Covert Tactics as Psychological Violence in Argentina’s Dirty War

Luisa Valenzuela’s short story, I’m Your Horse in the Night, shows the effect of the repressive tactics used to silence politicized populations during Argentina’s Dirty War. The goal of these tactics was not only to kill or remove those who posed a direct threat to the regime, but also to convey a message of power and authority to anyone who could be considered a threat, even an ideological one. The rhetorical climate created by the government also served to legitimize their violent and terrorist actions, and silence victims, witnesses, and bystanders.

The term “Dirty War” was used by the military junta that seized power in Argentina in 1976 to describe its own state terrorist actions. The dictatorship that began with this coup referred to itself as the National.

Reorganization Process, and consisted of four successive juntas, which were made up of the heads of each branch of the armed forces, until they were forced to relinquish power after losing the Falklands War in 1982.

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  The most famous tactic used during the Dirty War was forced disappearance of political dissidents, which had been used by other juntas in Argentina’s history, but in the global climate during the Cold War, it became one of the major tools used during the Process’s campaign of repression. This is indicative of the shift in the goals of this regime, reflected in their increased use of tactics such as covert violence and domestic surveillance. The very use of the term “dirty war” by the junta was a rhetorical tool to legitimize the conflict as necessary to maintain social order, and to frame politicized populations seen to be ideologically opposed to the regime; such as Jews, trade unionists, journalists, and students, as a genuine threat.

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The junta took advantage of the virulent anti-communist rhetoric of the time to further justify their persecution of anyone who may be perceived as aligned with leftist politics.  An American-backed campaign in Argentina and other South American dictatorships of the time, known as Operation Condor, used the veil of anti-communism to put in place extensive domestic surveillance operations, giving the junta the means to monitor those deemed ‘subversive’ and take violent action against them. Like other authoritarian and totalitarian governments of the time, especially those with American financial or government ties, the junta used deliberately covert or overt violence as a tool to send messages and practice psychological violence on the population, including noncombatants.

The most well-known example of this is the group referred to as los desaparecidos, alleged ‘subversives’ or political dissidents that were abducted and often tortured and killed, but whose loved ones never found out their fates. Human rights organizations estimate the forced disappearance of about 30,000 people. These people were targeted not because of their guilt, but in order to maintain a state of fear, making the general population afraid to even acknowledge the government’s crimes, and keeping those actually involved in revolutionary action isolated and constantly looking over their shoulders. The use of this tactic, referred to as the “spectacle of absence”, was key to the regime’s strategy of repression, and is partly responsible for the huge psychological, social, and cultural impact on the Argentine people, who are still feeling its effects.

Horse in the Night shows the intense psychological pressure under which those associated with the resistance lived – the main characters do not even refer to each other by their real names, even in an intimate relationship. They use a predetermined signal when ringing the doorbell, and the narrator’s lover, Beto, will not share any information with her about his activities or locations. Before she opens the door after hearing the signal from the doorbell, she wonders if it could be a trap, and when answering the phone the next morning she falls victim to a trap set up by government operatives. A voice which sounds like another of their comrades tells her that they have found Beto’s body, tricking her into implying that she knows his whereabouts.

With no cause other than her startled claim that the body couldn’t be Beto, the police arrive at her house within fifteen minutes, and it’s clear to both her and the reader that she will be tortured, jailed, and possibly killed. Although the narrator’s connection to alleged subversive elements is clear, it’s by no means obvious that she herself is involved in action against the government, and in fact has no information on Beto’s whereabouts. The story also reflects the repression of memory and the lack of control over their own narratives and realities in its use of magical realism – neither the narrator nor the reader know whether her night with Beto was real or a dream, and the narrator chooses to cling to the dream as her “only real possession”.

The Dirty War has become notable among a long history of authoritarian governments in South America, as well as among its contemporaries during the Cold War, in large part because of the shift in how performances of violence and their absence were used to accomplish state goals of repression. The systematic use of covert operations like domestic surveillance and forced disappearances as a tool to enact psychological violence on the population was a major factor in the junta’s success in reaching these goals, as well as the anti-communist rhetoric of the time. The intense psychological effect of these repressive tactics is shown on a personal level in Valenzuela’s work, with her use of unreality and an uncertain narrative reflecting the real-world context of the setting.

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Covert Tactics as Psychological Violence in Argentina’s Dirty War. (2022, Jan 02). Retrieved from

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