BUENOS AIRES — On the morning of Oct. 6, Erika Lederer arrived at the Nº 2 Criminal and Correctional Federal Courthouse in the outskirts of Buenos Aires to testify in a major case of crimes against humanity.
Lederer stood before the court to accuse a doctor of taking part in so-called death flights — when thousands of opponents of the military dictatorship that ran Argentina from 1976 to 1983 were thrown from planes into the Rio de la Plata, which separates it from Uruguay.
What made Lederer’s accusations so extraordinary was that the doctor in question was her father, Ricardo Lederer.
Lederer is one of dozens of children of human rights abusers from the period — known as the Dirty War — who are fighting to make sure their fathers pay for their crimes. Most began speaking out against them for the first time this year. Their objective is twofold: to gather evidence of the crimes committed by their parents, and to change a law that forbids children from testifying against their own families.
These children find themselves pitted against a conservative government that wants to consign this period — its perpetrators and its victims — to history, arguing that the country needs to move on. “Whether there were 9,000 or 30,000 [people forcefully disappeared] ... it’s a pointless discussion,” President Mauricio Macri told BuzzFeed News last year.
Since the end of the dictatorship hundreds of human rights abusers have been jailed by mostly left-leaning administrations. But right-wing legislators are now calling for retrials, claiming that many were sentenced despite a lack of evidence, and for the release of those who are over 70 years old.
This battle has torn Argentina in two, revealing what can go wrong when a country fails to make peace with its past. It comes at a time when the world is witnessing the rise of autocratic leaders, and an increase in militaristic rhetoric, offering a cautionary tale about what happens when the army is given outsized power.
Now 40 years old, Lederer had been waiting for her day in court for decades. When it finally came last month, she let her hair down, concealing a tattoo on the back of her neck that spells out, in ancient Greek, “Identity” and “Freedom.”
But Lederer had already been denied the opportunity to face down her father in a courtroom — Ricardo Lederer killed himself in 2012 after the Argentine authorities uncovered a gruesome detail about the role he played during the dictatorship.
During the Dirty War, a term coined by the regime that ran Argentina at the time, hundreds of babies were systematically stolen from political prisoners and gifted to people close to the ruling elite. Ricardo Lederer, who worked as an obstetrician at Campo de Mayo, one of the largest detention, torture, and disappearance centers, signed the forged birth certificate of a child who was snatched from his biological parents in 1978 and handed to the relatives of an army officer.
Her father may never pay for his crimes in court, but Lederer remains convinced that the trial is necessary for the country to move forward: “This is not important legally, but it is for the sake of memory.”
Even with her father dead, Lederer still bears the weight of his abuses and feels that she owes it to the victims of the Dirty War to help them get what they’ve sought for more than 40 years: justice.
“It did me well to be there. I felt like a very consistent woman,” Lederer, 40, told BuzzFeed News after she spent the day testifying about her father’s actions. “I followed through on my word.”
In the days leading up to her appearance in court, Lederer had become increasingly agitated. When she opened the door to her apartment building in Buenos Aires in mid-September, her cheeks and forehead were splotchy from a morning in tears.
Sitting in her poorly lit dining room, Lederer appeared tense, her hands tightly clutching the cup holding her mate, a traditional South American infusion. Initially restrained, she started to open up as her family’s dark history unspooled.
Lederer was conceived during her parents’ honeymoon in Cordoba, in central Argentina, in early March 1976. Just a few days later, the world would watch as Jorge Rafael Videla, commander-in-chief of the armed forces, overthrew and arrested the president, Isabel Martínez de Perón.
Argentina had been in turmoil for years, with radical leftist guerrillas carrying out hundreds of assassinations, which Perón attempted to crush with increasingly bloody tactics. Videla and his fellow coup leaders promised to defeat what they described as subversive groups. They soon expanded the repression to include students, union leaders, and virtually all government critics.
The next seven years would be some of the most violent in Argentina’s recent history. A network of concentration camps was established throughout the country and as many as 30,000 people disappeared at the hands of state forces — many during the death flights.
Lederer’s father played a central part from his position at Campo de Mayo’s obstetrics unit.
For years, the children knew nothing about their father’s crimes. From the outside, the Lederers appeared to be a model family. The children were enrolled in a private German school, they had a housekeeper and took frequent international trips. The kids were well-behaved, never speaking out of turn or contradicting their parents, according to Lederer.
But behind closed doors he was abusive, Lederer said. Her most vivid memories from childhood include his beatings and overbearing control. Silence filled the house most of the time, she said.
The junta continued its brutality until 1982, when Argentina was crushed by the British in a war over the Falkland Islands. This came in the middle of an economic crisis, prompting thousands to take to the streets in a “March for Democracy,” demanding an end to the dictatorship. Its leaders gave in, and called for elections in 1983, with Raúl Alfonsín’s victory ushering democracy back to Argentina.
Two years later, Argentina’s National Commission for Disappeared People published “Nunca Mas,” or Never Again, a damning report about the systematic violation of human rights at the hands of the state during the dictatorship. Videla was sentenced to life in prison for human rights abuses, alongside other leaders of the junta.
Lederer remembered browsing through the left-leaning newspaper Página/12 around that time and stumbling upon a story about her father’s friendship with, and defense of, Ramón Camps, the ruthless chief of Buenos Aires’ police department.
Lederer became deeply ashamed of her surname, but quickly understood that the family was expected to keep a pact of silence about his crimes. “A silence like the one related to sexual abuse runs through these families,” said Lederer.
The internal turmoil in the Lederer family was reflected across the country. Unable to agree on a common version of what had happened and who was responsible, the country plunged into a dizzying back-and-forth between those who wanted to see abusers prosecuted and those who wanted them quietly absolved, and for the past to be brushed under the carpet. That debate continues to polarize the country today.
In a turn of events that horrified the victims of the dictatorship, Alfonsín pushed through the Full Stop Law in 1986, essentially granting amnesty to many torturers. Just four years later even Videla was pardoned and released, with the government arguing that this would allow the country to move on from this dark period of its history.
At home, Lederer was barred from discussing her father’s crimes. She soon stopped speaking altogether, looking for solace instead in the words of Immanuel Kant and Albert Camus — an act of defiance, since her father had forbidden her from studying philosophy.
Lederer remembers her father’s fury when he discovered a Trotskyist newspaper in her bedroom and turned all her furniture over looking for other socialist-related material. When Lederer returned home and saw what had happened, she called her boyfriend and told him, “Pedro, they’re going to kill me.”
In her early twenties, Lederer fled to a tiny rental room, never to return to the family home.
By then the dictatorship was long gone, but Lederer, like many of her compatriots, still carried its scars. Now a lawyer and a mother of two, she said she still loves her father but will never forgive him; not for the horrors he perpetrated during the Dirty War — or the abuse he unleashed on her at home.
“I can’t empty the contents of my childhood,” she said, “but I would ask him for memory, truth, and justice if I could look him in the eyes again.”
Even her first name is a source of resentment for Lederer: She believes her parents named her Erika after a flower mentioned in a Nazi military song.
The country has consistently performed U-turns in the years since the end of the dictatorship. The left-wing president Néstor Kirchner, and then his wife, Cristina, made trials for crimes against humanity the defining policy of their administrations. “It’s not rancor or hate that guides us, and me, it’s justice and the fight against impunity,” Nestor Kirchner told relatives of disappeared people in 2004. “It’s up to you to never allow darkness to reign again in our homeland.” In all, at least 750 people were convicted between 2006 and March 2017.
But when President Mauricio Macri, assumed office in 2015, the focus again shifted. Macri comes from a wealthy conservative family, and argues it is time to leave behind the debate about what happened under the dictatorship.
In May, the Supreme Court ruled in favor of a law that would have allowed most human rights abusers to go home. The 2x1 law, signed into law in 1994 but initially repealed in 2001, said that time spent in jail before a conviction counted double toward the sentencing total. It was the first time the law, now resurrected by the Court, was applied in a human rights case, and unleashed a flood of requests from other convicted members of the dictatorship who wanted to get out of prison.
When she heard about it, Lederer went into a panic. “We were horrified when we started thinking these murderers could return to their homes because we knew what they did at home,” she said.
Several days later, thousands of people filled one of the main squares in Buenos Aires demanding the ruling be overturned. One thing had become clear: In 2017, more than 40 years after the Dirty War exploded, the divisions among Argentines are still profoundly destabilizing, with the search for justice almost as controversial as it was in the ‘80s.
But what is justice? And who decides when it’s been achieved?
For decades, Lederer wrestled with her demons alone. She was certain no one else would understand the challenges of carrying a despised last name.
That is, until she found Analía Kalinec.
Like Lederer, Kalinec grew up the daughter of a member of the junta, not knowing how deeply her father was involved in its crimes. But there was one major difference: her father, Eduardo Kalinec had offered his family a safe, supportive haven amid the country’s turmoil.
That bubble, like so many from the period, eventually burst. In 2005, Kalinec received a call from her mother. Daddy is in jail, she said. Known as “Doctor K,” Kalinec’s father stood accused of kidnapping, murder, and torture.
Kalinec was certain of his innocence. How could her loving father moonlight as a torturer? She visited him in jail, certain that the injustice would quickly be rectified.
But there were inconsistencies in her father’s stories and something felt wrong. “A part of me knew, unconsciously, that there was something I didn’t know yet,” she said. As his public hearings got underway, she admitted to herself that her father had likely taken part in the violent repression. When she asked him what he knew about the victims, “he got uncomfortable and said that there hadn’t really been 30,000.”
“I hope that one day, when you look at your grandchildren and they hug you, and you watch them grow, and you kiss them, you can think about all those grandfathers and grandmothers that won’t be able to,” Kalinec wrote to him in 2008.
“Hopefully one day you can tell them you’re sorry,” she continued. “I love you, dad, that’s why I’m writing this.”
Doctor K was sentenced to life in 2010. The splits in the country were once again replicated in the Kalinec family. Kalinec insisted on questioning her father about his crimes, for which she was accused of betrayal, and banished from the family. “According to my family, aliens took me and brainwashed me,” she said.
A profound sense of loss and loneliness overtook Kalinec. She found few respites; one was writing. Last year, Kalinec created a Facebook page named “Disobedient Stories with Spelling Mistakes,” on which she wrote about her fraught relationship with her father. It was a place for children of “war criminals” to fight for “memory, truth and justice,” she wrote.
At the same time, Kalinec had begun meeting with children of both rights abusers and their victims who, like her, had been profiled in a recently published book called Children of the 70s.
A mutual friend suggested Kalinec and Lederer get in touch. The two met at a bar in downtown Buenos Aires in May.
“We hugged. Laughed and cried. And we never let go of each other again,” she recounted in a post on the “Disobedient Stories” Facebook page. “We see ourselves as a sisterhood formed by a genocidal father that hurts us and forces us to rebuild ourselves.”
They formed a group of children of rights abusers. Initially six members, they gathered to sort out their political position and determine the requirements for new members. They also sought to understand how their bloodstained last names affected their identities.
Within days, the group had grown to nearly 40. It became a substitute family for those who had been banished from their own after speaking out against their fathers.
An unusual lunch brought several of them together. Planned by two sons of disappeared people, the event joined Argentines from both sides of the country’s divide in a yoga class and an impromptu jam session. At one point, a handful of guests joined a family constellation, a therapeutic method in which people stand in as family members to discover traumas that go back several generations.
At the event that day was Anibal Guevara. Guevara, 34, is the son of a former lieutenant serving time in jail for assisting in the disappearance of people. He is part of “Puentes Para La Legalidad,” or Bridges To Legality, a group that says their relatives’ trials are filled with irregularities and are calling for them to be released from prison.
Guevara said his father must own up to his mistakes, but placed the bulk of the responsibility on a society that taught a 13-year-old boy — his father — about “subordination and courage” in military school and then wondered why he did not question the brutal orders of his superiors decades later.
“All of this has stirred so many emotions. There is tension because we are all choosing our words very carefully all the time,” Guevara, a young, doe-eyed musician, told BuzzFeed News while sitting at a cafe in Buenos Aires. “We always take care over what we say, because whatever you say can hurt the other.”
Still, Guevara said meetings like those are necessary for the country to start healing the fracture created in the ‘70s. “Everything looks black and white from afar. The nuances are only visible when you get up close,” he said.
But some members of “Disobedient Stories” became concerned about Guevara’s presence at the meeting. They felt that an article that was later published in Anfibia magazine about the gathering was part of an official strategy to push Macri’s argument that society was healing itself and the country was turning the page.
Lederer, in particular, was adamant about staying far away from Guevara, who she saw as an interloper, and eventually left the group. “They were my family,” said Lederer. “I was left without a family once more.”
Lederer’s apartment is filled with books, arranged neatly on shelves, shoved into bookstands and piled near the dining room table.
When asked if her surname continues to weigh her down, Lederer was quiet for a moment. She pulled a thin, yellowed soft covered book from her shelves, and flipped through the pages until she found what she was looking for.
“What is a rebel? A man who says no, but whose refusal does not imply a renunciation,” read Lederer from Albert Camus’ “The Rebel: An Essay on Man in Revolt.” “A slave who has taken orders all of his life suddenly decides that he cannot obey some new command.”
She read slowly, weighing every word. After all, she said, they were the words that helped her gather the courage to speak out against her father.
Lederer knows how powerful words can be. She thinks the big media companies in Argentina have been trying to change how the dictatorship is viewed by bringing back the “theory of the two demons,” an argument that places the same moral responsibility on guerilla groups and the state.
A scathing editorial from La Nacion newspaper, published the day after Macri was elected president in November 2015, said that there was no “debating with those who sowed anarchy in the country and destroyed lives,” referring to leftist guerillas. It went on to accuse the Kirchners of using human rights as a political football and called for an end to the “vengeance” espoused by the previous administrations.
The editorial helped set off a war of words. Conservative groups call that period the “Dirty War,” claiming there were two sides to the conflict, referring to the state and the left-wing rebels who used explosives to kill their opponents. Others describe what happened as a genocide, with a repressive government slaughtering powerless victims.
“There was an orchestrated campaign to change historical terms and to create a new history,” said Lederer.
Lederer sees echoes of the past in the case of Santiago Maldonado, an activist who went missing in August at a protest that was violently quashed by security forces. Government officials cast doubts over whether Maldonado was at the protest.
His case made national headlines shortly before the midterm election. Cristina Fernández de Kirchner, who was running for a senate seat, made Maldonado’s disappearance her rallying cry, warning that it was an echo of the dictatorship.
As thousands gathered in September to demonstrate over Maldonado’s disappearance, Macri made a gesture that many criticized as mocking: He posted photographs on Facebook of himself visiting to an ice cream shop.
Maldonado’s body was discovered last month.
Under a government that appears less intent on punishing abusers, several generals were moved from general prisons to Campo de Mayo, the military base where they tortured prisoners 40 years ago. After taking a tour of the area where they are being kept, one human rights prosecutor said conditions are prime for an escape.
Lederer said she will continue to fight to keep those responsible for the horrors of the dictatorship in prison, no matter the cost.
“Forty years have gone by but the wounds are still open,” she said.
Erica Canepa contributed reporting from Buenos Aires.