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Legendary Prosecutor Luis Moreno Ocampo on “Argentina, 1985” and Why Democracy Is at Risk Today

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Former Argentine prosecutor Luis Moreno Ocampo, who served as deputy prosecutor in Argentina’s Trial of the Juntas and later as the first prosecutor of the International Criminal Court, is portrayed in the film “Argentina, 1985,” which won the Golden Globe for Best Motion Picture in a Non-English Language this week. The film dramatizes the efforts of Argentina’s civilian court to prosecute the country’s former military leaders for brutal crimes committed during the U.S.-backed right-wing military dictatorship from 1976 to 1983. Ocampo spoke to Democracy Now! recently about that landmark trial, the new film and why “democracy is at risk everywhere.”

This is a rush transcript. Copy may not be in its final form.

AMY GOODMAN: This is Democracy Now!,, The War and Peace Report. I’m Amy Goodman.

We’re continuing to look at the new film Argentina, 1985 about the Trial of the Juntas, the civilian court that prosecuted Argentina’s former military leaders for brutal crimes committed during the U.S.-backed right-wing military dictatorship from ’76 to 1983, the film based in part on the story of Julio Strassera and Luis Moreno Ocampo, who prosecuted the Argentine military leaders. Ocampo later became the first prosecutor of the International Criminal Court.

This is a short excerpt from the film about their struggle to find a legal team willing to investigate crimes committed during the military dictatorship.

LUIS MORENO OCAMPO: [played by Peter Lanzani] [translated] We need to look elsewhere.

JULIO CÉSAR STRASSERA: [played by Ricardo Darín] [translated] Where? Law school?

LUIS MORENO OCAMPO: [translated] Not exactly, but in that direction. At the Attorney General’s Office, there are kids willing to work with us.

JULIO CÉSAR STRASSERA: [translated] Kids?

LUIS MORENO OCAMPO: [translated] Yes. In every court. We need young people with less experience.

JULIO CÉSAR STRASSERA: [translated] Less than you?

LUIS MORENO OCAMPO: [translated] If the seniors won’t do it…

SOMI: [played by Claudio Da Passano] [translated] Then, we bring the juniors in.

AMY GOODMAN: An excerpt from the film Argentina, 1985. Earlier this week, I spoke to the former Argentine prosecutor Luis Moreno Ocampo, who is portrayed in the film. I began by asking him about the significance of this part of the film.

LUIS MORENO OCAMPO: Well, my job was to investigate the crimes. And we — the Truth Commission in my country identify the victims. So, I don’t need lawyers doing legal argument. I need people with empathy for the victims. That’s why I was thinking young people would be better. And Julio accepted it. Strassera agreed with me. And then we built a team of very young people, from 20 — the youngest was 20, and the oldest was 27. So, that was amazing. In four months, we were able to produce the evidence needed to convict the generals.

AMY GOODMAN: So, talk about that. Talk about what happened, how it was that you came, along with Julio Strassera, who is no longer alive today, to prosecute the generals and ultimately put several of them in prison for life.

LUIS MORENO OCAMPO: Well, Julio was the prosecutor in charge. He needed help. And we knew each other from the university, so he invited me to support him. And he gave me the task: I need to lead the investigation. And we cannot use the police, because the police was involved in the crimes.

So, what we did, we used the victims to produce the evidence. So, the Truth Commission identified the victims. We first selected the best cases. Then we called the victims, the survivors, asking more details. Who saw — who watched you when you were abducted? There was habeas corpus or criminal proceedings. So, we collect all of these documents and prove well the abduction. Then the victims told us about their own torture and how they watched other people being tortured. And then we show the killings showing people who were abducted before and then appear dead, and the Army recognized they killed them, but they invented that it was they killed them in a fight, in a battle. And we show it was a fake battle, so these people were abducted before.

In this way, in four months, with this group of young kids, who were just meeting the victims, meeting the people, receiving them in the office, we produced the evidence. We produced 2,000 witnesses in four months. And that transformed the case, because the witness testimonies transformed the perception of what happened during the dictatorship.

AMY GOODMAN: And for those who are not familiar with the history of Argentina and the so-called Dirty War, if you can take us back to the time of the coup, that led to the disappearances, torture, rape of so many Argentines from the late ’70s into the early ’80s, and then how you came at this moment, in ’85, to be able to prosecute those who led this coup?

LUIS MORENO OCAMPO: Well, Argentina in the '70s had guerrilla groups, but in ’73, democracy was back. But the guerrillas were still fighting, and there were right-wing groups fighting. So people were absolutely afraid of violence, and in a country with 50 years of coup d'état, people were supporting the idea of the Army in charge of the government to control violence. And that’s why in ’76, when the military junta took power, they were supported. My mother supported them totally.

But in 1983, when democracy was back, one of the candidates, Alfonsín, proposed to investigate the generals. In a country with 50 years of coup d’état, no democratic government ended its term for 50 years. And Alfonsín said, “Look, we need to end this coup d’état cycle. We need to investigate the generals.” And people support him. Fifty-two percent of people support him. And that’s why the trial happened. It was this political environment.

And then, when we prosecuted generals, after they were tried, some military [inaudible], but people reacted and said, “No.” So, basically, the impact of the junta trial was not just unveil the crimes committed by dictators, was transforming democracy. People feel democracy is: “It’s my system. I will protect it.” And that’s why the film, Santiago Mitre’s film, is so important, because 40 years later the new generations, the young kids, are learning about this through the movie. So, as a prosecutor, I had to prevent future crimes. And Santiago Mitre is doing that 40 years later. That’s why honor Santiago Mitre.

AMY GOODMAN: Luis Moreno Ocampo, according to State Department documents that were released in 2004, almost 20 years ago, then-Secretary of State Henry Kissinger told the Argentine foreign minister, “If there are things that have to be done, you should do them quickly. We won’t cause you unnecessary difficulties.” Explain what he was talking about, because the majority of the people who died in Argentina or were disappeared were in those early years. We’re talking about tens of thousands of people. What did the U.S. have to do with it?

LUIS MORENO OCAMPO: Well, Argentina was a battlefield of the Cold War. The Cold War was cold in the North, but it was hot in the South. And Argentina was one of the hottest places. So, that’s why Kissinger was saying, OK, they are — basically, the dictators in South America were proxy forces for U.S. to control guerrillas. But, interestingly, Jimmy Carter came later, and Jimmy Carter [inaudible] human rights against Soviet Union, and then, to be consistent, he also attacked Argentina. So Jimmy Carter became the biggest enemy for Argentine dictatorship. So, the people in U.S. have to understand, U.S. foreign policy has impact, positive or negative. And I don’t think, from U.S., we are watching that.

AMY GOODMAN: And Henry Kissinger?

LUIS MORENO OCAMPO: Well, Henry Kissinger was basically supporting the idea of the armies in the South control the guerrillas, as today we are happy that the armies in Egypt, in different places, control al-Qaeda and Islamic terrorism. It’s the same. We are in a new Cold War. And we need to — that’s why Argentina, 1985 is not just on the past, it’s on the future.

AMY GOODMAN: And if you can talk about the role of the Mothers of the Disappeared in Argentina? When Democracy Now! went down to Argentina and broadcast, we went to the plaza where the mothers marched. And there is this moving scene in the film where Prosecutor Strassera turns to the women in the courtroom and asks them, not exactly directly, to take off their scarves because the judges said you could not have banners in the room, and they wore these scarves around their heads that said they were the Mothers of the Disappeared. And you saw it broke his heart to say this.

LUIS MORENO OCAMPO: Well, that is real. That historically happened. Both of us were asking the mothers to remove the scarf. But it’s about fair trials. The judges were trying to be sure no one can complain they were biased. And that is very, very important, because it’s not just the trial was effective, it was fair. It was fair. The defendants have their rights. They present evidence. And the judge was trying to show that impartiality. And I think that is part of the legacy that the movie is showing. The movie is showing not just the horrors; the movie is also showing a fair trial. And it’s more important. It’s not just a court film. It’s showing the impact of the court in society. And that is the beauty of the film by Santiago Mitre. Santiago is using families — my family and military family, the Strassera family and normal family and the victims’ family — to show the impact of the lack of law in Argentina.

AMY GOODMAN: Luis, I want to get to that, your family. You mentioned your mother. She was a supporter of Videla, the general. She went to church, the same church as Videla. And you used her as a monitor, a barometer of how Argentina was responding to the trial — that they could actually watch?

LUIS MORENO OCAMPO: Well, in those days, as Santiago explained, the scenes were without sounds. So, my mother was reading the newspaper. My mother read the most conservative newspaper in the country. But the paper, the newspaper, was showing what’s happened. And my mother, exactly the day after Adriana Calvo de Laborde testified, my mother, as the movie showed, called me. She said something nicer. She said, “I still love General Videla. But you are right: He has to go to jail.” So, that’s what she said.

So, my monitor fail very easily — very early. That is why we keep — because, for me, we need to convince people like my mother, who did not like the trial, people who were supporting Videla. That was, for me, the target. The movie, in some way, is doing that. The movie is reaching 100% of the people. You know, in one month, the movie was watched by 1 million people. The president, the vice president of the country are talking about the movie. So, the movie transformed memory of the country.

AMY GOODMAN: Luis Moreno Ocampo, we are speaking to you in the midst of Brazil’s January 6th — that’s January 8th, to be exact — on Sunday, thousands of the far-right former President Jair Bolsonaro’s supporters overrunning the capital, the Capitol building, the Supreme Court, the presidential palace. Your thoughts on parallels to what happened in Argentina 40 years ago?

LUIS MORENO OCAMPO: Well, the most clear parallel what happened in the U.S. two years ago, no? That’s the most clear — three years ago. So, I think democracy is at risk everywhere, so — because social media is transforming the memory and understanding. So we need to understand that.

That’s why the movie is not just about Argentina, 1985. The movie is about avoid Argentina, 1976, in Argentina. So, the movie is about dictatorships, in Argentina, in Brazil and in the U.S. The democracy is at risk, and the movie is helping us to understand it.

AMY GOODMAN: Former Argentine prosecutor Luis Moreno Ocampo, who is portrayed in the new film Argentina, 1985. Ocampo later became the first prosecutor of the International Criminal Court. The film is streaming at Amazon Prime. It’s shortlisted for an Oscar.

Coming up, we go from the missing in Argentina to the crisis of missing migrants trying to make it to Europe today. Stay with us.

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Next story from this daily show

The Crisis of Missing Migrants: Tens of Thousands of People Have Disappeared on Their Way to Europe

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