Hebe de Bonafini, a former seamstress who, spurred by the disappearance of her sons during Argentina’s brutal military dictatorship of the 1970s, helped rally other mothers to build the country’s most notable human rights protest movement, died on Sunday in La Plata, a town an hour outside of Buenos Aires. She was 93.
Her daughter and sole survivor, Alejandra Bonafini, confirmed the death, in a hospital. The government decreed three days of national mourning.
Ms. de Bonafini was a 49-year old housewife in 1977 when her life took a dramatic turn for the worse. Argentina’s right-wing military dictatorship, which had been backed by the United States, had taken power a year earlier. Her two sons, as members of Marxist-Leninist parties, were exactly the kind of people the dictatorship targeted. On the morning of Feb. 8, 1977, one of them, Jorge, then 26, was kidnapped and never seen again.
Ms. de Bonafini searched tirelessly for Jorge in morgues and hospitals and was repeatedly turned away by the police and the courts. She soon found that she was not alone. Quietly at first, and then in a torrent, other women started coming out with stories of their missing children.
At the time, Argentina’s regime, the bloodiest in modern South American history, was rounding up thousands of real and presumed leftists and putting them in torture camps or killing them outright. The dictatorship lasted seven years, during which at least 8,960 people disappeared, according to official estimates. Some human rights groups put the figure at 30,000.
Ms. de Bonafini started organizing meetings with other mothers of disappeared children in cafes and churches and at home. Months later, they staged the first of what would become weekly vigils in Plaza de Mayo, a square in downtown Buenos Aires in front of the presidential palace, demanding answers. To identify one another, the Mothers of Plaza de Mayo, as they were called, wore simple white scarves wrapped around their heads, a symbol of the diapers their children had worn as babies.
Though the dictatorship disappeared three founding members of the movement, the women kept turning up at the plaza every Thursday, becoming a constant thorn in the dictatorship’s side and a symbol of the dark truths it was trying to hide. And Ms. de Bonafini became one of the movement’s most celebrated, and polarizing, figures.
The Mothers of Plaza de Mayo went on to win the Sakharov Prize, the European Parliament’s top human rights award, and were nominated for the Nobel Peace Prize multiple times, most recently in 2018.
Hebe María Pastor was born on Dec. 4, 1928, into a poor household in Ensenada, a port city in Buenos Aires Province. Her father, Francisco Pastor, who was Spanish, worked in a haberdashery; her mother, Josefa Bogetti, an Argentine, was a homemaker.
Hebe did not attend middle school because her parents couldn’t afford the bus fare. Instead, she started working as a seamstress, eventually joining with others to form a cooperative to sell ponchos. At 14, she met Humberto Bonafini, who would become her husband and the father of her two boys as well as a girl. He died in 1982.
All around them Argentina was experiencing profound change. Gen. Juan Perón had come to power in 1946 and formed alliances with worker’s unions, while his glamorous wife, Eva Perón, known as Evita, promoted social programs to help the poor.
A string of coups over the next three decades would leave Mr. Perón ousted and then reinstated until his death in 1974. By the time the military took power in 1976, Peronism, the ideologically fractious movement Mr. Perón had founded, had split into left- and right-wing paramilitary groups that were killing each other on the streets of Argentina’s biggest cities.
In the middle of this convulsion, Ms. de Bonafini’s life was turned upside down. Only a few months after her son Jorge disappeared, the regime kidnapped her other son, Raúl, while he was attending a union meeting with employees from the local oil refinery, where he worked. Months later, her daughter-in-law, Jorge’s wife, also disappeared. Their bodies were never found.
“I forgot who I was,” Ms. de Bonafini often said of that time, adding, “I never thought about myself again.”
Democracy was restored in 1983, when the dictatorship was forced to step down in the midst of economic crisis and in the aftermath of humiliating defeat by Britain in the Falklands War. Argentina’s new democratic government swiftly established one of the world’s first truth commissions and empowered civilian courts to try the military’s top brass; some officers were given long jail terms.
Yet it was under a democracy that Ms. de Bonafini’s reputation began taking a hit. A tireless fighter for human rights under the dictatorship, she became increasingly partisan.
She criticized every democratic government until the election in 2003 of Néstor Kirchner, a leftist populist president who restarted the trials of the generals that had stalled under his predecessors. Ms. de Bonafini grew close to Mr. Kirchner and his wife, Cristina Fernández de Kirchner, who succeeded her husband as president in 2007. Both allied themselves with authoritarian leftist leaders in the region.
When hijacking terrorists rammed jetliners into the World Trade Center on Sept. 11, 2001, Ms. de Bonafini celebrated the attack. “The most terrorist state is the United States,” she said. When she heard the news, she recalled, she “felt a great joy, not because of the deaths, but because the monster had finally been touched.”
She took on Argentina’s Supreme Court, calling its justices “scumbags who receive money for their sentences,” and urged her followers to take over the Palace of Justice. She criticized the country’s democratically-elected Parliament as “nothing but a nest of rats.”
Abroad, she supported the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia, the Marxist guerrilla organization known as FARC, as well as the Euskadi Ta Askatasuna, a Basque separatist movement in Spain. Both were widely considered terrorist organizations until they disbanded. She hobnobbed with Fidel Castro of Cuba and Hugo Chávez of Venezuela and attended an international youth meeting organized by leftist student groups in North Korea in 1989.
After the return to democracy, her extremism led the Mothers of Plaza de Mayo to split in two, with one wing composed of moderates and the other, led Ms. de Bonafini, espousing a more radical agenda. It was Ms. de Bonafini, however, who would continue to dominate the human rights movement in Argentina, thanks in part to her closeness to Argentina’s government.
She ended her days mired in a corruption scandal. The judiciary is investigating whether her organization embezzled some of the hundreds of millions of Argentine pesos donated by the Kirchners to build social housing for the poor.
Despite the investigation, Ms. de Bonafini is still widely honored by Argentines for her fight for justice in her country, where more human rights groups have been started to find those who disappeared under the dictatorship. In an interview last year with the newspaper El País, she said, “Our struggle will continue — the Argentine people will continue it.”