Galtieri grows old with his Falklands secrets

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GENERAL Leopoldo Fortunato Galtieri, the military junta leader who led Argentina into the Falklands débâcle, has held on to his secrets well over the intervening years.

This week, on the 20th anniversary of the conflict, he was still refusing to talk about the war that many Argentines now describe as a ridiculous "suicide mission".

In recent years, the former strongman, 75, one of the last leaders of a brutal seven-year military regime that human rights groups say left 30,000 dead, has lived a modest, largely undisturbed and reclusive life in a comfortable Buenos Aires neighbourhood.

He has watched his grandchildren grow up and has been spotted washing down his front step in the early morning and buying tomatoes alongside other pensioners at the local vegetable shop.

His wife, Lucy, has held a long and patient vigil over the telephone, deflecting journalists from all over the world; this week she politely but firmly told this correspondent The Scotsman would be no exception.

Argentines remember bitterly the day, on 2 April, 1982, the blue-eyed general, widely rumoured to be an alcoholic, announced to euphoric crowds that the Falklands, known in Argentina as the Malvinas, had been occupied.

His attempt to rally public support for a waning military regime fell foul at the hands of Margaret Thatcher when the task force defeated Argentina, taking thousands of exhausted men prisoner, on 14 June, 1982.

Less than a year after the Falklands defeat, the disgraced Gen Galtieri and the rest of the military regime retreated in humiliation and Argentina heaved a huge sigh of relief as a democratic government was restored under President Ral Alfonsn, a Radical and the first Argentine president of Scottish ancestry.

Gen Galtieri was charged with "incompetence" over the Falklands War and jailed in 1986 but was pardoned, along with the former military officials, three years later by the new Peronist president, Carlos Menem.

Gen Galtieri’s silence is not just out of choice. If he stepped into the public eye, or decided to go for a stroll in the historic Plaza de Mayo, he would be likely to find himself with egg on his face or worse.

Since 1999, activists led by HIJOS (Spanish for SONS), a group of children of the "disappeared", have led an "out a torturer" campaign, ambushing former military men who venture outdoors and besieging their homes to disrupt their retirement days.

And if the general, who still attends occasional military ceremonies in uniform, chose to step outside his country, he likely would be instantly arrested on the request of Spanish judge Baltazar Garzn, as was the former Chilean strongman Augusto Pinochet in 1998.

Gen Galtieri is accused of running one of many military hit squads that kidnapped, tortured and killed left-wing "subversives" in Argentina and elsewhere in South America during the 1976-1983 regime.

One woman, held prisoner by Gen Galtieri when he was commander of the 2nd Army Corps, remembered him saying to her: "If I say you live, you live, if I say you die, you die."

HIJOS has protested noisily outside his home, plastering his block of flats with posters reading "A torturer lives here", "Murderer" and "Put him on trial".

The armed forces, which have worked over the past 20 years to create a new role as international peacekeepers, with troops in Cyprus, the Balkans and other countries, tend to keep a safe distance from Gen Galtieri. Army spokesmen say they no longer know where he lives, or that they have lost his telephone number.

Gen Galtieri and General Carlos Benjamn Menndez, the commander who led the Argentine occupation forces, have taken the brunt of criticism over the years for the Argentine losses in the Falklands fiasco.

However, some secrets of the war lie with another, less well known man: Admiral Jorge Anaya. The navy leader is known to have hatched the plan to invade the islands even before Gen Galtieri became president of the junta in December 1981.

Adm Anaya’s name is little mentioned by the wider public and he has been allowed to grow old in even greater anonymity than Gen Galtieri.

"Myth has it that Galtieri once drank a bottle of Scotch too many and decided to invade the Falklands. But Anaya is the one who thought up the war. Galtieri is just the man who gave the order," said Nicholas Tozer, a Buenos Aires-based researcher and expert on the war.

"But he will never be forgiven for sending 700 Argentines to their deaths. The fact that he has kept his mouth shut since then is probably the best thing you can say for the man."