Earlier this month, the world observed the death of Luciano Benjamin Menendez, a former Argentine general who held a position of power in Argentina’s military junta from 1975 to 1979. As the head of the junta’s Third Army Corp, Menendez oversaw “anti-subversive” actions in ten Argentine provinces. During this time, he considered it his duty to combat “Marxist” forces under his purview, and he consequently ordered the murders, tortures and disappearances of thousands of people whom he considered subversive forces within the neighborhoods, schools and workplaces of those provinces.
His military training, which included a year in Fort Lee, VA and the mentorship of French military leaders, taught him to turn his focus toward an enemy that could be found “within society” rather than beyond the borders of his jurisdiction. His lifelong belief that the lives of others were his to control, coupled with his belief in his “mission”, gave rise to a psychological and professional profile that may help us better understand how dictatorships function and how individuals come under the sway of murderous ideologies that pave the way for massive crimes against humanity.
In one example of the many tactics that placed and held him in a position of power, Menendez was believed to “bloody the hands” of all those under his command, forcing them to participate in torture and homicide within an illegal detention center so that none of them could claim ignorance or innocence if and when his activities were investigated. His response to those who opposed him typically consisted of personal rage and violence, which once inspired him to brandish a knife and threaten a group of protesters at an airport, a moment famously captured on camera.
While we mourn the countless lives lost and grieving families left to process his unrepentant death, (which occurred at the age of 90 under house arrest while serving multiple life sentences) we may also closely examine his life and the cultural and political forces in effect during his era.
As we do so, we may add one more shade of understanding to the complex picture of how such events take place and how we may continue working to develop a system of international justice that can hold such individuals accountable for their crimes. Ideally, his story may help us prevent such events from taking place again.
Here’s a quiet, heartfelt essay published in the New York Times by Paula Monaco Felipe, who was born in Cordoba Argentina and lost her parents to Menendez during the junta. May her words and her loss inspire us to further our progress toward a sustainable global system of justice and accountability.