Medical collaboration with authoritarian regimes historically has served to facilitate the use of torture as a tool of repression and to justify atrocities with the language of public health. Because scholarship on medicalized killing and biomedicalist rhetoric and ideology is heavily focused on Nazi Germany, this article seeks to expand the discourse to include other periods in which medicalized torture occurred, specifically in Argentina from 1976 to 1983, when the country was ruled by the Proceso de Reorganización Nacional military regime. The extent to which medical personnel embedded themselves within the Proceso regime’s killing apparatus has escaped full recognition by both scholars and human rights activists. This article reconstructs the narrative of the Proceso’s human rights abuses to argue that health professionals knowingly and often enthusiastically facilitated, oversaw, and participated in every phase of the “disappearance,” torture, and mass murder process.
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In the original Spanish: “pongamos todos en recuperar la salud nacional. … Hay que limpiar al país de subversion, pero hay que entender que no solo son subversivas las organizaciones terroristas de la ideología que fueren, sino que subversivos son también los saboteadores ideológicos, y aquellos que con soluciones fáciles inciten a una nueva postergación de nuestro destino.” Translation by the author.
From 1875 through the early 1900s, Argentina’s per capita gross domestic product growth rates averaged between approximately 4 percent and 6.5 percent per year, outpacing Great Britain, France, Germany, Italy, the United States, Canada, and Australia (see Cortés Conde 2009).
In the original Spanish: “entendemos claramente, que ésta es el estado de salud de un pueblo, y este país ha estado enfermo durante demasiado tiempo como para curarse de repente. Por eso debemos comprender, que recién empieza la convalencencia, un período que sin lugar a dudas será más o menos prolongado, según el empeño que pongamos todos en recuperar la salud nacional.” Translation by the author.
To describe fascism, Roger Griffin coined the term “palingenetic ultra-nationalism,” meaning a political movement “whose mobilizing vision is that of the national community rising phoenix-like after a period of encroaching decadence which all but destroyed it” (Griffin 1991, 38).
According to one scholar, “the ‘subversion’ with which Argentine officers were so preoccupied was very much a cultural construction, specifically, an interpretation of human nature, history, and national identity not entirely amenable to empirical confirmation—or rebuttal” (Osiel 2001, 119).
In the original Spanish: “Esta coagulación de la ética es, en realidad, el virus más corrosivo de la estructura social.”
For the Mexican Nobel laureate Octavio Paz, denying a group of people a place within society, even a second-class place, formed one of humanity’s worst crimes: “New Spain committed many horrors, but at least it did not commit the gravest of all: that of denying a place, even at the foot of the social scale, to the people who composed it. There were classes, castes and slaves, but there were no pariahs, no persons lacking a fixed social condition and a legal, moral and religious status” (Paz 1991, 102–103).
Argentine activists Daniel Frontalini and María Cristina Caiati first put forward this theory of the “Dirty War Myth” in 1984 (see Andersen 1993, 5–6).
Massera said of Marx: “cuestiona el carácter inviolable de la propiedad privada”; of Freud: “el espacio sagrado del fuero íntimo es agredido”; of Einstein “la que queda en crisis la condición estática e inerte.” Translation by the author.
Paranoia and belief in conspiracy theories are common qualities of Argentine Nationalism. Raúl Scalabrini Ortiz, a prominent advocate of “left nationalism,” claimed that “the North Americans, under the direction of Henry Ford, are going to erect a giant factory for manufacturing ‘standard’ humans” to control the world. Scalabrini Ortiz also believed that Argentina was a giant man and Argentines were its cells: “The spirit of the land is a giant man. Because of his immeasurable size he is for us invisible, just like we are to microbes … We are infinitely small cells of his body.” In the original Spanish: “Los norteamericanos, bajo la dirección de Ford, van a erigir una fábrica gigante para hacer hombres standards”; “el espiritu de la tierra es un hombre gigantesco. Por su tamaño desmesurado es tan invisible para nosotros, como los somos nosotros para los microbios… Somos células infinitamente pequeñas de su cuerpo” (Ortiz 1964, 127 and 19).
Approximately 8 percent of people who were “disappeared” during the Proceso regime were Jewish, despite Jews comprising only 1 percent of the total population in Argentina. The Argentine Jewish community was, and still is, the largest in Latin America (The Economist 2007, 41).
Members of the military often discussed torture in euphemistic terms, using phrases such as “persuasion,” “intensive therapy,” “work,” “treatment,” and “interrogation” (see Feitlowitz 1998, 59).
There are many names for these prisons, called “concentration camps” by Amnesty International, “secret detention centres” by the Argentine National Commission on the Disappeared, and pozos, or “wells,” in Argentine vernacular (CONADEP 1986, 51). This essay will use the term “secret detention centers.”
In fact, in El Club Atlético secret detention center in Buenos Aires, the torture chamber was actually inside the building’s infirmary, a setup designed to facilitate the medical supervision of torture sessions (see Amnesty International 1980, 5–6).
According to Adolfo Scilingo, he observed the use of a coast guard Skyvan and a naval aviation Electra for these “death flights,” suggesting that multiple branches of the armed forces were directly involved in mass murder (see Verbitsky 1996).
To be fair, a lot of the information about death flights became known after the publication of the Nunca Más report in 1984.
The electric cattle prod was an Argentine invention first used in stockyards to direct cattle to the slaughterhouse. The Argentine police later adapted it for use in interrogation and torture sessions. The tool has a metal tip connected to two electrical poles that produce a charge when put in contact with skin (see Verbitsky 1996).
Despite the willingness of doctors to forge death certificates, the vast majority the Proceso regime’s victims had no grave and no death certificate to falsify. They simply disappeared, their deaths or sometimes even their very existence denied by the military government.
The journalist and desaparecido Rodolfo J. Walsh described the Proceso regime as having a “genocidal magnitude” in his celebrated 1977 essay, “Open Letter From a Writer to the Military Junta” (quoted in Verbitsky 1996, 81).
The grey area of prisoner-doctor collaboration with human rights abuses has been explored in the context of the Holocaust: “It is difficult to pass judgment on the behavior of inmates. It’s difficult to accuse the Jews of the Sonderkommando of helping to kill their fellow Jews by pushing them into the gas chambers. It was done under pressure which deprived them of their will. But there were times when a man went over the border of what we could expect from him—did more than what was demanded or required—when he performed functions with sadistic satisfaction or even did certain things before he received any orders and in that way anticipated the Nazis. These things we may consider as crimes. Perhaps the doctor’s case is a little different because doctors are bound by their professional ethic, and physicians are people with higher education” (Lifton 1986, 252).
Even historical monographs on Argentine history engage in medical metaphor. In The Crisis of Argentine Capitalism, the author writes that Argentines “spend much time analyzing their society’s short-comings and prescribing remedies, like patients suffering from a rare, wasting disease” (Lewis 1992, 1).
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The author wishes to thank Magda Teter, Ann M. Wightman, and Geoffrey de Laforcade for their guidance.
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Perechocky, A. Los Torturadores Medicos: Medical Collusion With Human Rights Abuses in Argentina, 1976–1983. Bioethical Inquiry 11, 539–551 (2014). https://doi.org/10.1007/s11673-014-9544-1
- Medical ethics
- Human rights abuse
- Political dissent