updated 1/12/2007 6:52:32 AM ET 2007-01-12T11:52:32

The order to arrest former President Isabel Peron marked the widening scope of the investigation into Argentina’s past human rights abuses, as scrutiny expands beyond dictatorship-era crimes to the death squads that terrorized the nation prior to the 1976 coup.

Federal Judge Raul Acosta on Thursday ordered the arrest of the third wife of former political strongman Juan Domingo Peron, saying he has questions about her chaotic 20-month rule, a time when shadowy right-wing violence destabilized Argentina ahead of her political downfall.

There was no immediate comment from Isabel Peron, who has lived in exile in Spain since 1981.

The call for her detention followed the recent arrests in Argentina and Spain of two suspected leaders of the “Triple A” death squad that human rights groups call a precursor to state-sponsored terror waged by a 1976-83 junta.

Maria Estela Martinez de Peron — known as Isabel — was ordered detained in connection with the disappearance of leftist Hector Aldo Fagetti Gallego one month before she was ousted in the March 1976 coup that ushered in the bloody, seven-year dictatorship, authorities said.

‘Subversive elements’
Peron also was wanted for questioning about three decrees she signed calling on the armed forces to combat “subversive elements,” the judge’s spokesman told The Associated Press on condition of anonymity because he wasn’t authorized to address the media.

Political analyst Felipe Noguera noted that dozens of former police and military officers have been summoned for questioning since Argentina’s Supreme Court in 2005 annulled a pair of 1980s amnesty laws blocking prosecution of human rights cases.

“What might be different is that her surname is Peron,” Noguera said. “So this seems to drive home the point that a lot of violence against the left wing started during the Peronist time before and not during the junta.”

Previously, efforts to bring alleged human rights abusers to justice focused on crime committed during the dictatorship, when thousands of suspected leftists were killed or disappeared.

Adolfo Perez Esquivel, the 1980 Nobel Peace laureate for his human rights work, told The Associated Press he believed the Triple A, short for the Argentina Anticommunist Alliance, was effectively part of a state structure and thus the beginnings of state-backed terror.

“Once and for all, we have to get to the bottom of this problem and find out how this terrorism was generated by the state,” Perez Esquivel said. “The search for the truth must go in every direction.”

A 'dark' part of Argentina's history
Hebe de Bonafini, an activist of the Mothers of the Plaza de Mayo, said the courts must cast light on a “part of our history that was dark, obscure and papered over.”

Isabel Peron was sworn in as president in 1974 after the death of her husband, the father of Argentina’s ruling political party and three-time president. But she struggled to hold on to power as Argentina was convulsed by violence from leftist guerrillas and reprisals by death squads.

Human rights groups blame Triple A for at least 1,500 killings of government opponents from 1973 to 1976. The dead included leftists, trade activists, opposition lawmakers and intellectuals.

Some victims were abducted off streets and never seen again while others were found dead of bullet wounds, some with their hands hacked off or burned.

The violence set the stage for the dictatorship’s crackdown on dissent, a campaign known as the “dirty war.” Nearly 13,000 people are officially listed as dead or missing from the 1976-83 junta, but human rights groups say the total is closer to 30,000. Civilian rule was restored in 1983.

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