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Victoria Villarruel, the vice-presidential candidate on the ticket of radical libertarian economist Javier Milei, has enraged human rights groups in Argentina by holding an event they said justified the crimes of the rightwing military dictatorship that ruled from 1976 to 1983.
At an event dubbed “honouring victims of terrorism” in Buenos Aires on Monday, Villarruel invited the relatives of several people killed by leftwing guerrillas in the early 1970s to address a crowd of supporters.
Violence by those groups has been used by the dictatorship’s defenders to boost their argument that Argentina’s military waged a necessary war against terrorists, rather than carrying out systematic extrajudicial killings of civilians, as most historians and the country’s human rights commission have concluded.
The appearance at the event by Villarruel, a lawmaker for Milei’s Libertad Avanza party, heightens the controversy around his outsider presidential campaign. He is running on a platform to significantly shrink the Argentine state, shut down the central bank and dollarise the economy in an attempt to control rampant inflation. He is the frontrunner to win October’s election.
Several of the speakers at the event, including Lucía Montenegro, a city legislator for Libertad Avanza, said they were not attempting to defend the dictatorship.
Several hundred protesters surrounded the legislature building on Monday afternoon, carrying images of victims of the dictatorship, and the flags of leftwing political movements.
“What they’re trying to do is very dangerous, which is to twist what really happened, to tell us that what our grandparents lived through is a lie,” said Serena Drouville, 21. “It feels like we’re going backwards.”
Estela de Carlotto, president of the Grandmothers of the Plaza de Mayo, a campaign group led by relatives of people who were “disappeared” during the dictatorship, told local radio that Villarruel was trying “to sow chaos, to make us fight among ourselves”.
Villarruel came to prominence as a lawyer and activist advocating for soldiers convicted of human rights abuses during the dictatorship, which killed or disappeared as many as 30,000 people, although the number is contested.
Her father, Eduardo Villarruel, was a commando instructor who participated in an operation to repress leftist guerrillas in the northern city of Tucumán in 1975.
At the protest, Eduardo Osores, a former leftwing militant in Tucumán whose brother was killed by the dictatorship, said “she is defending the worst element of our country’s history. The state cannot be part of a genocide, its job is to protect citizens.”
Speaking to a packed room in Buenos Aires’ grand city legislature building, Villarruel railed against what she said was the exclusion from Argentina’s “official history” of “more than 17,000” people who had been attacked by leftist groups, mainly the People’s Revolutionary Army, and the Montoneros, a guerrilla group that operated in the 1970s in support of exiled former president Juan Domingo Perón.
“There can be no redress for any of these victims,” she said, “for the suffering they experienced at the hands of an authoritarian, communist state, based on tyranny and denying the essence of human beings.”
If elected, Milei plans to hand Villarruel control of the security, defence and justice ministries. Media reports at the weekend suggested that she planned to review compensation the state pays to families who lost relatives to state violence.
Juan Cruz Díaz, head of political consultancy Cefeidas Group, said Villarruel’s move to hold the event seemed to be “driven by personal conviction rather than political strategy”, because there was little appetite to reopen this dark period of Argentine history.
It may, however, “help to deepen Libertad Avanza’s image as the force standing against the [ruling populist Peronists], which has made the human rights agenda its own over the past two decades”, he said.
The event also drew attention to one of Milei’s main rivals for the presidency, Patricia Bullrich, the rightwing candidate of pro-business coalition Juntos por el Cambio. She has been accused of involvement in the Montoneros, which she denies.
Bullrich declined to comment on Villarruel’s event. “If [Libertad Avanza] thinks that this is Argentina’s priority, that’s their issue,” she told reporters. “Our priority is to pull Argentina out of its current devastating situation.”