Argentina: Videla, from “Friendly Neighbor” to Bloody Dictator

By Eduardo Diana on September 18, 2023

the dictator Videla at home with his wife

In the neighborhood where he lived with his wife and seven children they remember him as a “good neighbor”, but warn that later he showed he was actually “full of demons”. The mentally challenged son he was hiding and whose care was entrusted to the French nuns Duquet and Domon. The boy’s internment in the Montes de Oca Colony and his death, all under strict secrecy. The Catholic militancy and his refusal to intercede for former neighbors and fellow members of religious groups who had disappeared.

A little more than two years after getting married, the couple bought their first house, in Hurlingham. It was a villa without luxuries, not very big, with a tile gable roof, a small garden and a park. There was no reason to believe that this tall and extremely skinny man, who on weekends wore a T-shirt and shorts to wash his car on the sidewalk, would become a bloody dictator years later.

Jorge Rafael Videla and his wife Alicia Hartridge lived in that house in Hurlingham between 1951 and 1966, in the area of Parque Quirno, three blocks from the residential Barrio de los Ingleses and about ten from the railway station. There, in a rapid succession, perhaps guided by the Catholic maxim “those whom God commands”, the couple had seven children: five boys and two girls. The house consisted of two bedrooms, a small room, living room, kitchen and bathroom. As the family grew, Videla made modifications to the house so that the couple and their ever-growing brood could live more or less comfortably.

In those years, Videla showed himself as a serious, kind and respectful man. “In the neighborhood there was the memory that he was a good neighbor. Afterwards, we all know what happened. He was full of demons inside”, says a woman who lives in the same block -Miranda al 1800- where the Videla family had their house.

The house where the Videla family lived in Hurlingham between 1951 and 1966.

The testimonies that define him as a “good neighbor” are repeated and also describe his family as “normal”. Alejandro, owner for 40 years of the house where the genocidal killer lived, says that a friend told him that in summer he played in the street with Videla’s children and that his wife every day “prepared a snack for all the kids in the neighborhood”. He also commented that if someone told him “why didn’t he bring some enlisted men to take care of the garden, Videla got angry and answered that the soldiers were there to serve the fatherland”.

“The Videlas left an image of a united family, with a father who worked all day long and a wife devoted to housewife tasks”, say María Seoane and Vicente Muleiro in the book El Dictador, where they also relate that “the family economy was very tight” and that the home was only visited by Videla’s mother and Alicia Hartridge’s father.

A crusader in the holy war

“What was deceiving was his austere and simple lifestyle, that gave him a trait of humanity. He used to buy sneakers around the corner from his house in a very modest store, which he sold to his neighbors in installments,” says Eduardo, who was a child when Videla lived a block from his house.

Susana, a long-time Peronist militant in Hurlingham, recalls that she did not like his undisguised military man look when she saw him on Saturdays riding his horse along the dirt streets. “He would sit  upright, proud, always looking straight ahead, as if he were on parade,” she describes angrily.

In the book Apuntes del Horror, authors Fabián Domínguez and Alfredo Sayus reproduce an article by Laura de Pedri, where she draws a profile far from the image that Videla showed in his neighborhood life: “He had everything solved. The world was divided in two: bad and good, black and white, believers and atheists. To sleep in peace with his conscience, he took communion every Sunday, with his bible under his arm and his gesture was humble and recollected”.

Laura’s father had established a certain closeness with Videla in the Catholic Family Movement (MFC) of Hurlingham and called him Videlito. “They were united by the same generation of jazz and fox-trot, the same concepts to educate children and the pride of middle class with possibilities of promotion,” he adds in the note titled Bien, published in the newspaper El Espejo, of Hurlingham, a few days after Videla was arrested (June 14, 1988) for the appropriation of five minors. “I know that (my father) did not forgive himself for his innocence of believing that Videla was a human being just like him. He never lied to him, he never lied, he was a crusader. In the name of the homeland, he believed he was the chosen one for the redemptive mission of saving it and he shamelessly showed the entrails of horror, raising them as a banner of holy war”.

The family secret and the French nuns

The family photos always showed the Videla couple and six of their seven children. Never was Alejandro Eugenio, the third of the five sons, born in 1951.

Alejandro had been diagnosed with “profound oligophrenia,” something that scarred the family. In 1956, the Army sent Videla on a commission to Washington so that he could treat his son. The doctors’ diagnosis was devastating. The boy had a very rare genetic problem and there was no treatment for his pathology. He was told that he had to be hospitalized.

The couple returned from the United States in despair and decided to take Alejandro to the Catechesis House in Morón, whose priest, Ismael Calcagno, was a cousin of Videla’s wife. The boy was under the care of two French nuns: Renée Léonie Duquet and Alice Domon. The nuns, who belonged to the Congregation of the Sisters of the Foreign Missions, had arrived in the country in the early 1950s.

In Morón, the children arrived in the morning, were fed, bathed and cared for until nightfall. The French nun Yvonne Pierron, who died in 2017, a survivor of the dictatorship and who was a missionary in the west of Greater Buenos Aires with Duquet and Domon told in an interview that Alejandro, when Videla picked him up at night, “hugged Duquet and cried and shouted that he did not want to return home”.

History had a tragic paragraph reserved for those self-sacrificing nuns. In December 1977, in the midst of an international scandal, Duquet and Domon were kidnapped during the brutal dictatorial regime headed by the father of the boy they cared for with affection and understanding.

As Alejandro grew up, the family situation became unmanageable. Seoane and Muleiro tell in El Dictador that “Alejandro began to attack his siblings. He had a special room, with padded walls because he used to hit his brothers”. When the young man’s outbreaks began to be more and more frequent and serious, they decided to hospitalize him. The place chosen was the Montes de Oca Clinic, in Luján, a neglected and gloomy psychiatric hospital, where Dr. Cecilia Giubileo disappeared in 1985.

“The couple lived with Alejandro until he was about to turn 13. Videla and his wife kept that situation in strict secrecy. Alejandro died in that asylum at the age of 19, in June 1971. The Videla family not only hid him while he was alive, but also kept his death a secret,” says journalist and historian Rody Rodríguez. The place where he was buried was also kept under family secrecy.

Between Catholic faith and disregard for life

In Hurlingham, Videla was part of the Catholic Family Movement, where he was the only military member of the group. “Every Sunday he went with his family to the 11 o’clock Mass at Sacred Heart Church. Sometimes they would walk the 25 or 30 blocks to the church and sometimes they would use an IKA Pond. There were some third-world priests in the church and since we knew what Videla thought, we asked them not to give him communion,” says Cristina, who had begun to join the JP in those years.

At the masses, Videla would hurry to assist the priest and was in charge of the biblical readings. The MFC included Catholic families, but of diverse ideologies. In those meetings Videla had strong discussions, especially with accountant Horacio Palma, a leftist man who lived three blocks away from Videla and who made no effort to hide his dislike for the military.

Palma, during the military dictatorship of his former neighbor, was abducted from his home on January 11, 1977 by four men in civilian clothes with long guns. He was clandestinely detained at ESMA, while his house and farm in Mendoza passed into Massera’s hands through a fictitious sale.

Several former neighbors and comrades of the Hurlingham MFC met with Videla to ask him for Palma, including his wife, whom he treated very badly. The messianic dictator’s response to these desperate pleas to save a life was more or less always the same: “I can’t do anything”.

In Palma’s case, perhaps a revenge for old arguments, he also questioned why he should intercede: “It’s not worth it, he’s a communist”, he said. His former neighbors also asked him for a missing Catholic worker and the dictator argued that he had no chance to intervene and that he was most likely to be found lying in a ditch.

In 1977, Santiago Cañas, a retired military officer who had worked as a clerk in the Montes de Oca Colony, sent him a letter asking for his kidnapped daughter. “I appeal to your human and Christian feelings and in memory of that son of yours who was interned in the Montes de Oca Colony to give me information about the whereabouts of my daughter Angélica”. Not even the memory of his deceased son softened the heart of the coup leader. The letter with the answer was sent that same day: “There are times when I cannot do anything”, Videla replied to that father as hopeless as himself when he received the report of his son’s illness.

Among the hundreds of tragic cases that touched the dictator closely, the disappearance of the French nuns is perhaps the most atrocious, given the relationship they had had with his disabled son. Videla knew that they had been kidnapped and that they were in the ESMA. Yet they were tortured, loaded onto a death flight and thrown alive into the sea.

The old dictator died in a toilet of the Marcos Paz prison, almost as a mockery for a man who felt all-powerful and master of the fate of thousands of lives. A man without nuances: merciless, messianic and cruel. Who behaved like a friendly neighbor but who finally showed that he was a monstrous character, capable of being at the head of the bloodiest and darkest dictatorship that scourged Argentina.

Source: Página12 translation Resumen Latinoamericano – English