March 24, 2016
In an opinion piece published yesterday by the New York Times under the title “What Obama Should Know About Macri’s Argentina,” scholar Ernesto Semán and legal expert Gastón Chiller (of the Center for Legal and Social Studies in Buenos Aires) give a forceful account of the ways in which newly elected Argentine President Mauricio Macri’s administration recalls some of the most horrid periods in the country’s history. They begin with the case of activist Milagro Sala, arrested two months ago for organizing a protest of cooperative workers in the interior of the country, and continue to list other traces of repression — sometimes verging on fascism — in Macri’s excessive use of executive orders, his neglect of human rights abuses, and his decisions to prioritize free trade over domestic growth, profit over people. This account of a repression that comes about gradually and insidiously is all too reminiscent of an open letter signed thirty-nine years ago today by Argentine citizen, writer, and activist Rodolfo Walsh, just a day before he was gunned down in the street and disappeared by henchmen of the de facto regime, his body never found.
Today, March 24th, 2016, marks the 40th anniversary of the coup that instated the military junta that would reign for the next seven years in what today is referred to as Argentina’s “Dirty War.” One year into this regime, on March 24, 1977, Rodolfo Walsh wrote his “Open Letter from a Writer to the Military Junta,” in which he enumerates the abuses that the regime has carried out over the past year. He ends the letter with a ready acknowledgement that he will be persecuted for writing it, followed by a declaration of his obligation to bear witness in times like those he was living.
By that point in his life, Walsh had joined a militant leftist group of Peronists, the Montoneros, who were organizing against the regime, and whose legacy today in Argentina is at best controversial — some see them as terrorists, others as freedom fighters, and still others as something in between. But Walsh had spent the first half of his life as a journalist and short story writer who wasn’t especially politically involved until he came upon the story that would become the book he is best known for, Operation Massacre (1957). The book gives an account of a group of men rounded up as suspected Peronists by the police in a small town in Buenos Aires Province on the night of June 9, 1956. They were interrogated, taken out to an empty lot, and then summarily shot. The execution was botched, however, and a majority of the men survived; Walsh tracked them down, interviewed them, and, in his book, told their stories. Over the next twenty years, until his disappearance in 1977, Walsh wrote more nonfiction accounts of crimes that had gone unpunished in Argentina. If there’s someone else Obama — and we — should be reading today, it’s Rodolfo Walsh.
Here is my translation of Walsh’s Open Letter. Most of the footnotes are Walsh’s own; those I have added are marked “(DG)”.
Open Letter From a Writer to the Military Junta (1)
1. Censorship of the press, the persecution of intellectuals, the raid on my home in Tigre, the murder of dear friends, and the loss of a daughter who died fighting you, are some of the events that have forced me to express myself in this clandestine way after having shared my opinion freely as a writer and journalist for nearly thirty years. (2)
The first anniversary of this Military Junta has brought about a year-end review of government operations in the form of official documents and speeches: what you call good decisions are mistakes, what you acknowledge as mistakes are crimes, and what you have left out entirely are disasters.
On March 24th, 1976, you overthrew a government that you yourselves were a part of, that you helped bring into disrepute as the executors of its repressive policies, and that was coming to an end, given the elections that had been set for just nine months later. From this perspective, what you destroyed was not the temporary mandate of Isabel Martínez, but rather the possibility for a democratic process through which the people could remedy the problems that you have perpetuated and aggravated. (3)
Illegitimate since birth, your government could have legitimized itself by reviving the political program that 80 percent of Argentinians voted for in the 1973 elections, and that continues to be an objective expression of the people’s will—the only possible meaning of the “national being” that you invoke so often. You’ve gone instead in the completely opposite direction by returning to the ideas and interests of defeated minority groups, the ones who hold back workforce development, exploit the people, and divide the Nation. This kind of politics can only prevail temporarily by banning political parties, taking control of unions, silencing the press, and instilling Argentinian society with the most profound terror it has ever known.
2. Fifteen thousand missing, ten thousand prisoners, four thousand dead, tens of thousands in exile: these are the raw numbers of this terror.
Since the ordinary jails were filled to the brim, you created virtual concentration camps in the main garrisons of the country which judges, lawyers, journalists, and international observers, were all forbidden to enter. The military secrecy of the proceedings, cited as a requirement for the investigation, means that the majority of the arrests turn into kidnappings that allow for unrestrained torture and execution without trial. (4)
More than seven thousand habeas corpus petitions have been denied in the past year. In thousands of other cases of missing people, the petition has not even been presented either because people know ahead of time how useless it is, or because they can’t find a lawyer who will dare to present it, since the fifty or sixty who did have been kidnapped one by one.
This is how you have removed any time limit that torture might have. Since the prisoner does not exist, there is no way to present him before the judge within ten days, as stipulated by the law that was respected even at the heights of repression during previous dictatorships.
The lack of time limits has been accompanied by a lack of limits when it comes to methods: you have regressed to periods when victims’ joints and organs were operated on directly, only now you use surgical and pharmacological aids that the old torturers did not have at their disposal. The rack, the drill, skinning alive, and the saw of the medieval Inquisition reappear in testimonies alongside the picana and waterboarding, which brings us to the blowtorch of today. (5)
By succumbing repeatedly to the assumption that the end of killing the guerrilla justifies all the means that you employ, you have arrived at a form of absolute, metaphysical torture that is unbounded by time: the original goal of obtaining information has been lost in the disturbed minds of those inflicting the torture. Instead, they have ceded to the impulse to pommel human substance to the point of breaking it and making it lose its dignity, which the torturer has lost, and which you yourselves have lost.
3. The refusal of this Junta to publish the names of the prisoners, moreover, is a cover for the systematic execution of hostages in open wastelands in the early morning, all under the pretext of fabricated combat and imaginary escape attempts.
Extremists who hand out pamphlets in the countryside, paint the sidewalks, or pile ten at a time into vehicles that then burst into flames: these are the stereotypes of a screenplay that was written not to be believable, but to buffer against the international reaction to the current executions; within the country, meanwhile, it highlights how intensely the military lashes back in the same places where there has just been guerrilla activity.
Seventy people executed after the Federal Security Agency bombing, fifty-five in response to the blasting of the La Plata Police Department, thirty for the attack on the Ministry of Defense, forty in the New Year’s Massacre following the death of Colonel Castellanos, and nineteen after the explosion that destroyed the Ciudadela precinct amount to only a portion of the 1200 executions in 300 alleged battles where the opposition came out with zero wounded and zero forces killed in action.
Recipients of a collective guilt—which has no place in a civilized justice system—, incapable of influencing the politics that dictate the events they are being punished for, many of these hostages are union representatives, intellectuals, relatives of guerrillas, unarmed opponents, or people who just look suspicious. They are killed to balance the number of casualties according to the foreign “body-count” doctrine that the SS used in the occupied countries and the invaders used in Vietnam.
Guerillas who were wounded or captured in real combat are being killed just to make sure they are dead. This is an additional piece of evidence that was taken from the military’s own press releases which stated that, over the course of one year, there were 600 guerrilla deaths and only 10 or 15 wounded—a ratio unheard of in even the bloodiest of conflicts. This suggestion is confirmed by a sampling from a secret news source which showed that, between December 18th, 1976 and February 3, 1977, over the course of 40 actual clashes, the armed forces suffered 23 deaths and 40 wounded, and the guerrillas suffered 63 deaths. (6)
More than one hundred prisoners awaiting their sentence have also been slain in their attempts to escape. Here, too, the official story has been written not to be believable, but rather to show the guerrillas and the political parties that even those who have been acknowledged as prisoners are held on strategic reserve: the Corps Commanders use them in retaliation depending on how the battles are going, whether a lesson can be learned, whether the mood strikes them.
That is how General Benjamín Menéndez, Commander of the 3rd Army Corps, earned his laurels before March 24th: first with the murder of Marcos Osatinsky, a detainee in Córdoba, and then with the death of Hugo Vaca Narvaja and another fifty prisoners through various, merciless applications of the escape law; the official story of these deaths was told without any sense of shame. (7) The murder of Dardo Cabo, arrested in April 1975 and executed on January 6, 1977 with seven other prisoners in the 1st Army Corps jurisdiction under the command of General Suárez Mason, shows that these incidents do not constitute the indulgences of a few eccentric centurions, but rather the very same policies that you plan among your general staff, that you discuss in your cabinet meetings, that you enforce as commanders-in-chief of the three branches of government, and that you approve as members of the Ruling Junta.
4. Between fifteen hundred and three thousand people have been massacred in secret since you banned the right to report on the discovery of bodies; in some cases, the news still managed to leak, either because it involved other countries, or because of the magnitude of your genocide, or because of the shock provoked among your own troops. (8)
Twenty-five mutilated bodies washed up on Uruguayan shores between March and October 1976, a small portion perhaps of the heaping number of those tortured to death at the Naval Academy of Mechanics and dropped into the River Plate by navy ships, including a fifteen-year-old boy, Floreal Avellaneda, his hands and feet bound, “with bruising in his anal region and visible fractures,” according to the autopsy.
In August 1976, a local man went diving in the San Roque Lake, Córdoba, and discovered a genuine swamp of a cemetery. He went to the precinct, where they wouldn’t file his report, and he wrote to the papers, where they wouldn’t publish it. (9)
Thirty-four bodies turned up in Buenos Aires between the 3rd and the 9th of April 1976, eight in San Telmo on July 4th, ten in the Luján river on October 9th; this plus the massacres on August 20th that left a heap of thirty people dead 15 kilometers from Campo de Mayo and seventeen dead in Lomas de Zamora are all part of the same pattern.
These reports put an end to the make-believe story spun about right-wing gangs, alleged heirs to López Rega’s Triple A (Argentine Anticommunist Alliance), who would be able to get past the largest garrison in the country with military trucks, carpet the River Plate with bodies, or throw prisoners to the sea from the 1st Aerial Brigade (10) without General Videla, Admiral Massera, or Brigadier General Agosti knowing about it. (11) Today, the Triple A has become the 3 Branches, and the Junta that you are running is not the balancing point between “two kinds of violence,” nor is it the impartial referee between “two terrorisms”; rather, it is the very source of the terror that has lost its way and can do nothing more than babble on in its discourse of death. (12)
The same historical narrative ties the murder of General Carlos Prats, under the previous government, to the kidnapping and death of General Juan José Torres, Zelmar Michelini, Héctor Gutiérrez Ruiz, and dozens of political refugees whose chances of fighting for democratic regimes in Chile, Bolivia, and Uruguay were killed off. (13)
That the Federal Police’s Department of Foreign Affairs—which is led by officials, such as Commissioners Juan Gattei and Antonio Gettor, who received grant money from the CIA via USAID and are themselves under the authority of Mr. Gardener Hathaway, Station Chief of the CIA in Argentina— was undeniably involved in these crimes is the seed for future revelations like the ones that today shock the international community. The revelations will keep coming, even after a light is cast on the role that both this agency and high-ranking officers of the Army, led by General Menéndez, played in the creation of the Libertadores de América Society, which replaced the Triple A, until their general mission was taken on by this Junta in the name of the 3 Branches. (14)
This tally of destruction is not even beneath the balancing of personal accounts— like the murder of Captain Horacio Gándara, who had been investigating the dealings of high-ranking Naval Chiefs for the past decade, or of the Prensa Libre journalist, Horacio Novillo, stabbed and burned to death after that paper reported on ties between Minister Martínez de Hoz and international monopolies. (15)
In light of these incidents, the definition of the war, as phrased by one of its leaders, takes on its ultimate significance: “The battle we are waging knows neither moral nor natural limits; it takes place beyond good and evil.” (16)
5. These events, which have shaken the conscience of the civilized world, are nonetheless not the ones that have brought the greatest suffering upon the Argentine people, nor are they the worst human rights violations that you have committed. The political economy of this government is the place to look not only for the explanation of your crimes, but also for an even greater atrocity that is intentionally leading millions of human beings into misery.
Over the course of one year, you have decreased the real wages of workers to 40%, reduced their contribution to the national income by 30%, and raised the number of hours a worker needs to put in to cover his cost of living (17) from 6 to 18—thereby reviving forms of forced labor that cannot even be found in the last remnants of colonialism.
Freezing salaries with the butts of your rifles while prices are rising on the tips of bayonets, abolishing every form of collective protest, forbidding internal commissions and assemblies, extending workdays, raising unemployment to a record of 9% (18) and sure to increase it with 300,000 new layoffs, you have brought labor relations back to the beginning of the Industrial Era. And when the workers have wanted to protest, you’ve called them subversives and kidnapped entire delegations of union representatives, some of whom turned up dead, others who didn’t turn up at all. (19)
The results of these policies have been devastating. During this first year of government, consumption of food has decreased by 40%, consumption of clothing by more than 50%, and the consumption of drugs is practically at zero among the lower class. There are already regions in the Greater Buenos Aires where the infant mortality rate is above 30%, a figure which places us on par with Rhodesia, Dahomey, or the Guayanas. The incidence of diseases like Summer Diarrhea, parasitosis, and even rabies have climbed to meet world records and even surpassed them. As if these were desirable and sought-after goals, you have reduced the public health budget to less than a third of military spending, shutting down even the free hospitals while hundreds of doctors, medical professionals, and technicians join the exodus provoked by terror, low wages, or “rationalization.”
You only have to walk around the Greater Buenos Aires for a few hours to realize quickly that these policies are turning it into a slum with ten million inhabitants. Cities in semi-darkness, entire neighborhoods with no running water because the monopolies rob them of their groundwater tables, thousands of blocks turned into one big pothole because you only pave military neighborhoods and decorate the Plaza de Mayo; the biggest river in the world is contaminated in all of its beaches because Minister Martínez de Hoz’s associates are sloughing their industrial waste into it—and the only government measure you have taken is to ban people from bathing.
You haven’t been any luckier when it comes to the abstract goals of the economy, which you tend to call “the country.” A decrease in the gross national product of around 3%, a foreign debt reaching $600 dollars per inhabitant, an annual inflation of 400%, an increase in the money supply that came to 9% in a single week in December, a low of 13% in foreign investment—these are also world records, strange fruit borne of cold calculation and severe incompetence.
While all the constructive and protective functions of the state atrophy and dissolve into pure anemia, only one is clearly thriving. One billion eight hundred million dollars—the equivalent of half of Argentina’s exports—has been budgeted for Security and Defense in 1977. That there are four thousand new officer positions in the Federal Police and twelve thousand in the province of Buenos Aires offering salaries that are double that of an industrial worker and triple that of a school principal—while military wages have secretly increased by 120% since February—proves that there is no salary freezing or unemployment in the kingdom of torture and death. This is the only Argentine business where the product is growing and the price per fallen guerilla is rising faster than the dollar.
6. The political economy of this Junta—which follows the formula of the International Monetary Fund that has been applied indiscriminately to Zaire or Chile, to Uruguay or Indonesia—recognizes only the following as its beneficiaries: the old ranchers’ oligarchy, the new speculating oligarchy, and a select group of international monopolies headed by ITT, Esso, the automobile industry, U.S. Steel, and Siemens—Minister Martínez de Hoz and his entire cabinet have personal ties to all of them. (20)
A 722% increase in the prices of animal products in 1976 illustrates the scale of a return to elitism, launched by Martínez de Hoz, that is consistent with the creed of the Sociedad Rural as stated by its president, Celedonio Pereda: “It is very surprising that certain small but active groups who keep insisting that food should be affordable.” (21)
The spectacle of a Stock Exchange where, within a week, some have enjoyed one-hundred and two-hundred percent gains without working; where there are companies that doubled their capital overnight without producing any more than before; and where the crazy wheel of dollar speculation, letters, adjustable values, and simple usury that calculates interest on an hourly basis—it all seems rather strange, considering that this government came in to put a stop to the “feast of the corrupt.” By privatizing banks, you are placing the savings and credit of the country in the hands of foreign banks; by indemnifying ITT and Siemens, you are rewarding companies that swindled the state; by reinstalling fueling stations, you are raising Shell’s and Esso’s returns; by lowering customs tariffs, you are creating jobs in Hong Kong or Singapore and unemployment in Argentina. In the face of this constellation of facts, you have to ask yourself: who are the unpatriotic people being referred to in the official press releases? Where are the mercenaries who are working for foreign interests? Which ideology is the one threatening the nation?
Even if the overwhelming propaganda—a distorted reflection of the evil acts being committed—were not trying to argue that this Junta wants peace, that General Videla is a defender of human rights, or that Admiral Massera loves life, it would still be worth asking the Commanders-in-Chief of the 3 Branches to meditate on the abyss they are leading the country into, under the illusion of winning a war. In this war, even killing the last guerilla would do nothing but make them start up again in new ways, because the reasons that have been motivating the Argentine people’s resistance for more than twenty years would not disappear but rather be aggravated by the memory of the havoc wreaked and the revelation of the atrocities committed.
These are the thoughts I wanted to pass on to the members of this Junta on the first anniversary of your ill-fated government, with no hope of being heard, with the certainty of being persecuted, but faithful to the commitment I made a long time ago to bear witness during difficult times.
Rodolfo Walsh. – I.D. 2845022
Buenos Aires, March 24th, 1977
- 1.Walsh sent this later, dated March 24, 1977, by post to the editorial departments of local newspapers and to foreign press correspondents. On March 25, 1977, Walsh was kidnapped by a “Work Group” and has been missing ever since. The letter was not published by any local media, but it gradually came to be distributed abroad. Ever since the letter was reissued in 1984, De la Flor has included it as an Appendix in all reprints of Operation Massacre. (Editor’s note from the original Ediciones de la Flor publication.)
- 2. The loss of a daughter. Walsh’s younger daughter, María Victoria (“Vicki”) Walsh, was a journalist who became involved with the Montonero movement even before her father did. She died on her 26th birthday, September 28th, 1976 in a shootout. With her group on the rooftop of a house entirely outnumbered by over a hundred men and a tank on the ground, she chose to take her own life. Walsh writes further of Vicki’s death and his feelings of loss in two letters, both published in 1976: “Carta a Vicki” (Letter to Vicki) and “Carta a mis amigos” (“Letter to My Friends”). (DG)
- 3. Mandate of Isabel Martínez. María Estela (“Isabel” or “Isabelita”) Martínez was Juan Perón’s third and final wife. She served first as his vice president from 1973 to 1974, and, after her husband’s death in 1974, as the interim president until the military coup of March 24, 1976. (DG)
- 4. In January 1977, the Junta began publishing incomplete lists of new prisoners and of those “released,” the majority of whom were not actually released; they have been charged and are no longer under the Junta’s jurisdiction, but remain in jail. The names of thousands of prisoners are still a military secret and the conditions that allow for their torture and subsequent execution remain unchanged.
- 5. The Peronist leader Jorge Lizaso was skinned alive; a former member of Congress, Mario Amaya, was beaten to death, and the former member of Congress Muñiz Barreto had his neck broken in one blow. One survivor’s testimony: “Picana on my arms, hands, thighs, near my mouth every time I cried out prayed… Every twenty minutes they would open the door and you could hear the saw machine they said they’d use to make cold cuts out of me.”
- 6. Cadena Informativa, message No. 4, February 1977.
- 7. A precise version of events appears in this letter from the prisoners at the Remand Center to the Bishop of Córdoba, Monsignor Primatesta: “On May 17, five fellow prisoners are taken out under the pretext of a trip to the infirmary and then executed: Miguel Ángel Mosse, José Svaguza, Diana Fidelman, Luis Verón, Ricardo Yung, and Eduardo Hernández. The Third Army Corps reported that they died in an attempted escape. On May 29, José Puchet and Carlos Sgadurra are taken out. The latter had been punished for not being able to stand on his feet, as he had suffered a number of broken bones. Later they are also reported as having been executed in an attempted escape.”
- 8. During the first fifteen days of military government, sixty-three bodies turned up, according to the papers. This makes for an annual projection of fifteen hundred. The assumption that the number could double is based both on the fact that since January 1976, the data in the press’s hands has been incomplete, and also on the fact that there has been a general increase in repression since the coup. What follows is a plausible overall estimate of the number of deaths caused by the Junta. Dead in combat: six hundred. Executed: thirteen hundred. Executed in secret: two thousand. Miscellaneous: one hundred. Total: four thousand.
- 9. Letter from Isaías Zanotti, circulated by ANCLA, the Clandestine News Agency. (Walsh founded this underground news agency in June of 1976, less than a year before his death, in response to the increasingly limited access to information regarding State terrorism and corruption in Argentina. (DG))
- 10. A “program” run by Admiral Mariani, Head of the First Aerial Brigade of Palomar, between July and December of 1976. They used Fokker F-27 planes.
- 11. López Rega, Triple A, General Videla, Admiral Massera, Brigadier General Agosti. José López Rega was appointed Minister of Social Welfare in 1973 under Perón; after Perón’s death, López Rega became the heart of Isabel Martínez de Perón’s political program. The Triple A (Argentine Anticommunist Alliace—Alianza Anticomunista Argentina) was a facet of this program: throughout the 1970s, its death squads sought out and eradicated elements of the Left or any suspected enemies of the State. General Jorge Rafael Videla, Admiral Emilio Eduardo Massera, and Brigadier General Orlando Ramón Agosti were responsible for the military coup that ousted Isabel Martínez de Perón in 1976. Videla then served as the de facto President of Argentina from 1976 to 1981, overseeing one of the most brutal eras in the country’s history. (DG)
- 12. Foreign Minister Vice Admiral Guzzetti admitted in an article published by La Opinión on October 3, 1976 that “the terrorism of the right is not terrorism as such” but rather “an antibody.”
- 13. General Prats, President Allende’s last Defense Minister, killed by a bomb in September 1974. The former Uruguayan members of parliament Michelini and Gutiérrez Ruis were found riddled with bullets on May 2, 1976. The body of general Torres, former president of Bolivia, turned up on June 2, 1976, after General Harguindeguy, Isabel Martínez’s Minister of the Interior and former Chief of Police, accused him of “faking” his kidnapping.
- 14. Libertadores de América Society. Known in Spanish as the “Logia Libertadores de América” or the “Comando Libertadores de América,” this Argentine death squad was similar in nature to López Rega’s Triple A and was responsible for hundreds of deaths during the 1970s. (DG)
- 15. Minister Martínez de Hoz. José Alfredo Martínez de Hoz was Minister of the Economy during the years that Videla served as de facto president. He is known for leading Argentina in the direction of less state intervention in the economy and more free-market capitalism. He froze wages in an effort to decrease inflation, but in doing so brought on heavy speculation and social unrest. He maintained relationships with foreign investors abroad, and was criticized for depending too heavily on foreign investment and loans, on corporations and big money, while neglecting the effects of his ambitious economic decisions on the welfare of the middle class. One of his lasting legacies was an enormous increase in Argentine foreign debt. (DG)
- 16. Lieutenant Colonel Hugo Ildebrando Pascarelli, according to La Razón on June 12, 1976. Chief of the First Artillery Group of Ciudadela, Pascarelli is the one allegedly responsible for thirty-three executions that took place between January 5 and February 3 of 1977.
- 17. Swiss Banks Union data from June 1976. The situation grew even worse afterward.
- 18. Clarín newspaper.
- 19. Among the national leaders who were kidnapped are Mario Aguirre of ATE, Jorge Di Pasqual of Farmacia, Oscar Smith of Luz y Fuerza. The number of union leaders from metal and naval industries who have been kidnapped and murdered has been particularly high.
- 20. International Monetary Fund (IMF), old ranchers’ oligarchy. Martínez de Hoz’s 1976 policy was similar to the formula prescribed by the IMF that Walsh mentions here. The general idea was to restructure the State’s economic program, cutting down on domestic spending and any State regulation, to allow for growth through the international economy. The old ranchers’ oligarchy (“oligarquía ganadera”) refers to cattle-ranching families that owned Argentine land and gained high social status starting in the nineteenth century. De Hoz himself came from such a family. (DG)
- 21. Prensa Libre, December 16, 1976