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Leopoldo Galtieri, 76; Dictator Ordered Invasion of Falklands

January 13, 2003|Hector Tobar | Times Staff Writer

BUENOS AIRES — Leopoldo Galtieri, the dictator who ordered Argentina's ill-fated 1982 invasion of the Falkland Islands in a desperate bid to keep his teetering military regime in power, died Sunday of complications from cancer. He was 76.

The third of four military leaders who ruled Argentina from 1976 to 1983, Galtieri spent his last years as a broken, ridiculed figure. Since July, he had been living under house arrest in Villa Devoto, a middle-class neighborhood here, facing charges of human-rights violations during his military career.

He often endured the jeers of protesters, who gathered to beat pots and pans outside his home.

Between 9,000 and 30,000 people disappeared during the "dirty war" that Argentina's military junta waged against all forms of dissent, sending plainclothes agents to kidnap student activists, intellectuals and others. Most of the junta's victims were tortured and murdered, their bodies buried in secret or tossed from planes into the Atlantic Ocean.

A 1949 graduate of the U.S. Army's School of the Americas, Galtieri was known for his vanity -- "the majestic general," one American official called him -- and for his hard drinking. He was an army corps commander when the military junta toppled the hapless government of Maria Estela Peron in 1976.

Galtieri commanded the 2nd Army Corps, based in Rosario, during the bloodiest years of the dictatorship. Ramiro Montesinos, the Spanish consul in the city from 1975 to 1977, said he once confronted Galtieri about Spanish citizens who had disappeared in the city. Montesinos feared they had been captured by a paramilitary task force that targeted dissidents.

Galtieri showed the diplomat a briefcase belonging to one of the missing men. He told the consul that the missing man "was a subversive and made it clear that the task force operated under his control," Montesinos told a Spanish judge investigating the case two decades later.

In 1979, Galtieri became Army commander and a dominant member of the junta, controlling events behind the scenes until Dec. 22, 1981, when Roberto Viola was deposed in an internal coup. Galtieri became president.

By then, Argentina had slipped deep into economic crisis. With even conservative union members taking to the streets to demonstrate against military rule, Galtieri decided it was time to play his trump card -- the invasion of the Falklands.

Claimed by Spain, France and Britain and then by a newly independent Argentina in 1820, the islands had been occupied continuously by London since 1832, when British troops had expelled the Argentine governor. Generations of Argentine schoolchildren since have been taught that the British "occupation" is a stain on their country's honor.

On April 2, 1982, Galtieri ordered the invasion of the islands, known to Argentines as the Malvinas, then home to about 2,000 British citizens. The small British garrison was quickly defeated.

Thousands crowded the Plaza de Mayo in Buenos Aires to cheer Galtieri's audacity.

But the invasion was based on self-delusion. Galtieri was certain that Britain would simply accept the fait accompli of Argentine sovereignty, rather than send an armada 7,500 miles to recapture the wind-swept territory about 230 miles off Argentina's coast.

Galtieri also counted on American support, because his junta was a key, staunchly anti-Communist ally of the Reagan administration.

Instead, British Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher immediately ordered a task force to set sail to retake the islands, reaching the South Atlantic with U.S. support. Galtieri and his commanders had drafted no contingency plan to defend the islands against a British counterattack.

On May 2, in the deadliest episode of the war, a British submarine sank the Argentine cruiser General Belgrano.

"I have 400 dead Argentines," Galtieri declared after the sinking. "And if it's necessary to save our honor, Argentina is willing to have 4,000 or 40,000 more." In all, more than 900 Argentine and British troops were killed.

On June 14, with the British surrounding Stanley, the islands' capital, the Argentine governor defied Galtieri's orders and surrendered. Three days later, Galtieri's fellow generals deposed him. Argentina began a quick transition to democracy.

A military commission recommended that Galtieri be "degraded and shot by firing squad" for his role in the war. Instead, a tribunal sentenced him to 12 years in prison. In 1989, he was freed by then-President Carlos Menem.

In the years that followed, he would be called to testify several times as judges investigated crimes of the dirty-war era. An Italian judge charged him and two other generals in the disappearance of 11 Italian citizens. A Spanish judge issued an international arrest warrant for Galtieri on similar charges.

Then, last July, an Argentine judge charged the former dictator in the disappearance of 18 members of the leftist Montonero movement who had vanished shortly after their return to Argentina from exile in the 1970s. Galtieri remained under house arrest in that case until his death, though he was allowed to travel to a military hospital for medical treatment.

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