Jorge Rafael Videla, the military junta leader who oversaw a ruthless campaign of political killings and forced disappearances during Argentina's so-called Dirty War against dissidents in the mid-1970s, died on Friday in the Marcos Paz Prison in Buenos Aires, where he was serving a life sentence for crimes against humanity. He was 87.
His death was announced by Argentina's Secretariat for Human Rights.
At least 15,000 people were killed or "disappeared" during the junta's campaign, according to government estimates. Human rights officials say the figure is closer to 30,000.
General Videla rose to power in 1976, when he led a largely bloodless coup against President Isabel Martínez de Perón, widow of Juan Domingo Perón, the founder of the country's populist movement. Whisked away by helicopter in the dead of night, Mrs. Perón was arrested and charged with corruption, and General Videla, the chief of the armed forces, took over the presidency and established a military junta, promising to restore civilian rule promptly.
Instead he declared as a priority the "eradication" of the leftist guerrillas who had begun a fierce offensive against Mrs. Perón's government. The junta's net soon widened to include lawyers, students, journalists and union leaders suspected of ties to radical groups. Congress was suspended, political parties were abolished, strikes were made illegal and death squads roamed the country.
General Videla survived numerous assassination attempts, including one in 1977 when a bomb exploded on the airport runway in Buenos Aires seconds after his plane took off. After the junta collapsed in 1983 and democracy returned, General Videla and the other main junta officials were tried in 1985 and convicted of human rights abuses that included torture and murder. General Videla was sentenced to life in prison.
The trial of the officials had historic implications in a region plagued by autocratic regimes.
"For the first time the members of a military junta are being tried by civilian courts for the crimes they committed during a dictatorship," Ernesto Sábato, the Argentine novelist and head of a presidential commission to investigate the disappearances, said at the time.
But in 1990, General Videla, along with other junta officials, was pardoned by President Carlos Saúl Menem, saying his country had been traumatized and needed to move on. Eight years later, General Videla was arrested again, on kidnapping charges. He was accused of organizing the illegal adoption by military families of children whose parents had been kidnapped by death squads and disappeared.
General Videla was put under house arrest and then sent to a military prison. After a judge revoked the 1990 pardons as unconstitutional in 2007, General Videla and other junta officials faced new charges over the torture and execution of political prisoners.
Speaking before a tribunal in July 2010, General Videla accepted full responsibility for his actions during what he called an "internal war," saying his subordinates had just been following orders. But he said that he would not testify in a new trial because he could not be "tried again for the same cause," a reference to his 1985 trial.
Jorge Rafael Videla Redondo was born in Mercedes, Argentina, on Aug. 2, 1925. The son of an army colonel, he graduated from the National Military College in 1944 and began rising through the ranks. He was a brigadier general when he was appointed chief of the army general staff in 1973. In 1975, Mrs. Perón named him commander in chief of the armed forces.
By then the military's high command was already voicing its frustration with the civilian government, which was besieged by rampant inflation, corruption and a campaign of bombings and assassinations by radical left-wing groups. Mrs. Perón had declared a state of emergency in November 1974, giving the army a free hand to pursue the militants.
As the economy and security deteriorated under the Peronist government, leftists and union leaders began warning of a revolt like the bloody coup General Augusto Pinochet mounted in 1973 against Salvador Allende in Chile.
But the coup in Argentina was carried out almost without a shot. Mrs. Perón left the presidential palace in a helicopter at midnight as General Videla and the junta took power, promising to fill a vacuum of leadership. Their objective was to install a technocratic government capable of regaining control of the economy and restoring security.
The junta's economic policies focused on privatizing the large public sector created under the populist Peronist system and developing the agrarian export sector controlled by landholders. The new regime cut wages, reduced welfare assistance and raised food prices.
To tighten security, General Videla intensified the so-called Process of National Reorganization, putting the radical groups -- including the powerful Montoneros, which had broken from the Peronist movement, and the Trotskyite Revolutionary Army of the People -- on the defensive.
He declared in 1977: "One becomes a terrorist not only by killing with a weapon or setting a bomb but also by encouraging others through ideas that go against our Western and Christian civilization."
With support from the military and the police, right-wing death squads kidnapped presumed subversives and took them to secret detention centers, never to be seen again.
The human rights abuses left General Videla and Argentina increasingly isolated. President Jimmy Carter sent diplomatic observers and cut military aid significantly to pressure the junta.
As the violence ebbed, the general turned to the dysfunctional economy. "The war is over," he said in 1979. "Now we must win the peace."
In 1981, he relinquished power to Gen. Roberto Viola. Poor health forced General Viola to step down only eight months later. He was succeeded by Gen. Leopoldo Galtieri, who ordered Argentina's failed invasion of the Falkland Islands. Britain's rapid victory over Argentina destroyed the credibility of the army and brought an end to military rule.
Information on General Videla's survivors was not immediately available.
Simon Romero contributed reporting from Rio de Janeiro, and Jonathan Gilbert from Buenos Aires.world
This article originally appeared in The New York Times.