The Admiral’s Smile


It is still too soon to decide the significance of events which make up this narrative. They are part of a much larger story which has many beginnings but as yet no end. No doubt they will one day be set in their correct historical perspective, when events have cooled and taken their place alongside others perhaps more important to an understanding of Argentina’s troubled passage through the seventies and eighties. But by then events will have ceased to concern the people most directly involved. For Enrique Holmberg and Gregorio Dupont the issues are not historical. They are immediate, personal and hazardous. There is therefore some virtue in recording them now even if what there is to tell remains fragmentary and inconclusive.


The boundaries of belief

We can begin in Paris, in Buenos Aires, or in the crumbling renaissance piazzas of Arrezo. We can choose 1976, 1979, 1982. We can begin with a former minister of economy, with an astrologer who helped precipitate a terrorist war or with a retired admiral who sat as a member of the junta which kidnapped, tortured and murdered its way back along the road to peace. Some of the story is well documented, much more is supposition. This is the best we can hope for. For years Argentines have had to exist on a diet of rumour and speculation. Today – as ever – the truth is not easy to come by.

Even for the sceptical Portenos the scandal which broke in August 1982 was unusual. Its scale was quite simply beyond anything they had encountered before. The most diverse issues – a scandal in the national bank, the kidnapping and murder of a diplomat in 1978, a public argument between two politicians – turned out to be part of the same story. Scandals were nothing new, but within days this one had consumed every domestic and international issue in the news bulletins. Newspapers were a maze of cross references. So many well-known figures were implicated, so many familiar issues yoked together that the boundaries of belief were difficult to establish even approximately. Not for the first time the Portenos were caught in the paradox of their own scepticism – when nothing can be believed, anything is possible.

And then in October against a nebulous background of rumour and speculation one fact emerged precisely delineated – Marcelo Dupont, hands tied, his groin bearing the marks left by an electric cattle prod, was thrown from the fourth floor of a partially completed building in Palermo Chico and died on the pavement below.


Aleman v Massera

Six weeks earlier former minister of economy Juan Aleman had provided a welcome diversion from the dry speculations surrounding the visit of a team from the International Monetary Fund when he announced to the press his life was in danger and pointed an accusing finger at retired admiral Emilio Massera.

The exchanges which followed were public and acrimonious. Massera, one of the original members of the three-man junta which seized power in 1976, later turned politician and founded a political party – which, though it had its own newspaper “Cambio por una Democracia Social” lacked any visible supporters. Aleman called for Massera’s ‘private army’ to be disbanded; Massera suggested Aleman commit himself to a mental institution. After more than a week of verbal exchanges closely followed by the press Massera began legal proceedings. But events were working against him. Police in Geneva had arrested a man as he tired to withdraw more than a million dollars from a numbered account. The man was Licio Gelli, Grand Master of the ‘Propaganda Due’ masonic lodge.

Ever since the secret lodge was exposed (bringing down the Italian government in the process) it had been known the leadership had close connections with Argentina. Gelli as financial advisor to the Argentine embassy in Rome even held an Argentine diplomatic passport. When he was arrested police found two other Argentine passports, both issued under false names. More important to the Aleman-Massera confrontation, in a flat in Arezzo they found his files.

Information contained in the files suggested Massera was not only associated with the group, he was involved at the highest level, a member of the lodge’s inner circle and a close associate of Gelli’s. Back in Argentina it was discovered that Massera had his offices in a building owned by the Banco Ambrosiano, one of the financial institutions most deeply implicated in the scandal. Aleman accused Massera of protecting Gelli and hiding the grandmaster at a time when he was one of the most wanted men in Europe.

By now the confrontation was gathering a momentum of its own. Encouraged by Aleman’s outspokenness and the mounting evidence against Massera other figures were being drawn into the open. Among them was Enrique Holmberg whose name must have sounded familiar to many Argentines, and Gregorio Dupont whose name almost certainly would not.


Argentina’s caste system – the armed forces

Today’s Argentines have lived through some of the most difficult years in the country’s short history. A vicious circle of disastrous civilian government followed by military intervention followed by equally disastrous military government has proved impossible to break. The latest stage of the cycle began in 1976 when Isabel Peron acting on the advice of her personal astrologer, Lopez Rega, led the country to a state of unprecedented chaos. Terrorist groups were operating freely; there was the immediate prospect of open civil war. When the armed forces toppled her government the military intervention was welcomed by everyone. But few people can have predicted the excesses of the Dirty War which followed. The terrorists were defeated at the cost of thousands of innocent lives – the majority victims of the armed forces’ own terror tactics. Kidnapping, torture and murder were the hallmarks of the confrontation. The phenomenon of the desaparecidos was born. Union leaders, union members, journalists, teachers, civil rights activists, the young – all were regarded by military authorities as likely to harbour subversive tendencies.

The naivety of this classification was made possible by a caste system as clearly defined as any on the Indian sub-continent, a system in which each caste regards the others with scorn and suspicion. For the vast majority los militares epitomise privilege, power, ignorance and mediocrity; for the military establishment los civiles are undisciplined, unpredictable and inherently unreliable.

But the label los militares is misleading. The military establishment is not one homogenous grouping – almost the only thing the three armed forces agree on is the, to them, self evident fact that the civilian population is unsuited for exercising power. Between army, navy, and air force there is frequent rivalry, frequent tension and little communication. Among the groups the army is the most powerful; the navy traditionally the most reactionary. Each has its own security force which operates independently of the others but using the same methods. Thus they can not only act with impunity, they can act with anonymity.

During the Dirty War a security operation was habitually preceded by an instruction forbidding the local police to interfere. Several Ford Falcons without licence plates and driven by heavily armed men in civilian clothes would then descend on an area of town to gather suspects. People were taken from their places of work, from their homes, from restaurants surrounded by their families. Most were not seen again. When the operation was over the family could not even tell which of the armed forces had been responsible.


The Paris Pilot Centre

The excesses which characterised the country’s fight against terrorism further damaged an already ambiguous public image. By 1977 at the height of the Dirty War Argentina’s international standing had reached nadir.

On the other side of the Atlantic in Paris, Tomas de Anchorena, the Argentine ambassador decided something should be done. He proposed the setting up of a pilot centre in the French capital that could act as a public relations office. Its brief would be to offset the flow of adverse publicity by presenting an alternative image of Argentina, one which stressed its cultural achievements, its diversity and potential for growth. He envisaged a centre made up of writers and journalists who would work in conjunction with his press secretary, a career diplomat, whom he spoke of in the highest terms. Her name was Elena Holmberg.

The military authorities acted on the suggestion. But instead of the team of professionals Anchorena had asked for he was sent a group of naval officers. Some of them did not even speak French. Trouble began almost at once.

The naval officers refused to accept the authority of Anchorena as ambassador and answered only to their naval leaders in Buenos Aires. They frequented the most expensive restaurants and the most exclusive night clubs; their lifestyle in Paris quickly became something of a minor scandal. More significantly there was an inevitable collision with Elena Holmberg who played an important role in the centre and remained loyal to the ambassador. Anchorena protested and was rewarded with an attempt by the navy chief, Emilia Massera, to have him returned to Argentina. This was only prevented by the intervention of President Jorge Videla. However in 1977 Elena Holmberg, whose period in Paris had been extended at Anchorena’s request, was recalled to Buenos Aires. Shortly after the pilot centre was disbanded.


Elena Holmberg

A picture of Elena Holmberg appeared in the pages of La Prensa on the day she was abducted. She is acting as interpreter seated between President Videla and the French Ambassador to Buenos Aires. An attractive woman, modestly dressed, and with short dark hair she looks collected and capable – very much the intelligent, efficient administrator Anchorena described.

That same day as she tried to leave the underground carpark in the basement of her apartment building she was stopped by three men. According to the garage attendant who saw the kidnapping she left her Volkswagen and started to run, but was quickly caught, bundled into the back of a Ford Falcon and driven away. Some days later her body was found in the Rio Lujan at Tigre. She had been shot several times.

The killing followed the pattern of hundreds of others carried out by the security forces between 1976 and 1979. The type of car, the armed men in civilian clothes, the place the body was dumped – all of these were repeated hundreds of times over for people who fitted the military regimes image of subversivos. But Elena Holmberg was not a member of any political party or trade union. She had no contact with forces known to oppose the military regime. She was instead a declared supporter of the Process and associated with the leadership at the highest level. Her position might well have made her the target for a terrorist attack but none of the many groups operating at the time claimed responsibility for her death. So this abduction and murder was different, despite the familiarity of its machinery. It had the hallmark of a killing by the security forces. But the security forces had no reason to kill her.

It was not until August 1982 that her brother was able to persuade the judiciary to open an investigation into the murder.


El Processo Nacional de Reorganisacion

The Holmberg investigation was itself an indication that in a post-Malvinas Argentina the political climate was changing. It was abundantly clear by August 1982 that the much heralded National Reorganisation Process was bankrupt of ideas, personalities and even excuses.

With the defeat of the terrorists peace had returned to the streets of Buenos Aires. But despite a period of brief and illusory prosperity at the end of the seventies the Process was firmly set on a course to financial disaster. In twenty months six Presidents sat in the Casa Rosada. The external debt reached 36 billion dollars. The state of siege suspending the constitution entered its eighth year. Political activity was forbidden, strict censorship enforced.

But then with the removal of the junta which sent an army of conscripts to defeat in the ice and mud of the Malvinas, a perceptible change in mood occurred. Backed by the army alone and amid rumours of a coup a new general took over the presidency. General Bignone’s first step in office was to remove the ban on political activity and to confirm the projected date of March 1984 as the date of civilian elections. The Communists held a rally in Luna Park. The Peronists gathered in the Plaza de Mayo. Political leaders began to speak out openly against the regime. All this was something new. The defeat in the South Atlantic had signalled ground zero for most Argentines, final proof that the process had utterly failed them. There was a growing feeling that it was time for a public accounting. Then came Aleman’s accusations.

The significance of the confrontation with Massera gradually became apparent. If these things could now be talked about openly and discussed freely in the press this represented an important change. For the first time it looked as if the Dirty War as being talked of as part of the nation’s history. Which in turn seemed to imply it was over.


Gregorio Dupont

In October Gregorio Dupont saw the opening of the enquiry into the death of Elena Holmberg, and later the beginning of the Aleman-Massera confrontation. In September he decided the time had come to speak. He had information that was important to both issues. He knew why Elena Holmberg had been killed.

His first move was to telephone the Buenos Aires Herald. The same day he met two journalists in the cafe Tortoni on the Avenida de Mayo, half way between the Casa Rosada where the generals sat, and the Congress building, where no one has sat for seven years.

Dupont’s story was simple. He had known Elena Holmberg well for a number of years. Shortly before she was abducted Holmberg had arranged a meeting with Dupont and three other associates. She was frightened. She had discovered that on one of his frequent visits to Paris, Emilio Massera, member of the junta which had seized power pledged to rid the country of terrorism, had met the the terrorist leader, Mario Fermenich. At that meeting Fermenich had been paid a million dollars. No one present thought the story was ridiculous. In the context of Argentine politics it made perfect sense that someone with political ambitions should come to an arrangement with a leader whose power was as extensive as Fermenich’s. Three days later Elena Holmberg was kidnapped and murdered.

At subsequent meetings with the journalists Dupont met Enrique Holmberg and agreed to testify before the judicial inquiry into his sister’s death. The Buenos Aires Herald agreed to hold the story until he had done so.

The consequences of running the story were unpredictable but the arguments in favour of the publication were persuasive. Dupont agreed. If the story was true the information had already killed one person. Publication would make the story public property and provide at least a measure of safety for Dupont. Clearly it was not enough to indict Massera, but it would certainly add to the pressure that was building up and perhaps encourage others to come forward and speak.

There was also the possibility that the flow of revelations would provoke a coup from sections of the armed forces with reason to oppose any examination of their conduct during the Dirty War. No one was quite sure what would happen. Light was being thrown into some very dark corners.


Marcelo Dupont

At the time of publication several newspapers had journalists waiting at Ezieza International Airport amid rumours that Massera was about to leave the country. It seemed quite possible that the retired admiral would follow the route taken by Lopez Rega and disappear into hiding.   But Massera stayed. His first move was to request police protection for Gregorio Dupont. He feared, he said, an attempt on his life. It was a move widely interpreted as a threat.

Dupont’s brother, Marcelo, had no verifiable political connections. He was in no way implicated in the issues which had brought about the death of Elena Holmberg and there was no reason to suppose he knew of his brother’s involvement. He was a family man who had made a career for himself in advertising. Three days after publication of the accusations against Massera he left home for a routine meeting with his lawyer and failed to arrive.

When his body was found in Palermo Chico the police described his death as suicide – his advertising company was in financial difficulties. There were also reports that he had crossed the border into Uruguay and Brasil while he was missing from Buenos Aires. A bag of his clothes was found in Colonia. But the post mortem established that he had been tortured at the time he was supposed to have been travelling through Uruguay. And at a reconstruction of his death, complete with dummy corpse, it was discovered that to commit suicide and land where he did he would have had to jump form the building with sufficient speed to travel six metres outwards. And he would have had to jump backwards.

There was, however, a certain logic in his death. In the weeks which followed no new information was brought forward against Massera.


The Admiral’s Smile

On the day following the discovery of Marcelo Dupont’s body, retired admiral Emilio Massera appeared on television to deny involvement. There was a certain incongruity between his demeanor and the prevailing mood of shock which drew comment from many quarters. Some people interpreted his smile as proof of his innocence, others as confirmation of his guilt. However, the smile was neither self-satisfied nor innocent, but more ambiguous still. Massera’s smile is a nervous tic, familiar enough to his immediate associates. While at naval staff college he was several times reprimanded for the Argentine equivalent of dumb insolence before the gesture was recognised for what it was. And though it was clear enough on television as he answered questions about the Marcelo Dupont case there are no conclusions which can safely be drawn.

This might stand as the keynote to the whole affair; a smile that is not a smile, from a military leader who has become head of a political party with no supporters, who can threaten someone by asking for police protection, who can boldly call for a public accounting for an act in which he is implicated, and who talks freely about a new Argentina while so clearly embodying the destructive values of the old.


Buenos Aires, 1982










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