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Hebe de Bonafini, strident voice for Argentine ‘dirty war’ victims, dies at 93

There were times when Hebe de Bonafini inspired the world: She defied Argentina’s military junta to lead a mother campaign seeking justice for thousands of people “disappeared” by the dictatorship — including her two sons and daughter-in-law.

There were also times of discord and contempt. Her sharp views divided the famous Mothers of the Plaza de Mayo movement, and her sharp tongue could isolate her over comments deemed anti-Semitic that justified the September 11, 2001 attacks as revenge for American bullying .

Her contrasting legacies – unshakable and alienating – became a fixture of Argentine political life for more than four decades as the country struggled with the horrors of the right-wing junta’s rule from 1976 to 1983 and rebuilt a democracy still under the influence of the past haunted.

Ms. de Bonafini, once a high school-educated housewife, moved through that arc as a voice of conscience about the regime’s “dirty war,” but also as a caretaker of her own belligerent political brand that allowed almost no middle ground.

“It is true that I am very radical,” said Ms. de Bonafini, who died on November 20 at the age of 93 in a hospital in La Plata, Argentina. “The mothers always ask for the maximum, and what is the maximum we ask for: to have justice, to uphold principles and to live with ethics.”

The group was first provoked by anger and sadness. Ms de Bonafini and 13 fellow mothers – all with missing children or relatives – gathered outside the main government palace in Buenos Aires in 1977. It was a courageous challenge to the dictatorship and its violent crackdown on anyone it considered a threat, including journalists, authors, professors, left-wing students and political opponents.

The mothers returned every Thursday. And each week more arrived, walking around a clock tower holding pictures of their missing loved ones. A simple white headscarf, decorated with the names of the disappeared, became the hallmark of the movement. Mrs. de Bonafini was rarely seen without a scarf with tufts of hair—auburn, then gray—peeping out as the years passed.

When police seized one of the original protest leaders, Azucena Villaflor, in December 1977, Mrs. de Bonafini gathered the group in the square and quickly steered the tone of the marches in a more aggressive direction. Ms. de Bonafini later brought in megaphones and loudspeakers, shouting insults against the junta and shouting the names of the missing. (Villaflor was taken to a detention camp and her remains were found by forensic teams in 2005.)

An estimated 30,000 people were “disappeared” and presumed killed by the military regime. The Argentine mothers have inspired similar movements in recent decades, including women-led peace rallies during the Balkan wars and Russian mothers opposing the war in Ukraine.

“We’re not fighting over whether our children are alive or dead,” Mrs. de Bonafini said in 1986. “We have a much broader battle. We’re looking for justice, and that could mean anything: that people don’t forget .”

In February 1977, security forces took Jorge, Mrs. de Bonafini’s eldest son, who was part of a left-wing guerrilla faction. In December 1977, her other son, Raúl, was taken away. Six months later, Jorge’s wife, María Elena Bugnone Cepeda, was arrested. No one was seen by their family again.

“Before my son was kidnapped, I was just another woman, another housewife,” Ms. de Bonafini said in 2017.

Miguel Etchecolatz, enforcer of Argentina’s “dirty war,” dies at age 93

Even after the collapse of the junta, Ms. de Bonafini maintained her confrontational style with her democratically elected successors to demand answers and mete out punishment. All the while, she said, the threats against her never ceased. In biographer Alejandro Diago’s 1988 book, “Hebe Bonafini, Memoria y Esperanza,” she describes herself as a “mother lion” who is always on the hunt.

However, that zeal brought rifts and accusations. The mothers’ movement split in 1986 along the with-me-or-against-me lines drawn by Mrs. de Bonafini. Some joined her. Others split into a separate faction, complaining that Madame de Bonafini’s political leanings had become too extreme and her temperament too unpredictable.

She took staunchly anti-American stances — a position of principle, she argued, given the U.S.’s support for Argentina’s dictatorship and other right-wing regimes in Latin America — and embraced some of Washington’s main enemies, such as Cuba’s Fidel Castro , Hugo Chávez in Venezuela and FARC guerrillas in the civil war in Colombia. After the 9/11 attacks, Ms. de Bonafini said she felt “happiness”.

“The blood of so many has been avenged at that moment,” she said, pointing to NATO bombings, US embargoes and military alliances with authoritarian governments. “That was because of this force that attacked those men, with their own bodies,” she added. “And everyone knew it.” (Others around the world are also making connections between the attacks and US foreign policy.)

Argentine journalist Horacio Verbitsky called her out for the comments. She fired back by noting his Jewish faith and calling him a “servant of the United States,” accusing him of an anti-Semitic slander.

In 2005, she also denounced Pope John Paul II, saying he would “go to hell” for his credited role in helping push the collapse of communism. She later sought support for her anti-poverty efforts from Pope Francis, who was born in Argentina and became the first Latin American pope.

But a plan spearheaded by Ms. de Bonafini to build apartments for residents of Buenos Aires’ slums unraveled in 2011 in a scandal that severely tarnished her image as a social crusader.

Ms. de Bonafini’s political ally, Cristina Fernández de Kirchner, then Argentine president, earmarked $45 million for Sueños Compartidos (“Shared Dreams”), a charitable group founded by Ms. de Bonafini’s group, Foundation Mothers of the Plaza de Mayo .

Ms. de Bonafini’s choice of construction workers raised eyebrows: a company called Meldorek, linked to a friend and advisor, Sergio Schoklender, who had been imprisoned with his brother Pablo for torturing and murdering their parents in 1981. Ms. de Bonafini had befriended Sergio Schoklender in prison for shared human rights issues before his release in 1995.

Allegations were soon made about alleged overcharges by Meldorek and failure to pay employee pension payments. Schoklender, meanwhile, was traveling on a private jet and reportedly used company money to buy a Ferrari and yachts — though he claimed he didn’t own the company.

Schoklender was charged with fraud and fiscal mismanagement. A judge in 2017 extended the charges to Ms. de Bonafini. She claimed the allegations were made by political enemies. The case is still open.

However, Argentine leaders lavished tributes after her death. “We have lost a tireless fighter,” said one pronunciation of President Alberto Fernandez. “She faced the genocidal as the collective common sense went the other way,” he added.

Hebe María Pastor was born in Ensenada, southeast of Buenos Aires, on December 4, 1928, and left school after grade school to help her family. In 1942 she married Humberto Alfredo Bonafini and they had three children together. (Her husband died in 1982.)

After democracy was restored in 1983, Ms. de Bonafini denounced the narrow scope of the trials of former junta officials. Then in 1986 an amnesty was passed that covered many security officers in efforts to prevent post-junta upheavals in the military and police. Her protests branched out.

In 1996, Ms. de Bonafini was beaten by police during a student-led protest against the introduction of university entrance exams. “Never before has blood been spilled on a scarf belonging to the mothers,” Ms. de Bonafini told the New York Times. “If they could, I believe they would have killed me.”

Her polarizing effect was evident in the aftermath. A caller on a morning radio show grumbled that Mrs. de Bonafini “always sticks her militant nose where it doesn’t belong.”

Five years later, Ms de Bonafini said she had received anonymous threats that attackers would hit her “where it hurts most”. In May 2001, two men posing as telephone company employees entered her home and severely beat her daughter, María Alejandra Bonafini, and burned the woman’s arms with a cigarette.

Ms. de Bonafini’s death was announced by her daughter, her only survivor, and statements by Argentina’s political leaders. No reason was given.

The election of left-wing president Néstor Kirchner in 2003 brought a new political alliance with Ms. de Bonafini. Kirchner lifted the amnesty and resumed prosecution for alleged “dirty war crimes.” Mrs. de Bonafini stood by the family, including Kirchner’s widow Cristina and political successor, amid allegations of corruption. (Cristina Fernández de Kirchner is the current vice president.)

“We are their voice, or try to be their voice,” Ms. de Bonafini said of the disappeared.

The band U2 paid tribute to the protests in their 1987 song “Mothers of the Disappeared”. When U2 visited Argentina in 1998, singer Bono took the time to meet Mrs. de Bonafini.

She gave him a white kerchief.

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