Historical analyses of human rights violations in Argentina during the late Cold War have often focused on the fate of desaparecidos, the disappeared who were kidnapped, tortured, and sometimes murdered in clandestine detention centers during the 1976–83 military dictatorship. Instead, this article rethinks the chronology and nature of state violence in Argentina, examining how the situation of political prisoners in regular prisons officially recognized by the state was already deteriorating in 1960s, even under civilian regimes. The military achieved increasing control over the penitentiary system, especially after 1966, driving this institution away from the goal of reforming criminals and reshaping it as a tool to incarcerate political dissidents, who were treated as subversives with diminishing legal rights. This encroachment over the penitentiary intensified throughout the years, showing that the military used state institutions to control social conflict before 1976 and that it did so also through legal means and outside concealed clandestine spaces.

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