Ex-Argentine president arrested in Spain

Detention signals expansion of human rights cases

January 13, 2007|By Patrick J. McDonnell | Patrick J. McDonnell,Los Angeles Times

BUENOS AIRES -- The arrest of former Argentine President Isabel Peron in Spain yesterday signaled an expansion of human rights cases here beyond the former military junta to the epoch of strongman Juan Domingo Peron, father of Argentina's current ruling party.

The 75-year-old former president, whose full name is Maria Estela Martinez de Peron, was arrested at her home near Madrid after a federal judge in Argentina issued a warrant for her detention, officials reported. A Spanish tribunal later ordered her conditional release pending an extradition request from Argentina.

She is wanted for questioning in connection with the disappearance of a student activist in February 1976, during her final weeks in power.

Isabel Peron is the widow and successor in office of her illustrious husband, three times elected president and an iconic and controversial figure in his homeland. As the vice president, the former dancer assumed the presidency when Juan Peron died in July 1974.

Argentina's only female president never enjoyed the popular acclaim of Peron's previous wife, the charismatic Eva Peron, who is idolized more than half a century after her death. Economic and political turmoil marked the disastrous rule of Isabel Peron, who was toppled in a military coup in March 1976.

The strongman's many admirers have largely ignored his dark side, such as his regime's welcoming of Nazi war criminals after World War II and the right-wing death squads that sprung up during his final term. Critics call him a demagogue who stifled freedoms and crushed dissent while admiring European fascists such as Benito Mussolini of Italy.

The current Peronist administration has aggressively targeted hundreds of abusers from the junta that succeeded the presidencies of Peron and his wife. The former military leaders are widely despised here, and Argentines have generally applauded their prosecutions.

But Juan Peron, with his exaltation of the working classes and strong ties to labor unions, remains a beloved figure for many. His singular political movement, which embraced elements of the left and right, dominates Argentine politics. Tens of thousands of devotees showed up last year when his remains, defiled long ago by grave robbers who cut off his hands, were moved to a lavish new mausoleum.

Now investigators are zeroing in on government-linked death squads that, human rights groups say, operated with impunity during the tumultuous 1970s rule of Peron and his widow. The sanctioned killers, human rights activists say, set the stage for the subsequent "dirty war" under military rule that cost the lives of as many as 30,000 people during a dictatorship that lasted from 1976 to 1983.

Isabel Peron is being sought in connection with decrees she signed in office that called on security forces to "annihilate subversive elements throughout the country." By then, the governing Peronists had turned violently against their former left-wing allies and forced them underground.

Whether the various inquiries will lead to Juan Peron and sully his image remains unclear.

Many think it unlikely that Peron will ever be despised as much as the former military rulers who "disappeared" thousands of opponents and led Argentina to the ruinous Falklands War in 1982.

Patrick J. McDonnell writes for the Los Angeles Times.

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