In the early 1970s in response to the military dictatorship in Argentina, a number of left-wing urban guerrilla groups formed in opposition to government authority. The most audacious and active of these groups was the Montoneros, which engaged in a number of high-profile kidnappings, bank robberies, bombings, and assassinations from 1970 to 1977 before being crushed by the military as part of a broader crackdown on “subversion” and dissent in that country’s Dirty War. Most Montoneros were young, disaffected university students and would-be professionals from the urban middle class who engaged in acts of violence to advance their political goals. Many were also women, in keeping with the sexual revolution then transforming much of North America and Europe.
In previous decades, leftist guerrilla groups had formed in the Argentine backcountry, though most had had little impact on the country’s political life. These included the Tigermen (Uturuncos) in 1959, modeled on Cuban revolutionary Fidel Castro’s July 26 Movement; the People’s Guerrilla Army, active in the early 1960s; and the 17th of October group, formed in 1968. In March 1970 a new group, the Argentine Liberation Front (Frente Argentino de Liberación), kidnapped the Paraguayan consul. In June 1970 another group, claiming the mantle of the deposed president Juan Perón and calling itself the Montoneros, kidnapped and executed former Argentine president Pedro E. Aramburu, in reprisal for Aramburu’s 1956 execution of the Peronist general Juan José Valle and 27 of his compatriots after a failed rebellion.
By the end of 1970 at least four leftist guerrilla organizations, three Peronist and one Trostsyist, were active in Argentina, each with fewer than several hundred members. In 1971–72 the Peronist groups, active mostly in and around Buenos Aires, staged a number of sensational, Robin Hood–like operations. In addition to bank robberies and assassinations, the guerrillas kidnapped government officials, prominent businessmen, and executives of multinational corporations, who were released for cash payments to Buenos Aires’ poorest residents. In 1973 the Peronist guerrilla groups coalesced into the Montoneros, led by Mario Firmenich, leader of the original Montoneros formed in June 1970.
Proclaiming traditional unions decadent and corrupt, and popular social revolution as their goal, the group aimed to precipitate a generalized crisis that would usher in a period of radical social transformation, empowering the poor and redistributing the country’s wealth in favor of workers and peasants. On June 20, 1973, during events marking Perón’s second return from exile, pitched battles broke out between the Montoneros and pro-union paramilitaries in which scores, perhaps hundreds, died (the “Ezeiza massacre”). After Perón’s reelection as president in September 1973, the Montoneros stepped up their attacks against Peronist unions, most spectacularly in their assassination of José Rucci, general secretary of the Confederación General del Trabajo. In September 1974 they received an estimated $60 million in cash and $1.2 million in charity distributed to the poor as ransom for the release of several prominent businessmen.
The army, police, and affiliated right-wing paramilitary groups (most notably the “Triple A,” or Alianza Anticomunista Argentina) responded to the upsurge in Montonero violence with a generalized crackdown on organized dissent. Thousands were imprisoned and tortured and thousands more executed and “disappeared” in the Argentine Dirty War (1976–83). In 1976 there were an estimated 7,000 Montoneros. A year later the organization ceased to exist as a viable guerrilla force.