On July 3, an old man boarded a flight in Miami accompanied by a physician and four officers of interpol, the international police force. One would not have guessed from his polyester suit and diminutive appearance that Jose Lopez Rega was once Argentina’s most feared and powerful man.
Following a decade during which his whereabouts are a matter of conjecture, and three months in a Miami jail without bail, Lopez Rega was being extradited back home. The Argentines will prosecute him on charges of looting their treasury while he was minister of social welfare and for murders committed by a death squad he allegedly created.
The timing for his return does not bode well for Lopez Rega. A civilian government has already tried its military predecessors on charges of ordering the kidnapping, torture and “disappearance” of thousands of their fellow countrymen. The 1976-83 “dirty war” waged against leftist subversives was in no small way the legacy of Lopez Rega.
Lopez Rega was a federal police officer with fascist inclinations who guarded the presidential residence – and imagined himself its occupant – during Juan Peron’s first regime (1945-55). He was an aspiring tenor who once entertained an American visitor by crooning a Broadway standard. He was also an astrologer and mystic. He published “Esoteric Astrology: Secrets Unveiled” and other guides to the occult, for one of which he listed as co-author the Archangel Gabriel. Among his followers was a beautiful young dancer named Maria Estela (Isabelita) Martinez.
Plotting the return of Peron
Isabelita followed the beloved Evita to become Peron’s third wife. But she remained devoted to Lopez Rega. She had her husband fire his personal secretary and replace him with her guiding light. Lopez Rega would exploit his position to influence Peron and promote his own status in the right wing of the Peronist party.
When Lopez Rega joined his entourage, Peron had already been ousted by the military and was living in exile in Madrid. Spain was a haven for Nazi war criminals and for neo-Nazis who planned terrorist acts aimed at destabilizing the continent. Drawing advisers from this underworld, Lopez Rega plotted Peron’s restoration to power and, through him, his own future grip on Argentina. When the Argentina military allowed a presidential election in March 1973, the victor was a left-of-center Peronist. (“Peronism” was a complex populist movement with its base in organized labor and competing factions that spanned the political spectrum. Peron deftly played a balancing act, but preferred Mussolini as his personal model.)
Judging the aftermath of the election, the time to make his comeback, Peron returned to Buenos Aires on June 20, 1973, and was greeted by millions at Ezeiza airport. However, celebration would soon turn to tragedy, for the extreme right had foreseen Peron’s return as an opportunity to undermine the government.
With the aid of terrorists befriended in Madrid, Lopez Rega had already assembled a goon squad known as the Argentine Anti-Communist Alliance, also known as the Triple-A. In the midst of Peron’s homecoming, as chronicles by Danish journalist Henrik Kruger, the Triple-A and elements of the police attacked the crowd’s left-wing contingent with machine guns and grenades. One hundred were killed and 300 others wounded. Rumors were later floated, but never confirmed, that leftists had planned to assassinate Peron.
The Ezeiza massacre stunned even the Argentines, who were used to political violence. Under heavy pressure from the Peronist right, which Lopez Rega was beginning to dominate, the government was forced to resign.
An interim president was appointed. He was Raul Lastiri, the head of the chamber of deputies and a playboy who once told a magazine it could photograph him in bed with his wife, who happened to be the daughter of Lopez Rega.
A victory for Peron, Lopez Rega
That September, Peron won a landslide presidential victory. He had chosen Isabel as his running mate on Lopez Rega’s advice – a momentous decision since Peron’s health was failing. (According to Joseph Page’s “Peron,” Lopez Rega would claim Peron previously died in Madrid but that he, Lopez Rega, had resurrected him.)
Lopez Rega was appointed minister of social welfare, but improving the lot of the masses was not what he had in mind. As social welfare minister, Lopez Rega’s closest brush with humanitarian endeavor was when Isabel and he founded the “Solidarity Crusade” – purportedly to aid children, the elderly and the ill. The needy got little. Lopez Rega, according to current Argentine charges, misappropriated half a million dollars.
Lopez Rega’s Cabinet appointment drove leftists increasingly underground, swelling Triple-A target lists that Lopez Rega himself prepared.
Right-wing businessmen, affronted by Peron’s concessions to labor, undermined the economy with artificial shortages.
Hopes of maintaining stability faded with the strength of Peron’s heart. Following a trip abroad taken at the urging of Lopez Rega, but against the advice of his personal physicians, Peron died in July 1974. Argentina was left in the hands of Isabel, which in effect meant Lopez Rega.
Moderates were soon purged from the government. Extreme leftists, who had been periodically kidnapping and murdering prominent businessmen, military officers and Americans, escalated their activities and were arrested in larger numbers.
The Triple-A was called upon more frequently. Though its members took credit for assassinations, none were ever arrested, and kidnappings became police arrests.
Alberto Villar, chief of the federal police and a Lopez Rega crony whom leftists blamed for AAA impunity, was assassinated at the start of November 1974. A guerrilla group, the “Montoneros,” announced that next on their list was the man who paid the death squad, worked closely with the police chief and was in effective control of the government – Lopez Rega himself.
Within days, the government declared a state of siege, triggering a chain of events that would lead to the fall of Lopez Rega and the military’s resumption of power.
The state of siege aggravated an already deteriorating economy. Austerity measures led to labor unrest. When the Army was summoned to quell a strike, the commanding general resisted. He was replaced with a rightist more compliant with the wishes of Lopez Rega. Military brass was enraged, but would await the proper moment before retaliating.
In July 1975, a general strike was called. Demands included 160 percent higher wages and the resignation of key Cabinet officers. When the Army backed the unions, the Cabinet was reshuffled, and Lopez Rega was out in the cold.
He then fled – according to some reports, as Isabel’s roving ambassador – amid charges he had embezzled state funds. Soon afterward, military intelligence linked both Lopez Rega and his son-in-law, the president of the chamber of deputies, to a major cocaine-smuggling operation.
Ironically, a year earlier, Washington had increased funding for narcotics enforcement by the Argentine Federal Police – the enforcement apparatus through which Lopez Rega oversaw the Triple-A and, according to A.J. Langgueth’s “Hidden Terrors,” through which the CIA operated in Argentina at least through the late 1960s.
At a televised press conference in 1974, Lopez Rega, accompanied by American Ambassador Robert Hill, had announced: “We hope to wipe out the drug traffic in Argentina … Guerrillas are the main users of drugs in Argentina. Therefore, the antidrug campaign will automatically be an antiguerrilla campaign as well.”
In spring 1976, the Argentine armed forces ousted Isabel Peron and initiated a no-holds-barred campaign to exterminate leftist insurgency. Gory details have been recounted before. Members of the 1976-83 juntas were later charged with murder, torture and kidnapping in the disappearance of more than 9,000 Argentines, the majority of whom were only vaguely connected to the guerrillas. The military attributed 688 deaths to the leftists.
A civilian court last December sentenced a general and an admiral to life in prison and three of their colleagues to as many as 17 years in prison.
The contra connection
The man who got 17 years, Gen. Roberto Viola, had been welcomed to the White House in the spring of 1981, shortly after Ronald Reagan moved in. In the wake of his visit, Washington reversed the Carter administration’s policy of denying Argentina aid, and Argentine advisers recruited by the CIA began training the Nicaraguan rebel force now known as the contras.
Lopez Rega would be forgotten until June of last year. That month, Argentine authorities raided a secret arsenal in Buenos Aires and arrested members of a right-wing terrorist group connected to a series of bombings and kidnappings designed to destabilize the civilian government.
According to Interior Minister Raul Galvan, members of the group were linked to Lopez Rega’s Triple-A. The leader, who remained at large, was a former intelligence agent who was among those who had trained the contras.
Lopez Rega’s own whereabouts remained unknown until earlier this year when a female acquaintance inquired at the Argentine consulate in Miami about the possibility of renewing his passport. The FBI was tipped off, and a resourceful agent befriended the woman, with whom he shared an interest in classical music.
The agent obtained a telephone number at which Lopez Rega could be reached in the Bahamas. He convinced the 69 year-old former police officer that he should turn himself in here in the United States, where he would at least be entitled to a hearing.
His appeals failed. He is back at the scene of his alleged crimes. The trial will make a fitting epilogue to a sordid chapter in the history of authoritarian regimes.
Morris and Gold, Products of their Time | by Jerry Meldon | Typewritten manuscript, undated
The downfall of Bill Clinton’s top political strategist, Dick Morris, has got me thinking about another fellow 1964 graduate of Manhattan’s Stuyvesant High School – Ted Gold, now deceased. An anti-Vietnam War activist, Gold perished in the famous March 1970 bomb explosion at the Greenwich Village townhouse occupied by the far left “Weathermen.”
At first I thought Gold had nothing in common with Morris – who, before his sexual proclivities became public knowledge, was held in low esteem for being a seemingly unprincipled hired gun, willing to work for politicians of either party.
But the more I think about it, the more I believe that certain experiences – like seeing fellow Baby-Boomers returning from Saigon in coffins – bred life-transforming cynicism in both.
Ted Gold’s transformation is easily traced. At Columbia University, he was a sociology honor student and chapter vice chair of the country’s leading antiwar group, Students for a Democratic Society, SDS. He co-organized the anti-war strike that paralyzed Columbia in the fateful spring of 1968, during which both Martin Luther King and Robert Kennedy were assassinated. In January 1970, having left Columbia, he and 10 others were arrested in Pennsylvania for trashing a CBS television affiliate.
Then on March 6, 1970, Gold was sitting in the study of a 4-story townhouse on West 11th Street. Two other members of the SDS splinter group, the Weathermen, were in the basement assembling dynamite, when one of them mistakenly connected a wire. Gold’s body was discovered amidst the debris.
The violence they were planning was unconscionable. It crossed the line at the fringe of a spectrum of mechanisms through which the vast majority of Americans ultimately opposed the war. That opposition multiplied two weeks later when National Guardsmen shot dead four antiwar demonstrators at Kent State College in Ohio.
A quarter of a century later, America has yet to recover from its Indochina nightmare. Watergate, Iran-Contra, the S&L and other scandals and cover-ups have simply left many who have lived through it shaking their heads. Worst of all is the alienation from electoral campaigns reduced to sound bites and photo opportunities.
Is Dick Morris to be blamed for becoming the best at working this system? For becoming a master consultant who can elect politicians of any stripe?
No, I think Morris’s pragmatic approach to politics is simply his response to discovering things don’t work the way we were taught at Stuyvesant, a response that makes the most of his unique set of talents.
His success – until recently – is sadder comment on the playing ground than on the player.
[Photo of Richard Morris]
Jr. Arista; Gold Scholarship Cert.; Man. Champion Theodore Roosevelt Oratorical Contest; Second Place State-wide Hamilton College Extemporaneous Speaking Contest; Capt. Debating Team; Forum & Debate Club; History Soc.; G.O. College & Program Comm.
[Photo of Theodore Gold]
Silver Scholarship Cert.; Nat’l Merit Commendation; Bronze PSAL Award; Track & Cross-Country Teams; Forum Staff; Stamp Club; History & Folklore Soc.
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