Demonstrators protest outside the Buenos Aires City Legislature against an...

Demonstrators protest outside the Buenos Aires City Legislature against an event organized by Victoria Villarruel, the running mate of Freedom Advances party presidential candidate Javier Milei, to honor the 1970´s victims of armed leftist groups. Credit: AP/Natacha Pisarenko

BUENOS AIRES, Argentina — Human rights activists surrounded the Buenos Aires City Legislature on Monday to denounce an event honoring victims of armed leftist groups during the 1970s, when Argentina was engulfed by political violence.

The tribute was arranged by Victoria Villaruel, the running-mate of right-wing populist presidential candidate Javier Milei, and demonstrators called it an attempt to change the narrative about crimes against humanity perpetrated by the country’s last military dictatorship.

Villaruel, a lawmaker, has long defended military officers convicted of crimes against humanity during the bloody 1976-1983 dictatorship.

“For 40 years, the victims of terrorism were erased from memory, swept under the rug of history,” Villaruel said at the event, where attendance was tightly controlled.

Police set up barriers around the City Legislature to keep back hundreds of demonstrators who said the event sought to reinstall the idea that the military dictatorship carried out its crimes as part of a civil war with leftist guerilla groups.

The event took place weeks after Milei shook up Argentina’s political landscape by receiving the most votes in national primary elections, positioning him as a leading candidate for next month's presidential election.

Among the protesters was Cecilia De Vincenti, whose mother, Azucena Villaflor, founded the group Mothers of Plaza de Mayo to demand information about people disappeared during the dictatorship and was herself detained and killed.

Demonstrators are kept behind a barrier as they protest outside...

Demonstrators are kept behind a barrier as they protest outside the Buenos Aires City Legislature against an event organized by Victoria Villarruel, the running mate of Freedom Advances party presidential candidate Javier Milei, to honor the 1970´s victims of armed leftist groups. Credit: AP/Natacha Pisarenko

“I think that with the votes that Milei got in the primaries, and that Villaruel is his running-mate, makes them feel empowered and that the people will support these things. But I don’t think that’s true,” de Vincenti said.

The event included brief talks by three people who had family members slain by leftist guerrillas in the 1970s before the 1976 military coup.

Argentina’s military junta that ruled from 1976 through 1983 is widely considered the most deadly of the dictatorships that ruled much of Latin America in the 1970s and 1980s. It detained, tortured and killed people suspected of opposing the regime. Human rights groups estimate 30,000 were slain, many of whom disappeared without a trace.

Argentina has done more than any other country in the region to bring military officers to justice and has held 296 trials relating to dictatorship-era crimes against humanity since 2006, after amnesty laws were struck down. In those, 1,115 people have been convicted, according to the Public Prosecutor’s Office.

Javier Milei's' running mate Victoria Villarruel enters the Buenos Aires...

Javier Milei's' running mate Victoria Villarruel enters the Buenos Aires City Legislature to honor the 1970´s victims of armed leftist groups, in Buenos Aires, Argentina, Sept. 4, 2023, as human rights groups hold a protest outside. Credit: AP/Natacha Pisarenko

But some Argentines, including relatives of former military officers, argue that not enough has been done to prosecute crimes committed by armed leftist groups in the 1970s.

“There are victims on both sides, we have to recognize that,” said one attendee, Claudia Ippolito.

Organizers of the event took pains to emphasize they do not defend the crimes committed by the dictatorship.

“We aren’t endorsing the dictatorship or the tragic consequences of that violation of the democratic pact. In fact, our group strongly and unequivocally condemns it,” said Buenos Aires city legislator Lucia Montenegro, who hosted the event alongside Villaruel and is also a member of Milei's party.

But Alan Iud, a human rights lawyer who has participated in trials relating to dictatorship-era crimes, said it was clear the event was “something more than a simple tribute event.”

Iud said there is concern among human rights activists that a Milei victory in the election could translate into a change in the way dictatorship-era crimes are judged.

“They’re looking for symmetry regarding crimes of state terrorism and that cannot be condoned,” Iud said, arguing that crimes committed by the state cannot be compared to those carried out by individual groups.

Villaruel said the protest illustrated how some want to keep part of Argentina's history hidden.

“Those who prevent our pain from being remembered are the ones who, in the name of human rights, only seek democracy for themselves and human rights exclusively for themselves,” she said.

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