There were moments when Hebe de Bonafini inspired the world: defying Argentina’s military junta to lead a mothers’ campaign seeking justice for thousands of people “disappeared” by the dictatorship — including her two sons and daughter-in-law.
Her contrasting legacies — unwavering and alienating — became a fixture of Argentine political life for more than four decades as the country grappled with the horrors of the right-wing junta’s rule from 1976 to 1983 and rebuilt a democracy still haunted by the past.
Ms. de Bonafini, once a homespun mom with a grammar-school education, moved through that arc as a voice of conscience over the regime’s “dirty war,” yet also as caretaker of her own combative political brand that allowed almost no middle ground.
“It’s true that I am very radical,” said Ms. de Bonafini, who died Nov. 20 at a hospital in La Plata, Argentina, at 93. “The mothers always ask for the maximum, and what is the maximum that we ask for: to have justice, to maintain principles and to live with ethics.”
The group was first galvanized by rage and sorrow. Ms. de Bonafini and 13 fellow mothers — all with missing children or relatives — gathered in 1977 outside the main government palace in Buenos Aires. It was a courageous challenge to the dictatorship and its violent crackdowns against anyone it perceived as a threat, including journalists, authors, professors, leftist students and political opponents.
The mothers returned each Thursday. And more joined each week, walking around a clock tower and holding images of their missing loved ones. A simple white headscarf, emblazed with the names of the disappeared, became the movement’s hallmark. Ms. de Bonafini was rarely seen without a scarf with wisps of hair — chestnut, then gray — peeking out as the years passed.
When police seized one of the original protest leaders, Azucena Villaflor, in December 1977, Ms. de Bonafini assembled the group in the plaza and quickly steered the tone of the marches in a more aggressive direction. Ms. de Bonafini later brought in megaphones and loudspeakers, shouting insults against the junta and crying out the names of those missing. (Villaflor was taken to a prison camp, and her remains were found by forensic teams in 2005.)
An estimated 30,000 people were “disappeared” and presumed killed by the military regime. The Argentine mothers inspired similar movements over the decades, including women-led peace rallies during the Balkan wars and Russian mothers opposing the war in Ukraine.
“We are not fighting over whether our children are alive or dead,” Ms. de Bonafini said in 1986. “We have a much more wide-ranging fight. We are looking for justice, and all that might mean: that people not forget.”
In February 1977, security forces took away Ms. de Bonafini’s eldest son, Jorge, who was part of a leftist guerrilla faction. In December 1977, her other son, Raúl, was hauled away. Six months later, Jorge’s wife, María Elena Bugnone Cepeda, was arrested. None were seen by their families again.
“Before my son was kidnapped, I was just another woman, another housewife,” Ms. de Bonafini said in 2017.
Even after the collapse of the junta, Ms. de Bonafini kept up her confrontational style with its democratically elected successors to demand answers and mete out punishment. All the while, she said, threats against her never stopped. In biographer Alejandro Diago’s 1988 book, “Hebe Bonafini, Memoria y Esperanza,” she described herself as a “mother-lion” always on the hunt.
Zeal brought rifts
That zeal, however, brought rifts and recriminations. The mothers’ movement split in 1986 along the with-me-or-against-me lines drawn by Ms. de Bonafini. Some joined her. Others broke away into a separate faction, complaining that Ms. de Bonafini’s political leanings had become too extreme and her temperament too unpredictable.
She adopted staunch anti-U.S. views — a principled position, she argued, given U.S. backing for Argentina’s dictatorship and other right-wing regimes in Latin America — and embraced some of Washington’s main foes, such as Cuba’s Fidel Castro, Hugo Chávez in Venezuela and FARC guerrillas in Colombia’s civil war. After the 9/11 attacks, Ms. de Bonafini said she felt “happiness.”
“The blood of so many in that moment were avenged,” she said, pointing to NATO bombings, U.S. embargoes and military alliances with authoritarian governments. “That was due to this power that those men attacked, with their own bodies,” she added. “And everyone knew it.” (Others, too, around the world draw links between the attacks and U.S. foreign policy.)
Argentine journalist Horacio Verbitsky called her out for the remarks. She shot back by noting his Jewish faith and calling him a “servant of the United States,” bringing accusations of an antisemitic smear.
In 2005, she also denounced Pope John Paul II, saying he would “go to hell” for his credited role in helping nudge the collapse of communism. She later sought support for her anti-poverty efforts from Pope Francis, who was born in Argentina and became the first Latin American pontiff.
Yet a plan led by Ms. de Bonafini to build apartments for residents of Buenos Aires slums unraveled in 2011 in a scandal that deeply tarnished her image as a social crusader.
Ms. de Bonafini’s political ally, Cristina Fernández de Kirchner, then the Argentine president, set aside $45 million for Sueños Compartidos (“Shared Dreams”), a charity group founded by Ms. de Bonafini’s group, Foundation Mothers of the Plaza de Mayo.
Ms. de Bonafini’s pick of builders raised eyebrows: a company called Meldorek, linked to a friend and adviser, Sergio Schoklender, who had been jailed along with his brother Pablo for torturing and killing their parents in 1981. Ms. de Bonafini had befriended Sergio Schoklender in prison over shared human rights issues before his release in 1995.
Allegations soon were raised of alleged overcharging by Meldorek and failure to make pension payments for workers. Schoklender, meanwhile, traveled on a private plane and allegedly used company money to buy a Ferrari and yachts — although he claimed he did not own the firm.
Schoklender was charged with fraud and fiscal mismanagement. A judge in 2017 expanded the indictments to Ms. de Bonafini. She claimed the allegations were mounted by political enemies. The case is still open.
Argentine leaders, however, were effusive with tributes after her death. “We lost a tireless fighter,” said a statement from President Alberto Fernández. “She faced the genocidal when collective common sense went in another direction,” he added.
Protests and threats
Hebe María Pastor was born in Ensenada, southeast of Buenos Aires, on Dec. 4, 1928, and left school after primary grades to help her family. In 1942, she married Humberto Alfredo Bonafini and they had three children together. (Her husband died in 1982.)
After democracy was restored in 1983, Ms. de Bonafini decried the limited scope of the trials of former junta officials. Then in 1986, an amnesty was passed that covered many security officers in attempts to avoid post-junta upheavals in the military and police. Her protests branched out.
In 1996, Ms. de Bonafini was beaten by police during a student-led protest over the introduction of university entrance exams. “Never before has blood spilled onto a scarf of the mothers,” Ms. de Bonafini told the New York Times. “If they could have, I believe they would have killed me.”
Her polarizing effect was evident in the aftermath. A caller on a morning radio show grumbled that Ms. de Bonafini “is always sticking her militant nose where it does not belong.”
Five years later, Ms. de Bonafini said she had received anonymous threats that attackers would hit her “where it hurts the most.” In May 2001, two men posing as phone company workers entered her home and severely beat her daughter, María Alejandra Bonafini, and burned the woman’s arms with a cigarette.
Ms. de Bonafini’s death was announced by her daughter, her only survivor, and statements from Argentina’s political leaders. No cause was given.
The election of leftist President Néstor Kirchner in 2003 brought a new political alliance with Ms. de Bonafini. Kirchner lifted the amnesty and resumed prosecutions for alleged “dirty war” crimes. Ms. de Bonafini stood by the family, including Kirchner’s widow Cristina and political successor, amid allegations of corruptions. (Cristina Fernández de Kirchner is the current vice president.)
“We are their voice, or try to be their voice,” Ms. de Bonafini said of the disappeared.
She gave him a white headscarf.
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