75. Telegram From the Department of State to the Embassy in Argentina1

89468. Subject: Report of Nuns’ Death. Ref: BA 23462

1. Department has received with deepest concern reports of murder of two nuns and five other women picked up in December abductions.

2. Department believes we must act forcefully now to make GOA aware of our outrage at such acts. Argentines must understand that as long as such disappearances occur our relations will be placed under great strain, even though we continue to respect Videla’s expressed personal intentions.

3. Accordingly, Ambassador should seek appointment with President Videla to express U.S. shock at the reported deaths of seven women. Failure of remainder to appear on PEN lists heightens our concern. Ambassador should explain to the President that this development has come at an especially unfortunate time. There had been some modest but positive steps on the part of the Argentine government and the United States had responded to these with positive actions. We had moved from “no” votes on IFI loans to abstentions on the last two loans and had approved the sale of some military equipment. Our positive actions will be hard to maintain, however, in light of the reported deaths of the seven women.3 To offset the very negative impression caused by the seven deaths—and the presumptive deaths of the other 6 “madres”—Argentina would have to make substantial further visible progress in the Human Rights area.

4. Ambassador should continue presentation by suggesting that GOA consider actions which can be taken against the people who [Page 256] committed this crime.4 They should be brought to trial and if some in authority winked at the crime those involved should be disciplined. There will be great pressure in the United States for changes in our policy toward Argentina if significant positive steps are not taken. We realize how difficult this will be for the GOA, but we must be able to show convincing progress or our relations will undoubtedly suffer. Our government believed that President Videla had committed the GOA to release or try all political prisoners, to return to the rule of law and to put a halt to disappearances. Yet all of these areas of concern continue. The deaths of these women underline our concern.

5. FYI. Department realizes that our information about the deaths of the nuns and the others is based on sensitive sources and that the Embassy correctly is concerned about protecting these sources. Your presentation will have to take this into consideration. We cannot, however, refrain from confronting the Argentines with this crime.

6. Department is also most conscious of the reports of the impending ratification of the Treaty of Tlatelolco, the possible release of Jacobo Timerman and the publication of the last prisoner lists. We understand that our proposed demarché could effect these positive GOA steps, but feel nonetheless, we must speak out.

7. You should know that Frank McNeil raised this matter with Aja Espil on March 30 on basis AFP ticker item. Aja Espil expressed horror at possibility report was true and speculated that incident would not only anger Videla but perhaps put him in position to take action against those who sanctioned this outrage. Subsequently, Aja Espil suggested to John Bushnell, presumably as a result of conversations with BA, that report might be false.5

8. Department will make parallel presentation to Aja Espil.6 To insure that the presentations are synchronized, would appreciate your [Page 257] cabling Dept date and time of Ambassador’s appointment with President Videla.7

  1. Source: National Archives, RG 59, Central Foreign Policy File, D780149–1018. Confidential; Priority. Drafted by Bumpus; cleared by Schneider, McNeil, and Zimmermann; approved by Bushnell.
  2. Dated March 30. The Embassy reported on news stories, rumors, and confidential information that all indicated that the bodies of two French nuns and five of the Mothers of the Plaza de Mayo abducted in December had been identified. (National Archives, RG 59, Central Foreign Policy File, D780139–0649) See Document 69.
  3. In an undated note to Oxman regarding this telegram, Christopher wrote: “If true, these reports adversely affect Argentine cases you are considering.” (National Archives, RG 59, Office of the Deputy Secretary: Records of Warren Christopher, 1977–1980, Lot 81D113, Box 27, Human Rights—Argentina II) See Documents 76 and 77.
  4. In telegram 482 from Buenos Aires, January 20, the Embassy reported: “We have tried hard to clarify the circumstances surrounding the disappearance of two French nuns and some 11 other Argentine citizens in a series of abductions December 8–10. Our findings are contradictory and inconclusive, the fact remains that at this writing we have no sure knowledge regarding the nuns’ abductors or their present whereabouts. Our sources generally agree that the operation was carried out by some arm of the security forces, but which specific group and the level of responsibility is unclear.” (National Archives, RG 59, Central Foreign Policy File, D780031–0855)
  5. No record of a meeting has been found.
  6. In telegram 97542 to Buenos Aires, April 15, the Department reported that McNeil told Aja Espil on April 11 “that the murders of the nuns and the continuing credible reports of disappearances had cast a pall over our earlier optimism that things were getting better in Argentina. He particularly stressed the need for further positive developments to offset these tragic events.” (National Archives, RG 59, Central Foreign Policy File, D780163–0125) In telegram 102617 to Buenos Aires, April 21, the Department reported that Aja Espil responded on April 19, noting that “his government refused to accept the charges that Argentine security forces had been involved in these disappearances.” (National Archives, RG 59, Central Foreign Policy File, D780171–0993)
  7. In telegram 2663 from Buenos Aires, April 10, Castro reported on his meeting with Videla that day, noting that “the reports of the deaths of the two nuns had dealt a serious blow to USG views of Argentine progress on observance of human rights. It was our view that it is crucial for the GOA to establish responsibility for the deaths of nuns and punish those responsible.” (National Archives, RG 59, Central Foreign Policy File, D780154–0513)