorism.14 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.citation needed 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 as the nation's chief executive, interim President Ítalo Lúder 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.151617 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.), were perfectly imitated by the Argentine military.
These "annihilation decrees" are the source of the charges against Isabel Perón which called for her arrest in Madrid more than thirty years later, in January 2007, but she was never extradited to Argentina because of her advanced age. 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. A reported 656 persons disappeared in Tucumán between 1974 and 1979, 75% of which were laborers and labor union officials.18
Efforts to restrict the rural guerrilla activity to Tucumán, however, remained unsuccessful despite the use of 24 recently supplied ex-US Army troop-transport helicopters. In early October the 5th Brigade suffered a major blow again at the hands of Montoneros, when over one-hundred or perhaps several hundred19 guerrillas and supporting civilians carried out the most elaborate guerrilla operation of 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. Joined by a local supporting unit, 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 two policemen20were killed and several injured; the attacking Montoneros lost 16 men.21
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 getaway cars and safehouses they used to escape from the crash-landing site, suggest several hundred guerrillas and their supporters were involved.22 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 30 of Santucho's most experienced jungle fighters infiltrating through this outer ring and the ERP were still strong inside Buenos Aires. Santucho's Christmas offensive began on 23 December 1975. The operation was a dramatic showdown, with ERP units, supported by local Montoneros support units, mounting a large scale assault against the army supply base Domingo Viejobueno in the industrial suburb of Monte Chingolo, south of Buenos Aires. The ERP guerrillas had planned to seize some 20 tons of armaments: 900 FAL rifles with 60.000 magazines of 7.62mm rounds, 100 M-16 assault rifles with 100.000 magazines of 5.56mm rounds, six 20mm Rheinmetall anti-aircraft guns, fifteen 105mm Czekalski anti-tank rifles, Itaka shotguns and 150 submachineguns.23However, the attackers were defeated and driven off with heavy casualties. In this particular battle the ERP and Montoneros guerrillas had about 1.000 guerrillas and supporting civilians in the form of militants24deployed 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 them with houses to hide in, supplies, and means to escape. A soldier who took part in the fighting recalled that many of the guerrillas were very young, some only teenage girls.25 On 30 December 1975 supporting urban guerrillas detonated a bomb inside the headquarters of the Argentine Army in Buenos Aires, wounding six conscripts.26
During their 1975 stint in Tucumán the Fifth Mountain Brigade killed 160 guerrillas at a cost of 22 officers and 21 other ranks killed.27This figure does take into account local bodyguards, policemen, and Gendarmerie troops killed in Tucumán, nor the soldiers who died defending their barracks in Formosa Province on 5 October 1975.
Tucumán kept the 5th Mountain Infantry Brigade and 4th Airborne Infantry Brigade busy through 1976, and the mountain and parachute units remained essential as military support for the local police and gendarmerie security forces, and for the apprehension of several hundred ERP and Montoneros guerrillas who still remained operating in the jungles and mountains and sympathizers hidden among the civilian population. The "Baltimore Sun" reported at the time, "In the jungle-covered mountains of Tucumán, long known as "Argentina's garden," Argentines are fighting Argentines in a Vietnam-style civil war. So far, the outcome is in doubt. But there is no doubt about the seriousness of the combat, which involves 2.000 or so leftist guerrillas and perhaps as many as 10.000 soldiers."28During February 1976, in an effort to rekindle the guerrilla campaign in Tucumán, the Montoneros sent in reinforcements in the form of a company of their elite "Jungle Troops". The leader of this Montoneros force, was initially commanded by Juan Carlos Alsogaray (El Hippie), son of General Julio Alsogaray, who had served as head of the Argentine Army from 1966 to 1968. The ERP also sent reinforecment to Tucumán in the form of their elite "Decididos de Córdoba" Company from Córdoba.29General Bussi achieved a major success on 13 February 1976 when the 14th Airborne Infantry Regiment killed El Hippie and ambushed his elite Montoneros company. Corporal Héctor Roberto Lazarte and Private Pedro Burguener were killed in this action but the guerrillas suffered severe losses. On 10 April 1976 Private Mario Gutiérrez was killed in a guerrilla ambush in Tucumán. In mid-April 1976 the 4th Airborne Infantry Brigade in a major operation conducted against the ERP underground network in the province of Córdoba, took into custody and forcefully disappeared some 300 militants of that organization.30On 26 April 1976, Montoneros guerrillas killed Colonel Abel Héctor Elías Cavagnaro outside his home in Tucumán province. On 5 May 1976, during an armed reconnaissance mission, an army UH-1H helicopter crashed on the banks of Río Caspichango killing Captain José Antonio Ramallo, Lieutenant César Gonzalo Ledesma, Sergeant Walter Hugo Gómez and Corporals Carlos Alberto Parra and Ricardo Zárate. On 7 May in a gunfight near the river, Corporal Ricardo Martín Zárate was killed in a guerrilla ambush. On 10 May, Private Carlos Alberto Fricker was accidentally shot dead by nervous sentries while stationed in Famaillá. On 17 May Sergeant Alberto Eduardo Lai and Private Juan Ángel Toledo were killed in a remote controlled bomb blast near the town of Caspinchango. During 1976 there were 24 patrol battles resulting in the deaths of 74 guerrillas and 18 soldiers and police in the province of Tucumán.31
On 14 December 2007, some 200 soldiers who fought against the guerrillas in Tucumán province demanded an audience with the governor of Tucumán Province, José Jorge Alperovich, claiming they too were victims of the "Dirty War", and demanded a government sponsored military pension as veterans of the counter-insurgency campaign in northern Argentina.32 Indeed, data from the 2,300-strong Asociación Ex-Combatientes del Operativo Independencia indicate that as of 1976, 4 times more Tucumán veterans have died from suicide after operations in the province. Critics of the ex-servicemen association claim that no combat operations took place in the province and that the government forces deployed in Tucumán killed more than 2,000 innocent civilians.33 According to Professor Paul H. Lewis, a large percentage of the disappeared in Tucumán were in fact students, professors and recent graduates of the local university, all of which were caught providing supplies and information to the guerrillas.34 On 24 March 2008, some 2,000 Tucumán veterans of the 11,000-strong Movimiento Ex Soldados del Operativo Independencia y del Conflicto Limítrofe con Chile, who fought against ERP guerrillas and were later redeployed along the Andes in the military standoff with Chile, took to the streets of Tucumán city to demand recognition as combat veterans.35 Some 180,000 Argentine conscripts saw service during the military dictatorship (1976-1983),36 130 died as a result of the Dirty War.37
- Guerrillas and Generals: The Dirty War in Argentina, Paul H. Lewis, page 105, Greenwood Publishing Group, 2002
- Terrorism in Context, Martha Crenshaw, p. 230, Penn State Press, 1995
- 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
- Decree No. 261/75. NuncaMas.org, Decretos de aniquilamiento.
- Comandos en acción: el Ejército en Malvinas, Isidoro Ruiz Moreno, p. 24, Emecé Editores, 1986
- Burzaco, Ricardo: Infierno en el Monte Tucumano. Ed. RE editores, 1994. OCLC 31720152. Page 64
- Guerrillas and Generals: The Dirty War in Argentina, Paul H. Lewis, page 107, Greenwood Publishing Group, 2002
- Adrian J. English , Armed Forces of Latin America: Their Histories, Development, Present Strength, and Military Potential, Janes Information Group, 1984, p. 33.
- Operation Condor by John Dinges, from Fathom archive of Columbia University
- 35 años del atentado al Hércules en Tucumán
- Army Hunts Leftist Guerrillas: Airport Terrorists Sought In Argentina Toledo Blade August 29, 1975
- "5 Policemen Dead In Argentina Violence". Times-Union, 21 August 1975
- Argentine Army Claims 13 Leftist Guerrillas Killed, Sarasota Herald-Tribune, October 12, 1975
- State Terrorism in Latin America: Chile, Argentina, and International Human Rights, Thomas C. Wright, p. 102, Rowman & Littlefield, 2007
- Decree No. 2770/75. NuncaMas.org, Decretos de aniquilamiento.
- Decree No. 2771/75. NuncaMas.org, Decretos de aniquilamiento.
- Decree No. 2772/75. NuncaMas.org, Decretos de aniquilamiento.
- Listado de Desaparecidos. Proyecto Desaparecidos. (Spanish)
- Crenshaw, Martha: Terrorism in Context. Penn State Press, 1995, p. 236
- Argentina to answer rebels 'with the language of guns', The Montreal Gazette, October 8, 1975
- Montoneros ataca a un Regimiento del Ejército Argentino (Spanish)
- Argentine troops rout rebel raid, Sydney Morning Herald, October 7, 1975
- http://www.elortiba.org/mch.html#Entrevistas_a_Gustavo_Plis-Sterenberg Entrevistas a Gustavo Plis-Sterenberg. By Luciana Bertoia. El ORTIBA.
- Review of the River Plate: A weekly journal dealing with commercial financial and economic affairs, 30 December 1975, p. 1021
- One generation of Argentines at war with another, Richard O' Mara, The Baltimore Sun, January 18, 1976
- Argentine theatre hit by bomb The Spokesman-Review December 31, 1975
- Guerrillas and Generals: The Dirty War in Argentina, Paul H. Lewis, page 113, Greenwood Publishing Group, 2002
- 'Viet war' growing in Argentina, James Nelson Goodsell, The Baltimore Sun, January 18, 1976
- Guerrillas and Generals: The Dirty War in Argentina, Paul H. Lewis, page 125, Greenwood Publishing Group, 2002
- Political Violence and Trauma in Argentina, Antonius C. G. M. Robben, P. 201, University of Pennsylvania Press (25/01/2005)
- Operativo Independencia
- Ex soldados exigen una pensión El Siglo 15/12/2007
- Volvieron a aparecer públicamente los ex soldados que reivindican el Operativo Independencia, 11/02/2009
- Guerrillas and generals: the "Dirty War" in Argentina. Page 126. By Paul H. Lewis
- http://www.elsigloweb.com/portal_ediciones/369/portal_notas/16188-ex-soldados-del-operativo-independencia-buscan-apoyo El Siglo 24/03/2008]
- 11/02/2009 Estafan a ex soldados con rumores de pensiones: cobran $ 500 por trámite Clarín.com 03/07/2007
- El estado terrorista argentino: Quince años después, una mirada crítica, Eduardo Luis Duhalde, page 339, Eudeba, 1999