The general who took and then lost the Falklands

LEOPOLDO GALTIERI: if Leopoldo Galtieri, who has died aged 76, had any sense of wonder, it must have come into play as he stood…

LEOPOLDO GALTIERI: if Leopoldo Galtieri, who has died aged 76, had any sense of wonder, it must have come into play as he stood on the balcony of the Casa Rosada in Buenos Aires on April 8th 1982. A few days earlier, the Plaza de Mayo below had been full of citizens venting their rage against the military government that he headed. Now, in the wake of the Falkland Islands invasion of April 2nd, the square was full of cheering people.

His regime, vilified for human rights abuses in the "dirty war" and with failed economic policies, had been transformed into a government that had salvaged national honour by recovering the islands with their population of 1,200. Galtieri, an impulsive man with a liking for Scotch, acknowledged the cheers. He must have thought he had assured his place in history.

On June 14th, the crowds returned to jeer. The Pope was in the city. He had held a Mass, attended by millions. Before the ceremonies were over, a newsflash announced the Argentine surrender on the islands. The war, and Galtieri's presidency, were over. Angry crowds threw coins at the Casa Rosada, taunting him to appear. He resigned three days later. Within a year Argentina had a civilian president and the battle to bring Galtieri and fellow junta members to justice had begun. His death has cheated campaigners of a key protagonist; last July he was arrested on human rights charges.

Galtieri, the grandson of poor Italian immigrants, had graduated as an officer in 1949 from the United States' School of the Americas in Panama. In 1976 the Argentinian military overthrew the brief, disastrous presidency of Isabel Peron, second wife and widow to Juan Domingo, and began to repress Argentina's guerrillas, the Montoneros and the Revolutionary Army of the Poor (ERP).

By the late 1970s, Galtieri was head of the Second Army Corps in Rosario in central Argentina. He had come to power late in the dictatorship and was not among the most notorious human rights abusers, but evidence at his later trials revealed that he had played a part in the disappearance of tens of thousands of young people.

In December 1981, Galtieri took over as president of the three-man junta, becoming the dictatorship's third military president. The terror had established a kind of peace, but its successes in calming inflation and fortifying the currency were fraying. Every Thursday, in the square below the presidential balcony, the "Mothers of the Plaza de Mayo" demonstrated, despite every dissuasion, that the disappeared would never be forgotten.

After the Falklands adventure brought the dictatorship down, a quiet lawyer, Raul Alfonsin, was elected president and was determined to bring the military to justice. By 1984, Galtieri and fellow junta members faced trial. Galtieri was not convicted of human rights abuses, but two years later he was tried for incompetence in the Falklands war.

As Galtieri admitted, he had no idea that Britain would react to the invasion with military force, or that the US would support Britain. An illusion of US support for Argentina was shared by most of his fellow officers.

When Margaret Thatcher dispatched her task force to recover the islands, Argentine military incompetence was revealed - chaotic supply lines and disastrous logistics left untrained, inexperienced conscripts facing professional forces. Only in the air did the Argentinians fight to any effect. Galtieri was sentenced to 12 years for his role in the war.

Alfonsin brought in two laws designed to draw a line under the unhappy chapter of the dictatorship. But the armed forces remained restive over the convictions, and when Carlos Menem became president in 1990, he freed the commanders whom Alfonsin had imprisoned.

Galtieri retired to his apartment in the downmarket Buenos Aires suburb of Devoto. Unlike some officers, he did not appear to have profited financially from power. He lived modestly, with his wife, Lucia, refusing requests for interviews. Stories circulated about his drinking and his bitterness about the nation he still believed he had served treating him unkindly. In a further humiliation, he lost his claim to a presidential pension when a judge ruled that his presidency had been illegal. "To be president," she ruled, "you must be elected."

Last July another judge declared unconstitutional the two laws that Alfonsin had introduced, protecting the military from further human rights trials. Galtieri, and 28 high ranking officers, again faced prosecution. He was put under arrest, but because of his increasingly precarious state of health, was allowed to remain at home.

Death will do little to redeem his standing.