Alicia Kozameh was 22 years old when nine men burst into her home to take her away. It was September 1975, and she was a student activist in the Argentine city of Rosario, a bustling metropolis on the banks of the Parana River.
Kozameh was beaten, interrogated, and thrown into the basement of a police station, where she remained for more than a year. Then she was held in the Villa Devoto prison for two years. Her release in 1978 was hardly freeing -- she remained under heavy surveillance, and military officials continued to threaten her safety until she fled to Los Angeles in 1980.
“I was arrested, like thousands of young -- and not-so-young -- people from my generation, for being part of the active opposition to the successive Argentine governments devoted to keeping the majority of the people of Argentina in a state of poverty, without access to food, vaccinations, education, jobs, a place to live,” Kozameh said.
Tens of thousands of leftist and activist Argentine citizens were either killed or kidnapped by government forces during the 1970s and 1980s. This dark episode has been an object of renewed world attention ever since Wednesday, when the College of Cardinals papal conclave elected Argentine Cardinal Jorge Mario Bergoglio as the new leader of the Roman Catholic Church.
It was a surprise choice. The new pope is the first ever to hail from South America, the first to represent the Jesuit order, and the first to take the name Francis. He is known for his devotion to the simple life, for using public transportation, for kneeling down to wash the feet of the faithful, for eschewing the luxurious trappings that might befit his station.
But critics of Pope Francis say that three decades ago, during a time of ruthless persecution and violence when Argentina’s downtrodden needed him most, Bergoglio -- then leader of the Jesuit order in Argentina -- turned a blind eye to the suffering of his countrymen and -women.
Now that he is pope, Kozameh said, “It would be nice to see him help the Latin American countries to reach equality, justice for all. It would be very nice. But … he's now a pope linked to the last Argentine dictatorship, to a genocide.”
Argentina was ruled by a military junta from 1976 to 1983, but leftists and dissidents were targeted and arrested even before that time. A state-condoned terrorist organization called the Argentine Anticommunist Alliance, or AAA, was established in 1973 and existed under the administrations of Presidents Raul Lastiri, Juan Peron, and finally Isabel Martinez de Peron, under whose watch the organization committed some of its worst atrocities.
After a 1976 military coup put Gen. Jorge Rafael Videla in power, the human-rights abuses continued. He held the presidency until 1981, at which point a string of military men took control until the dictatorship fell apart in 1983.
The period under the military junta is now referred to as a “Dirty War,” but some victims take issue with this characterization.
Alicia Partnoy was kidnapped in 1977 from Bahia Blanca, or White Bay, a city named for the body of water on which it sits. She was detained in a series of locations for nearly three years before escaping to the U.S. as a refugee.
“I know people call it ‘The Dirty War,’ but that was the term the military used to justify the killings,” Partnoy said. “It is my little crusade to let people know that, for me, it was an extermination campaign. It was not a war of any kind. It was a genocide.”
When Partnoy was forcibly taken from her home, she was separated from her 18-month-old daughter Ruth. The two reunited upon Partnoy’s release -- and that makes them the lucky ones. During the days of the junta, government forces frequently stole children born to women in detention, arranging adoptions with families sympathetic to the government.
Still today, many of the women who gave birth in prison have no idea what became of their babies, who were quickly spirited away.
Critics of Bergoglio say that he was complacent during these terrible times, siding with the government in an effort to protect himself.
“In Argentina, the church was divided,” Partnoy said. “There was a sector that supported the military, and Cardinal Bergoglio belonged to that sector.”
There are two particular allegations most often made against Bergoglio. According to the first allegation, he was complicit in the detention of two Jesuit priests -- Francisco Jalics and Orlando Yorio -- and may have even played a role in handing them over to junta authorities in 1976. The priests were detained for five months and tortured before their release. Yorio died in 2000, and Jalics, who now lives in Germany, said he is at “peace” with Bergoglio, according to the Buenos Aires Herald.
The second allegation maintains that Bergoglio was aware of the junta’s practice of kidnapping babies. During a 2010 court case, the then-cardinal said he knew nothing about these incidents until years later. But the family members of one victim -- Elena de la Cuadra, who was kidnapped while pregnant in 1977 and gave birth before losing her life -- argue they were in touch with Bergoglio during her ordeal. They claim he was aware the child had been given away to a prominent pro-junta family, and that he did nothing to help.
No court has ever convicted Bergoglio of any crime, and his official biography distances him from those allegations. One survivor of detention during the dictatorship, Nobel Peace Prize winner Adolfo Perez Esquivel, contended this week that Bergoglio was innocent.
“It's true that he didn’t do what very few bishops did in terms of defending the human-rights cause, but it’s not right to accuse him of being an accomplice," said Esquivel to Reuters.
"Bergoglio never turned anyone in; neither was he an accomplice of the dictatorship,” he said.
Nora Strejilevich was kidnapped by the authorities in 1977. She was held for less than a week -- she cannot remember the exact number of days, since she was trapped in a dark room -- and escaped to Canada soon after her release.
“My brother Gerardo Strejilevich, his girlfriend Graciela Barroca, and my cousin Abel Strejilevich were taken to the same place and are all missing,” she said. “The body of my other cousin, Hugo Strejilevich, was found in a no-name collective tomb.”
Strejilevich, who is now back in Argentina, blames the Catholic Church for more than just standing by.
“Not only did the church not do enough to stop the violence,” she said, “[but] it has been proven in public trials held in Argentina last year that the church, again, actively supported the dictatorship.”
Argentina’s Catholic Church has asked forgiveness twice -- in 2000 and 2012 -- for its failures to protect some victims of the junta. Still, it has always officially denied complicity.
But several court cases in recent years have resulted in decisions that strongly implicated the Catholic Church. One tribunal concluded its proceedings just last month in the Argentine province of La Rioja. It investigated the murders of two liberal priests who were detained by authorities and murdered in 1976. The court’s decision criticized the Catholic Church for encouraging a culture of impunity.
Another trial, which investigated the death of junta challenger Bishop Enrique Angelelli until wrapping up last October, also judged the Catholic Church harshly, noting that “repression was performed in coordination and with the consent of the church” during the military junta.
The most high-profile case came in 2007 when the Rev. Christian von Wernich was tried by a La Plata court and sentenced to life in prison for cooperating directly with junta police at the time of the dictatorship. During that trial, one Argentine priest named Ruben Capitanio spoke up to condemn the church for being “scandalously close to the dictatorship.”
“[The church] was like a mother that did not look for her children. It did not kill anybody, but it did not save anybody, either,” Capitanio said.
Like A Liberal
Pope Francis is quite different from his predecessors, and his ascension has been widely heralded as a sign of change for the Catholic Church.
As a cardinal, Bergoglio called for the government to pay more attention to Argentina’s poor -- and he apparently lived in accordance with his own principles. Although he could have resided in luxurious houses or traveled in private cars while he was in charge of the Buenos Aires diocese, he insisted on staying in his own small apartment and riding the bus around town. He frequently went out to meet with the faithful, and his humility has been praised by Catholics the world over.
It would appear that Pope Francis would mesh well with the sort of liberal theologians who were persecuted under the junta 30 years ago -- but that’s not the case.
“Listen to what Bergoglio has been saying about his position on women in the church, his position on abortion, his position on marriage,” Partnoy said, noting that the pope takes conservative stances on all three issues.
“I don’t think there’s going to be any change. I hope he surprises us, but then again I am not a Catholic. I mourn my friends who were liberal theologians and lost their lives. I’m upset that their stories are not validated by this selection at the Vatican.”
Strejilevich agrees. “I am sure that human-right plights are not to be supported by this pope even if he might look not so conservative for Vatican standards,” she said.
In the end, Vatican politics are only a minor concern to the survivors of kidnapping and torture during the dark days of Argentina’s dictatorship. For many -- including Kozameh, Strejielvich and Partnoy -- religion just doesn’t hold much solace anymore.
“I'm not a religious person,” Kozameh said. “What I do believe, as something extremely relevant, is the ethics of someone in such position of power. It's all about politics and the influence a person in power decides to exercise on the world, to improve it or not.”