In 1997, General Leopoldo Fortunato Galtieri, Argentinian head of state from 1981-82, took his country's government to court, demanding that he be paid a presidential pension. The judge rejected his claim, declaring that if you come to power by a military coup you are not a real leader: "To be president," she ruled, "you must be elected."1 Galtieri was forced to pay the costs of the law suit, and returned to his life in a quiet middle-class suburb of Buenos Aires, where he drank Scotch and moaned about the nation which had betrayed him and now denied his presidency.

When General Galtieri died in the Argentinian capital on January 12, 2003, few people shed a tear2: he was a sad and lonely man, an alcoholic under house arrest charged with kidnapping. The third of four military leaders of Argentina in the period of junta rule from 1976-83, he was just another figure from the "Dirty War" which had led to the deaths of up to 30 000 enemies of the state, most murdered in cold blood. One common method of execution was to throw them from a helicopter into the ocean.

His only place in history is for his greatest failure, Argentina's 1982 invasion of the Falkland Islands, a tiny windwept corner of the South Atlantic, which was home to 1 200 British subjects and a large number of sheep and penguins. This foolhardy military venture led to the deaths of around 700 Argentinian soldiers and the collapse of military rule in Argentina.

His route to power

Leopoldo Galtieri was born on July 15, 1926, in Caseros, Argentina, the grandson of Italian immigrants.

He appears to have shown no great promise or intelligence as a child, but was picked by agents of the US military to attend the School of the Americas in Panama, an institution established to produce Latin American Cold Warriors ready to fight the threat of communism by any means. He graduated in 1949 and the same year, he married Lucia Noemi Gentile, with whom he had three children.

Following this education, he became an officer in the Argentinian Army. Rather than military skills, leadership and tactical knowledge, the main skill required to progress in the army was political nous. It is said that the army then had two principal enemies: the Argentinian Navy and the Air Force3. Galtieri proved himself a shrewd manipulator, working his way up through the ranks. Argentinian political commentator Eduardo van der Kooy later called him "a man with severe intellectual limitations although overflowing with arrogance and ambition"4.

In 1976 the Argentinian military staged a coup d'etat against the government of Maria Estela "Isabelita" Martinez de Peron, widow of national hero Juan Peron, installing General Jorge Videla in power. At that time, Galtieri was commanding the Second Army Corps in Rosario.

He was placed in charge of an interrogation centre at Quinta de Funes, where he personally tortured and murdered people. There are stories that he would walk around, select a prisoner more or less at random and decide their fate on a whim. One tale has it that he let off one woman because she was named Malvina, the Argentinian name for the Falkland Islands being Malvinas5.

Reports in recent years have shown that he was involved in the disappearances of thousands of people, and was closely linked with Battalion 601, who led the "Dirty War" against left-wingers and other anti-government elements. Repression had begun under Isabelita Peron with the formation of the notorious Triple A (Argentine Anticommunist Alliance) hit-squads, but reached new heights as the government attempted to quash both left- and right-wing rebels.

In 1979, he became Commander-in-Chief of the Argentinian Army, a position he was to hold until his fall from grace three years later. In December 1981 he managed to oust Videla's successor General Roberto Viola, who had been making contact with civilian politicians and was thus considered weak, and take over the presidency himself.

His presidency

When Galtieri took over, the Argentinian economy was in a desperate state. Initially, despite its brutality, the new regime had provided a measure of peace and economic stability, but even this meagre benefit rapidly faded. Policies encouraged imports to the detriment of Argentinian industry; interest rates and foreign debt soared, and in 1980 a wave of bankruptcies hit the nation's businesses.

Argentina and Britain had been disputing ownership of the Falkland Islands (or Malvinas) since 1833 when the islands were first occupied by British troops. Although they were small and windswept, they had a strategically important location for the British, and possible oil and natural gas reserves as well as fisheries.

Argentinian troops landed on the Falkland Islands on the night of April 1 - April 2, 1982, and within 12 hours the British governor Rex Hunt surrendered. Two weeks previously, a group of Argentinian scrap metal merchants had landed on nearby British territory South Georgia, which had already sparked a dispute between the nations.

The war was presumably intended partly to fulfil Galtieri's dreams of military glory, but also to distract attention from problems at home. Initially the war was very popular with the Argentinian population, with crowds gathering in the Plaza de Mayo in Buenos Aires to show their approval.

However, the tide of fortune rapidly turned against him. Galtieri must have hoped that Britain would not want to go to war over so small a colony, and would prefer to negotiate. But he had seriously misjudged the international situation: he underestimated Britain's resolve to fight, and overestimated his own popularity with other countries.

British Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher was not a person to let an attack on Britain pass peacefully: she was a fierce patriot and already known for the fighting spirit which she had shown by facing down both trade unions and rival elements in her own party. More pragmatically, after the recession in 1980-1981, which was caused by her harsh fiscal reforms, she may have felt that a war would do her popularity no harm either. Two weeks after the invasion, a British military task force set off for the islands including thousands of troops, an aircraft carrier and nuclear submarines.

Ever since his training in the School of the Americas, Galtieri believed he had friends in Washington. With the staunchly anti-communist Ronald Reagan in the White House, the recent communist take-over of Nicaragua and the short-lived presidency of Salvador Allende in Chile, and friends like Henry Kissinger instructing him in the war against subversives, he must have thought he was too valuable for the USA to turn its back on him.

But the USA did not participate militarily on either side, although it provided intelligence information to Britain (though a debate continues as to how much assistance was actually given). Augusto Pinochet's government in Chile also offered important assistance to the UK; there were close links between Thatcher's goverment and that of Pinochet, particularly through her economic advisor Alan Walters who had spent some time in the country.

With the support of Chile and the USA, the authority of the United Nations Security Council and Britain's superior weaponry and better-trained soldiers (most of the Argentinians were conscripts), the islands were quickly recaptured, though not without the loss of six ships and 255 British lives (including 3 civilians).

The Argentinians had suffered from appalling logistical planning and an inability to adequately supply their troops on the islands. Galtieri had been planning the invasion of the Falklands since January 1982, originally aiming to invade in June, but he brought the invasion forwards, possibly due to the rising social problems at home.

This move, coupled with his arrogant assumptions that America would side with him and Britain would not fight, meant his troops were unprepared for a British military response. It is unclear how close the British came to losing because the problems of supplying a military force so far from home6, but there was nothing in Galtieri's conduct of the war that merited victory. Although the Argentinian air force did significant damage, his beloved army put up a weaker fight.

The Argentinian military capitulated to the British on June 14, 1982, and Galtieri himself surrendered three days later, resigning both the presidency and his military position on July 17. Around 700 Argentinians had died in the Falklands War, and the outcome destroyed any chance of Britain offering a peaceful handover.

The military agreed to hold elections the following year, and General Reynaldo Bignone was made acting president meanwhile. Thus, Galtieri's defeat brought an end not only to his own military and political career, but to the military rule of the junta in Argentina. Some might see this as the one good outcome of his presidency.

After the war

Following the fall of the junta, a civilian leader was elected: president Raul Alfonsin of the Radical Civic Union, a pro-business party. In the years since the end of military rule, successive governments have made intermittent attempts to punish those responsible for the "Dirty War", which claimed between 11 000 and 30 000 lives; in contrast, the conflict over the Falklands left less than 1000 dead.

Alfonsin brought many of the military leaders to justice, but seldom on serious charges. Galtieri was charged not with human rights abuses, but only with incompetence over the conduct of the war. In 1986 he was sentenced to 12 years in jail.

When Carlos Menem became president in 1990, Galtieri was freed following pressure from the military. He retired to the suburb of Villa Devoto in Buenos Aires, living a modest life: apparently he had not profited financially from government corruption. It is said that he was a bitter man, resenting the nation that he felt had betrayed him. His mood did not improve when a court refused him a presidential pension.

In 1997 Spanish judge Baltasar Garzon issued an indictment against Galtieri for some of the crimes committed under military rule, having investigated the deaths of 600 people of Spanish descent in junta-led Argentina. President Menem angrily rejected this attempt to bring Galtieri to justice in a foreign court, but a change in government would put the pressure on again.

Alfonsin had passed a law promising all the military leaders freedom from further prosecution; however this was eventually judged to be unconstitutional in 2002. That July he was placed under house arrest, which Argentinian law allowed rather than jail for people over 70 years old, charged in connection with the killing of 18 Peronist Montoneros guerillas. He had been addicted to alcohol for many years, and was by then an old man; his health was very poor.

He died in the Military Hospital in Buenos Aires on January 12, 2003, of heart and respiratory failure, following pancreatic cancer.

After his death, Falklands War veteran Simon Weston, who was terribly burnt during the conflict, commented

I carry the scars for the rest of my life for what he did inflict on me and inflict on that part of the world but he's gone now, and hopefully we will never have to see another lunatic like him.7
It is unlikely that many people in either Britain or Argentina will argue with that.


1 Quoted in Isobel Hilton, "Obituary: General Leopoldo Galtieri", The Guardian, 13 January 2003, <http://www.guardian.co.uk/obituaries/story/0,3604,873446,00.html>

2 For the Argentinian press reaction to his death, see: BBC Monitoring, "Argentine press condemns Galtieri", BBCi, 13 January 2003, <http://news.bbc.co.uk/1/hi/not_in_website/syndication/monitoring/media_reports/2652937.stm>

3 Hugh O'Shaughnessy, "General Leopoldo Galtieri", The Independent, 13 January 2003, <http://www.independent.co.uk/story.jsp?story=368027>

4 Eduardo van der Kooy, writing in Argentinian newspaper Clarin, quoted by BBC Monitoring, "Argentine press condemns Galtieri", BBCi, 13 January 2003, <http://news.bbc.co.uk/1/hi/not_in_website/syndication/monitoring/media_reports/2652937.stm>

5 Hugh O'Shaughnessy, "General Leopoldo Galtieri".

6Admiral Sir John "Sandy" Woodward has suggested that if Argentina had held out another week, the outcome could have been very different. See: Jeevan Vasagar and Alex Bellos, "Falklands victory 'a close run thing'", The Guardian, 3 April 2002, <http://www.guardian.co.uk/uk_news/story/0,3604,677969,00.html>

7 Simon Weston quoted in Alex Bellos, "Argentinian dictator Galtieri dies at 76", The Guardian, 13 January 2003, <http://www.guardian.co.uk/international/story/0,3604,873700,00.html>

Additional sources: The Guardian, BBC News, The Independent and El Pais.

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