Hebe de Bonafini, who has died aged 93, was the radical, combative co-founder of a group of Argentine mothers who protested in Buenos Aires against the kidnapping and disappearance of up to 30,000 people during the so-called “Dirty War” under the military dictatorship of Jorge Videla.
Having lost her two sons and her daughter-in-law to the junta, she began demonstrating in front of the Casa Rosada, the presidential palace on the Plaza de Mayo, with 13 other mothers in April 1977, shortly after her elder son, Jorge, had been seized. At that time meetings of more than three people were banned.
The mothers met every Thursday, walking anti-clockwise around a clocktower in the square. On a religious pilgrimage that year they wrapped cloth nappies round their heads to symbolise the children they had lost, precursor of the white scarves which would become their trademark.
The government broke up the protests, arrested some of those taking part and kidnapped and killed the mothers’ first leader, Azucena Villaflor.
Looking back many years later, Hebe de Bonafini said she “could not imagine that the dictatorship was so murderous, perverse and criminal”. Of those who had disappeared she said the mothers were “their voice, their gaze, their heart, their breath”.
In 1982, a year before the return to civilian rule, the Asociación de las Madres de Plaza de Mayo ventured out of their square on to the Avenida de Mayo, the road which runs from the Casa Rosada to Congress, and for the first time drew large crowds of sympathisers.
That demonstration, and others by trade unions, business associations and various civic groups, were crucial in persuading the junta to restore civilian rule, a transition achieved in 1983 with the election of Raúl Alfonsín as president.
Hebe de Bonafini was feted by the likes of Sting, U2, Yves Montand and Catherine Deneuve. In 1999 she received the Unesco Prize for Peace Education.
In a tribute to her friend, the former president Cristina Fernández de Kirchner hailed her as a “world symbol of the struggle for human rights, pride of Argentina”. For the present incumbent, Alberto Fernández, she “brought light amidst the dark night of the military dictatorship and paved the way for the recovery of democracy”. He declared three days of national mourning after her death.
Yet, despite these rightful tributes to Hebe de Bonafini’s steadfast courage and the pioneering role she played in undermining the dictatorship, she became an increasingly controversial figure once civilian rule had been restored.
She criticised Alfonsín for what she considered an excessively cautious approach to prosecuting those involved in the Dirty War. Only nine junta members were brought to trial; five were acquitted.
In 1986 the mothers split into two, the Madres de Plaza de Mayo and the Madres de Plaza de Mayo-Línea Fundadora. Hebe de Bonafini sided with the first, the more radical faction, which wanted to change the political system.
She was much more at home under the Peronist administrations of Néstor Kirchner (2003-07) and his wife Cristina (2007-2015), to both of whom she was close. In 2006 she discontinued the mothers’ annual march of resistance after the president had declared Alfonsín’s limited measures against the junta to be unconstitutional.
The Madres received increased government funding under the Kirchners and were put in charge of a federal programme called Sueños Compartidos (Shared Dreams), which built housing for slum residents. The programme came under legal scrutiny when its chief financial officer and its lawyer, Sergio Schoklender and his brother Pablo, who had spent 15 years in jail for murdering their parents, were investigated for embezzlement. In 2011 the Sueños Compartidos contract was transferred to a government department.
Hebe de Bonafini eventually agreed to testify in the case, which was brought to trial in 2019 but has since made no progress.
After the 2001 attack on the Twin Towers in New York, she said she felt that “there were many people… who were happy that the blood of so many in that moment were avenged.”
In 2005 she said that Pope John Paul II – proclaimed a saint by the Roman Catholic Church in 2014 – had committed many sins and would go to hell.
The Argentine Congress she described as “nothing but a nest of rats and vipers”. And after the attack in 2015 on the French satirical magazine Charlie Hebdo, in which 12 people were killed, she said that “colonialist France left thousands of small countries in ruins and so has no moral authority to talk about criminal terrorism.”
Hebe María Pastor was born on December 4 1928 in the port city of Ensenada, Buenos Aires Province. She remembered as a child being unable to complete primary education because her family could not afford bus tickets.
When she was only 14 she married Humberto Alfredo Bonafini, with whom she had three children: Jorge Omar, who disappeared, presumed dead, in 1977, Raúl Alfredo, who suffered the same fate later that year, and María Alejandra, who survives her. Her husband died in 1982.
Hebe de Bonafini, born December 4 1928, died November 20 2022