Emilio Massera dies at 85; member of Argentine junta that waged ‘dirty war’

Emilio Massera, a former Argentine admiral and member of the military junta that toppled President Isabel Peron in 1976 and waged a “dirty war” against political opponents, has died. He was 85.

Massera died Monday of a cerebral hemorrhage, said Ruben Venedus, chief of clinical medicine at the naval hospital in Buenos Aires. Massera was considered too ill and senile to be prosecuted for stealing the babies of jailed dissidents and other crimes during the 1976-1983 dictatorship.

Massera, junta President Jorge Videla and other coup leaders took power when Argentina was torn by leftist guerrilla violence and counterattacks by military forces and death squads. Many considered Massera to be the brains behind the junta’s “dirty war” campaign against political opponents, which resulted in nearly 13,000 deaths and disappearances, according to official records. Human rights groups put the toll closer to 30,000.

His atrocities were brought to light through the testimony of hundreds of survivors during the historic trial of junta leaders in 1985, when he was sentenced to life for murder, illegal imprisonment, tortures and robbery.


“If there was a war, naturally there were excesses,” Massera said in 1985. “I feel responsible but not guilty. There is no hate in my heart.”

Under Massera’s authority, the Navy Mechanics School in Buenos Aires became Argentina’s main clandestine torture center. About 5,000 people were held in its cells; less than half survived.

Emilio Eduardo Massera, who was born in 1925, served less than five years in prison before then-President Carlos Menem granted him and other coup leaders amnesty in what he called a gesture of reconciliation.

Later, when dictatorship figures were charged with stealing babies, Massera’s ill health kept him out of prison — until he was photographed walking briskly down the street one day. Outraged, a judge sent him back behind bars for a time.

When the Supreme Court declared the amnesties unconstitutional in 2005, it confirmed that Massera suffered from dementia and suspended all cases against him, as well as extradition requests from Germany, Italy, Spain and France to face murder trials in the deaths of their citizens in Argentina.