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Emilio Massera: Argentinian junta member who led the 'dirty war'

A member of the junta that ruled Argentina in the late 1970s during which time tens of thousands of people were killed, he remained utterly unrepentant until his death.

Emilio Massera watches Air Force Day celebrations at El Palomar Base in Argentina in 1975.
Emilio Massera watches Air Force Day celebrations at El Palomar Base in Argentina in 1975.

With Jorge Videla and Orlando Agosti, Emilio Massera formed the military junta that ousted the Argentinian president, Isabel Eva Perón, widow of Juan Domingo Perón, in 1976.

In the dictatorship that followed, under Videla's leadership, an estimated 30,000 citizens were killed or vanished without trace. Massera, as overseer of the largest clandestine detention centre of the dictatorship, was personally responsible for torture, abuse and murder and remained utterly unrepentant until his death following a cerebral haemorrhage.

Fiercely ambitious, forceful but small in stature, Massera was invited to attend a course at the School of the Americas, at the time situated in Panama, on the strength of his vehement opposition to communism. The institution was a breeding ground for many of the region's future dictators, who were persuaded to adopt a model of US nationalism over development of a Latin American identity.

Aligning himself with the former president, Gen Juan Domingo Perón, who was living in exile in Madrid after his removal from power in 1955, Massera also befriended Perón's third wife, Isabel.

Perón returned to power in 1973. Upon his death in 1974, the presidency passed to Isabel, who, together with José López Rega, known as El Brujo, "The Warlock", for his reputation as an occultist and fortune-teller, as her minister for social welfare, managed to propel the country into a spectacular decline.

With little ambition or experience of politics, Isabel Perón ruled only in name as El Brujo became de facto prime minister. As the country imploded under a wave of politically motivated murders, public threats from leftist extremists and a series of industrial strikes, the three armed forces, seeing the opportunity for a coup was ripe, took action. They had the backing of Washington, which, under the banner of Operation Condor, sponsored various coups d'état in South America.

At first, many Argentinians welcomed the coup in the hope it would bring an end to the chaos of Perón's brief spell in power. Soon, it became apparent that the junta was indulging its own violent tastes. Thousands were killed or "disappeared" in what became known as Argentina's "dirty war".

Under Massera's direction, the military tortured most of its prisoners at the Naval School of Mechanics before tossing them from aeroplanes, dead or alive, into the River Plate. A linguistic pedant who crafted his speeches obsessively and was known for his quasi-messianic oratory, Massera told his officers in a pep talk as they prepared to jettison human cargo into the waters: "Death will not triumph here because all of our dead, each and every one, died for the triumph of life."

In 1978 Massera stepped down from the junta. Four years later, the dictatorship collapsed after Argentina's defeat by Britain in the Falklands War.

In 1985, he was convicted of murder, torture and robbery but served only five years of his sentence before being released under an amnesty law. There was no need to apologise for the abuses he was accused of perpetrating, he argued, as the military was fighting a war against left-wing subversion.

In 1998, he was put under house arrest on charges of stealing babies born to political prisoners and arranging for their illegal adoption to his and his cronies' financial advantage: that charge was not covered by the amnesty law. In 2007, his life sentence was reinstated after the courts ruled that the amnesty law was unconstitutional.

Massera was married to Delia Vieyra and had two daughters and three sons.

Born October 19, 1925. Died November 8, 2010.

* The National