NEW YORK — Jorge Rafael Videla, the military junta leader who oversaw a ruthless campaign of political killings and forced disappearances during Argentina’s so-called dirty war against dissidents in the mid-1970s, died Friday in the Marcos Paz Prison in Buenos Aires, where he was serving a life sentence for crimes against humanity. He was 87.
At least 15,000 people were killed or ‘‘disappeared’’ during the junta’s campaign, according to government estimates. Human rights officials say the figure is closer to 30,000.
In 1976, Mr. Videla led a coup against President Isabel Martinez de Peron, widow of Juan Domingo Peron, the founder of the country’s influential populist movement. Peron was arrested, charged with corruption, and Mr. Videla, chief of armed forces, took over. He assumed the presidency and established a military junta.
Despite early promises to restore civilian rule, Mr. Videla declared a priority the ‘‘eradication’’ of the leftist guerrillas who had begun a fierce offensive against Peron’s government. But the antiguerrilla net soon widened to include lawyers, students, journalists and union leaders suspected of ties to radical groups. Congress was suspended, political parties were abolished, strikes were made illegal, and death squads roamed the country.
After the collapse of the junta in 1983 and the return of democracy, Mr. Videla was sentenced to life in prison for human rights abuses that included torture and murder. The 1985 trial of the main junta officials had historic implications in a region plagued by autocratic regimes.
“For the first time, the members of a military junta are being tried by civilian courts for the crimes they committed during a dictatorship,’’ Ernesto Sabato, the Argentine novelist and head of a presidential commission to investigate the disappearances, said at the time.
But in 1990, Mr. Videla, with other junta officials, was pardoned by President Carlos Saul Menem to move the country past its traumatic history.
In 1998 Mr. Videla was arrested again, this time on kidnapping charges. He was accused of organizing the illegal adoption by military families of children whose parents disappeared after being kidnapped by death squads.
Mr. Videla was put under house arrest and then sent to a military prison. After a judge revoked the 1990 pardons as unconstitutional in 2007, Mr. Videla and other junta officials faced new charges for the torture and execution of political prisoners.
Speaking before a tribunal in July 2010, Mr. Videla assumed full responsibility for his actions during the ‘‘internal war,’’ saying his subordinates were just following orders. But he said that he would not testify in a new trial because he could not be ‘‘tried again for the same cause,’’ a reference to his 1985 trial.
Jorge Rafael Videla Redondo was born in Mercedes, Argentina. The son of an army colonel, he graduated from the National Military College. He was a brigadier general by 1971, and appointed chief of the army general staff in 1973. In 1975 Isabel Peron made him commander in chief of the armed forces.
As president, Mr. Videla survived numerous assassination attempts, including one in 1977 when a bomb exploded on the airport runway in Buenos Aires seconds after his plane took off.
As the violence ebbed, he turned to the dysfunctional economy. ‘‘The war is over,’’ he said in 1979. ‘‘Now we must win the peace.’’
In 1981, he relinquished power to General Roberto Viola.