This article will feature in issue 37: Oppression and Resistance

After three previously unsuccessful attempts, the Argentine military overthrew the internally divided Peron government as part of the US-backed Operation Condor, and established a military junta in March 1976. Thus began the National Reorganization Process– the official term for the genocide of left wing political and ideological dissidents of the junta.  General Iberico Saint Jean, governor of the Buenos Aires Province encapsulates the bloodthirsty nature of the regime:“First, we will kill all the subversives, then their collaborators; later, those who sympathize with them; afterward, those who remain indifferent, and finally, the undecided”

Compounding the systematic murder of an estimated 30,000 individuals, the state abused its power to erase the documents and identities of its victims, the desaparecidos (the disappeared). By indiscriminately targeting all perceived enemies of the state and censoring the media, the junta regime created an atmosphere of terror, hoping to break the bonds of solidarity to ensure its survival. In this oppressive climate, the Mothers of the Plaza de Mayo demanded answers to the whereabouts of their disappeared children, and were the first organized group to protest against the human rights violations of the junta.

In April 1977, Azucena Villaflor de De Vincenti and 14 mothers of desaparecidos gathered in the public square outside the presidential palace in Buenos Aires. Wearing white scarves embroidered with their children’s names and birth dates, the Mothers defied the government ban on gatherings of more than three people to bring the disappearance of their children and other desaparecidos to public attention. Protesting weekly, the Mothers gained national attention through word of mouth, and international recognition which prompted an Inter American Commission on Human Rights report. The report brought to light illegal detention centres, torture, and clandestine murders, finally exposing the atrocities committed against the disappeared. 

Since the end of the regime in 1983, the Mothers worked with teams of geneticists to test the DNA of discovered bodies in order to identify them and undo the erasure imposed by the regime. Moreover, the new democratic government started to collect testimonies about the disappeared and prosecuted ex-members of the regime, commencing with the Trial of the Juntas in 1985.There have since been over 1,000 trials on the human rights abuses during the junta regime, resulting in 700 sentences.

Motherhood and gender issues were central to this movement, and the success of the Mothers is more remarkable when considering the male dominated military regime they were protesting against. By incorporating their identity as mothers into the struggle against oppression, they opened new ways into civic participation and challenged the notion of female passivity, all while being committed to, and in some cases, achieving their cause: justice for their children. 

By Lauren Kelly