Argentine town faces ghosts of Dirty War as victims of dictatorship face alleged abusers

Shade trees hide the crumbling farm house outside of Olavarria. Hidden at the end of a dirt path, the white plaster coating is falling away from the brick foundation like scabs peeling off an unhealed wound.

Araceli Gutierrez guards the memories of this place like a fragile keepsake. A voluntary caretaker, the 61-year-old with faded blonde curls watches over the house known as Monte Peloni where, as a young woman, she was tortured and raped by her military captors.

"This is a faithful reflection of the memory," she says, walking through the decaying rooms, her expression lost in time. "If it collapsed, it would be as if the most important part of my life were to collapse."

The events that took place in 1977 now are coming to light, forcing residents of this pastoral community to examine their role in Argentina's Dirty War against those who challenged the military regime.

One secret unearthed this summer already cracked Olavarria's facade of quiet rural life.

In August, residents learned an Olavarria music teacher named Ignacio Hurban was, in fact, Guido Montoya Carlotto, the lost grandson of Estela de Carlotta, whose Grandmothers of Plaza de Mayo group searches for children taken by the regime.

Now, Olavarria is learning about the secrets of Monte Peloni. Gutierrez is among the witnesses testifying before a judicial panel investigating the detentions of 21 people taken there by military officials.

A hearing set for next year will uncover abuses allegedly committed against 40 other people at Monte Peloni by 70 defendants, including former police officers, prison officials and town leaders who served as advisers to the regime that ruled Argentina from 1976 to 1983.

"With this tribunal, plus the appearance of Guido," Gutierrez said, "Olavarria has woken up."

But it has been a difficult awakening. Olavarria, some 220 miles (350 kilometers) southwest of Buenos Aires, is a prosperous farming and industrial town that holds onto tradition. The afternoon siesta is still a part of life for many of the 90,000 residents. The twin steeples of the Catholic church stand over Olavarria's tree-lined central square, right next to city hall.

The process is exposing secrets long buried by Olavarria, where victims and the accused share the same streets and know the same people.

Four aging military men could be sent to prison for life as a result of the tribunal that opened Sept. 22 and is expected to conclude before the close of the year.

The four defendants are Omar "Pajaro" Ferreyra, 64, an army sergeant who went on to serve as Olavarria's director of urban control; retired Gen. Ignacio Verdura, 82, who commanded the regiment that controlled the region; former Capt. Walter Grosse, 69; and former Lt. Horacio Leite, 64.

Townspeople old and young crowd into a room at the local state university, or gather outside at the windows, to hear recollections of kidnapping and torture, of being taken to the bathroom of the old farmhouse, where the most sensitive parts of one's body were fastened to electrical cables and shocked.

Tales of Monte Peloni, named for the Swiss family who built the home in the 1800s, long passed from one resident to another like ghost stories.

"I had one friend who would tell us that it scared him to walk by there at night," said Facundo Carlucho, an industrial engineering student in Olavarria.

"I think it's good that justice is being done for what happened in this country. I didn't live through that time but, from what my parents told me, I know enough."

Other communities in Argentina launched investigations into their Dirty War-era abuses years ago, but in Olavarria, there was "resistance" by longstanding social groups that continue to hold influence, according to Walter Romero, the prosecutor leading the Monte Peloni tribunal.

"It's a small town with a conservative profile," said Rafael Curtoni, dean of social science faculty at Central University of Buenos Aires province.

Curtoni said Olavarria continues to guard "certain secrets of the business sector and of people in power" who cooperated with the dictatorship.

"We all know who they are and where they are," he said.

Many in Olavarria were stunned by the story of Hurban, who learned his true identity after volunteering to have his DNA tested. Shortly after his birth in 1978, he was taken from his mother, who died in military captivity, and given to a couple who raised him on a local farm.

Hurban has said his adoptive parents are "an extraordinary couple" who cared for him "with the greatest of love." The Plaza de Mayo group opposes any effort by authorities to question the couple, concerned such an interrogation would discourage other lost children from coming forward.

As many are realizing, examination of the past is a delicate endeavor.

Carmelo Vinci, a former Monte Peloni detainee who now heads the Commission for the Memory of Olavarria, says local business owners participated in the repression of dissidents, noting that the people they employed in local factories were among the first to be detained. The tribunal has said it will investigate allegations that local Rotary Club members were given advance knowledge of who the military intended to pick up.

But Oscar Unzaga, president of the city's main Rotary Club, denied that any such collusion occurred.

After consulting with the club's oldest members, he told The Associated Press, "we decided not to say anything (about the charge) because that would give importance to an embittered testimony that does not deserve a response."

The whole process of the tribunal, he said, is "a circus where the result is already decided." All of the charges should be dismissed, he said, "because we are suffering attacks" perpetrated by guerrillas.

The airing of Olavarria's secrets has made for uncomfortable encounters, said Vinci, who owns a printing shop in town.

A former military officer connected to the regime occasionally passes his store, he said. "Before, he would greet me very cordially. ... But since the hearings began, he is not so friendly."

A confrontation Gutierrez had with Ferreyra while he led the city's urban control department some years ago was recorded by a television program and broadcast nationwide. The camera recorded Gutierrez as she chased him down the corridor of city hall shouting, "Come and tell me that you don't know me."

Ferreyra simply walked away, leaving her demand to hang in silence.