El Nuevo Periodismo and the Dirty War
By Marguerite FeitlowitzSeptember 7, 2013
Operation Massacre by Rodolfo Walsh
IN THE HEART of the scrubby south side of Buenos Aires, in the old working-class neighborhood of San Telmo, whose brothels gave rise to the tango, an active little plaza is dedicated to Rodolfo Walsh — crusading journalist, human rights hero, and victim of Argentina’s “Dirty War” dictatorship that between 1976 and 1983 “disappeared” some 30,000 citizens. Most were between the ages of 18 and 34 — students, labor unionists, intellectuals, journalists, artists, doctors and nurses who cared for the poor, clerics who worked in shantytowns, anyone suspected of “not loving the dictatorship in the deepest chambers of one’s heart.” The homage to Walsh spans the whole façade of a house: the life-size sculpture of uncanny resemblance has him standing on the small wrought-iron balcony, wearing his signature cardigan and heavy eyeglasses, thoughtful, seemingly caught mid-sentence.
Walsh was gunned down on March 25, 1977 — one year and a day after the coup — immediately after he posted his famous "Open Letter from a Writer to the Military Junta." He was walking away from the postbox; when he was caught in a shower of bullets — to which he responded with his own .22. His mutilated body was taken to the Navy Mechanics School torture center (known as "The Harvard of Death," or "The Argentine Auschwitz") and displayed to the desaparecidos there as a "trophy," yet another act of torture for those prisoners, who revered Walsh. In the recent wave of Argentine human rights trials, a survivor recounted that horrific day and the dreadful state of Walsh's body.
In March of this year, the subway station on the corner of Entre Ríos and San Juan, where Walsh was murdered, was renamed in his honor, and the stairs were stenciled with the image of the writer’s face, along with one of his famous phrases, “The Walls are the Imprint of the People.” (The dictatorship had forbidden posters and graffiti, likening them to “signs of tribal frenzy.”) You look up from the well of the entrance at the writer’s features gradually composing themselves on the risers: you need to stop, out of respect; you need to get where you’re going; you don’t want to walk on his face; but there’s no other way up the stairs — it’s the kind of knotted tension that Walsh would have appreciated and pragmatically resolved (Pues movete! or Don’t just stand there, get going!).
Walsh is a towering figure in Latin America: a writers’ writer whose early detective fiction won a prize from Borges and Bioy Casares; an editor who founded newspapers and magazines, including one with García Márquez; a revolutionary who decrypted US intelligence cables detailing the Bay of Pigs invasion; and the founder of Prensa Clandestina and ANCLA (Latin American Clandestine News Agency) which ferried to foreign journalists crucial information about the repression that Argentine journalists could not themselves publish. A high-ranking member of the urban guerrilla Montoneros, he had a famous break with the leadership about the use of violence and the ethics of the leaders going underground (as the organization did, leaving its lowest-ranking members unprotected). Walsh is the model for the region’s most innovative and tenaciously investigative journalists, who have revived the extended crónica, or vivid nonfiction chronicle, that Walsh pioneered.
Finally, English-language readers will have access to what many consider to be his masterpiece — the 1957 Operation Massacre (translated by Daniella Gitlin, foreword by Michael Greenberg, afterword by Ricardo Piglia), one of the first investigative nonfiction crime novels, pre-dating Capote’s In Cold Blood by nearly a decade. The story is at once simple, clear, and incredible: a mass military execution with a few survivors who come back as though from the dead. The testimonies ring with the strangest refrains: “When they executed me;” “after they executed me, before they thoroughly executed him.” Gradations in the hitherto absolute of being alive or being dead.
The massacre began on the Friday night of June 9, 1956, a date long anticipated for the boxing match between the rival Argentine and Chilean champions. In a working-class suburb of Buenos Aires, a motley group of about 14 men go to an apartment to watch the fight — neighbors, acquaintances, friends-of-friends.
Secretly planned for the same night is an uprising of Peronist military officers against the conservative, free-market “Liberating Revolution” government then in power. Peron, having been exiled in 1955, was so reviled by this elected regime that it outlawed the mere enunciation of his name.
A few of the men watching the match know about the secretly planned revolt, and have some indirect participation; but, it’s fight night, no one talks about politics. In fact, the neighborhood avoids all talk of politics; it’s better not to know what people really think. The men range in age from 23 to 59: a few work on the railroad and live in company housing; one is shoe salesman in Buenos Aires; one works for his father in an auction house. Three have six children each; one man has a new baby. In his open pages, called “The People,” Walsh provides physical details and habits, signature phrases and postures, impressions from others, plans laid down and paths not taken. The precision and complexity take us aback; after all they are just typical guys from some all but nondescript little town.
Without a shred of lyrical invention, with just the crystalline ordering of facts, Walsh captures the place:
During the winter, the streets are half-deserted by early evening. The corners are poorly lit and you need to cross them carefully to avoid getting stuck in the mud puddles that have formed due to the lack of drainage. Wherever you find a small bridge or line of stones laid down for crossing, it’s the neighbors who have put it there. Sometimes the dark water spans from one curb all the way to another. You can’t really see it, but you can guess it’s there using the reflection of some star or the light of the waning lanterns than languish on the porches in the wee hours.
“Life is calm,” Walsh tells us, “nothing ever really happens.”
Except that the military, having got wind of the uprising, is organizing for a state of siege, which it will declare at 12:32am. At around 11:30 — well before the state of siege — police under the command of the army, burst into the apartment on a bad hunch, demand the whereabouts of the general in charge of the revolt, then violently herd the men into a city bus they’d hijacked from the corner, whose driver numbly obeys the incredible orders. The men are brought to the station and tortured.
Meanwhile, about an hour away, Walsh is playing chess in his neighborhood bar in La Plata, when, a little after midnight, all hell breaks loose — shots and soldiers and tanks in the street. Against all odds, he manages to get himself home, through the mayhem of the failed Peronist uprising and military response, only to find soldiers occupying his house (located opposite a police station). At the time Walsh was strongly anti-Peronist, with a longstanding aversion to the movement’s demagoguery and spectacles of power. Standing behind the window blinds, he peers out into the street where a young soldier lies dying: “[He] did not say, 'Long live the nation!’ but instead: ‘Don’t leave me alone, you sons of bitches.’” At that moment, Walsh shuts down, disgusted by the whole cycle of uprisings and reprisals, with innocents as usual getting trampled. He vows to go back to his “serious” novel and do just enough journalism to stay afloat.
As Walsh stands bitterly musing in the city, the tortured provincial kidnaped are rounded up and piled into a truck. They’re told they’re going to La Plata, where, they have reason to expect, they’ll get redress for this terrible mix-up. In truth, the driver is trying to find a suitable site for their execution:
To the right of the dark and deserted road, there is a mall paved road that peels off [...] On one side of the street there is a row of eucalyptus trees that cut tall and bleak against the starry sky. On the other side, a wide wasteland extends out to the left: a slag dump, the sinister garbage heap [...] tracked through with waterlogged trenches in winter, infested with mosquitoes and unburied creatures in summer, all of it eaten away by tin cans and junk.
They make the prisoners walk along the edge of the wasteland. The guards push them along with the barrels of their rifles. The van turns onto the street and shines its headlights on their backs.
The moment has come [. . .]
But the moment is messy. Even as their companions, begging on their knees for the sake of their children, are being shot at close range, a couple of prisoners manage to slip out of the headlights and vanish into the darkness; others play dead in the shower of bullets; one, gravely shot in the face, will manage stagger through the streets until a cop car picks him up and brings him to a clinic where, risking their lives, the nurses steal his clothes and safeguard them as evidence, and a doctor alerts his family.
Months later, Walsh is approached by a man with a hole in his cheek, another one in his throat, a mouthful of broken teeth, and “dull eyes where a shadow of death still lingers.” Juan Carlos Livraga, one of the survivors, tells the “unbelievable story,” which Walsh “believes on the spot.” Something in Livraga has called up the dying recruit outside the writer’s window. There’s one more, Livraga says hoarsely, two of us got away. From that moment on, Walsh is obsessed, and working with Enriqueta Muñiz, laboriously tracks down seven survivors. One is living secretly in his own basement, several got asylum in Bolivia, one would become a terrorist, and others, like Livraga, would continue on as the living dead. Walsh corroborates their stories from every possible angle. He talks to scores of people — the widows and orphans, fugitives and political refugees, police, prison guards and informers, the brass and the grunts. He lays bare every stripe of guilt, innocence, courage, cowardice, the anxieties, and canniness of entrenched corruption. Along the way there are substantive and procedural surprises, which Walsh works through with unrelenting lucidity.
Had it not been for Rodolfo Walsh, the case would never have made it to the courts. Officially, the execution never took place. Not a single mainstream or even opposition newspaper would run his first articles on the massacre, which ran in early to mid-1957, in right-leaning, labor-oriented newspapers, the only ones willing to take the risk. Walsh didn’t care about the politics of the thing; he simply wanted the facts to be known.
A lynchpin in Walsh’s evidence turns out to be the playlist on the State Radio Station:
[M]usic by Bach at 10:31p.m.; Ravel at 10:59p.m.; its programming [ending] at 12:00a.m., with a marching song as usual. At 12:11a.m. on June 10 it resumed its broadcast unexpectedly [...] aired light music for 21 minutes, and at precisely 12:32a.m., began to read the text of the martial law.
Not only does this contradict the military contention that martial law had been declared at 23.00 on June 9 — which would have given them some legal cover for the arrests, if not for the torture and killing — but it gives the mood of a normal Friday winter evening: the government providing nice classical music as the backdrop for the anticipated bloody events. Only Walsh could show a copy of the playlist, for the station, later realizing its significance, destroyed the original.
The most incriminating testimony came from none other than the police chief in charge of the operation, whose account, while virtually congruent with those of the survivors, is his defense:
The declarant adds that the task with which he had been charged was horribly unpleasant, and went far beyond the stipulated duties of the police, but since the declarant understands that in an emergency the police [...] takes its orders directly from the Army, he was entirely certain that, were he to disobey such an order the declarant would be the one executed.
After this explosive testimony, the case was moved from civilian to military court to the Supreme Court of the Nation, which issued its total support of the military and a blanket acquittal for the defendants. Not a single charge would stick; no participant would be demoted; no victim would receive the slightest compensation.
So, one might ask, where’s the story? Where’s the news? The police are suddenly taking orders from the army? The army jumps the gun on a state of siege? An inconvenient confession is airily dismissed? It doesn’t seem exactly fresh, in the historical context of Argentina, where too often life has been considered cheap.
What was and continues to be news is that, while the legal prosecution came to naught, the literary adjudication prospered. Walsh laid bare the whole fictional apparatus of the State — lies, cover-ups, disregard for fact and the burying of evidence. He exposed the fear within the police and the civilian courts, both the rewards and attendant agonies of complicity. The book was published, shortly after the so-called trial, to critical and popular acclaim.
The book is a document of the effort to which a writer will go simply to hear a person’s story; to question the details; to construct a narrative that both allows for the inconsistencies of individual eyewitnesses and yet is not undone by them. In a brutally fractious time and place, we see a man resisting partisan temptations:
I — someone who considers himself a man of the Left — am collaborating journalistically with men and publications of the Right […] because…there is no hierarchy that I recognize or accept as being more noble than that of civil courage […] I have also learned that partisan differences are perhaps the most superficial rifts that come between men. It’s the other ones that matter: the insurmountable, irreducible differences in character [...] The torturer who becomes an executioner at the slightest provocation is a present-day problem, a clear target that the civil conscience ought to obliterate. We have ignored the fact that there is a beast lurking among us […] Six hours of rebellion were enough to make its repulsive silhouette emerge.
In Operation Massacre we see the harbinger of the civilian-backed dictatorships of the 1960s and '70s. We also see the direction that all of Walsh’s subsequent writing and public actions would take.
The volume includes Walsh’s “Open Letter from a Writer to the Military Junta,” which sealed his fate. It enfolds in five numbered paragraphs, each one an evidence-based indictment. “Fifteen thousand missing, ten thousand prisoners, four thousand dead, tens of thousands in exile; these are the raw numbers of this terror.” [p.198] He details bodies washing up in the Plate River and appearing on street corners; he names the names of prominent desaparecidos; accuses specific generals of specific atrocities; the junta’s economics have resulted, he reports, in a 40 percent reduction in the consumption of food, 50 percent reduction in the consumption of clothing, infant mortality above 30 per cent, annual inflation of 400 percent.
There is no salary freezing or unemployment in the kingdom of torture and death [...] the only Argentine business where the product is growing and where the price of a slain guerrilla is rising faster than the dollar [...]
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 prosecuted, but faithful to the commitment I made a long time ago to bear witness during difficult times.
He signed the letter with his full name and the number of his National Identity Document, 2845022.
Walsh knew his days were numbered. His daughter Vicky, after fighting off a military commando for over an hour, shot herself rather than be murdered or taken alive. Most of his closest friends, some of the country’s most talented writers, were dead, missing, or in exile.
In Paragraph 5 of this letter, Walsh mentions the kidnapping of labor leader Jorge di Pascuale. It would come, perhaps, as faint consolation to Walsh, but I’d like to note that in early December 2009, I attended the ceremony for Di Pascuale, whose powdery bones had finally been surrendered to his family.
One laments that it took so long for this book to appear in English. But we have it now, in an excellent edition. Daniella Gitlin’s translation is clean, attentive to the subtleties of Walsh’s prose, and her introduction and notes are very good indeed. The afterword by Ricardo Piglia, a highly esteemed Argentine novelist, situates Walsh among Osip Mandelstam, Paul Célan, and Primo Levi. Michael Greenberg, who was living in Argentina in the early 1970s, also contributes an appreciation. Most of Walsh’s writing — the stories, novels, and chronicles — are as yet unpublished in English. May Operation Massacre open the way.
In this moment of anxiety over the flow of information, confusion over the responsibilities of writers and journalists, the publication of this volume is well timed.
Marguerite Feitlowitz is the author of A Lexicon of Terror: Argentina and the Legacies of Torture, and the translator of literary works from Spanish and French. Her translation of Salvador Novo's Pillar of Salt: An Autobiography with Nineteen Erotic Sonnets is forthcoming in early spring. She teaches literature and literary translation at Bennington College in Vermont.
LARB Staff Recommendations
Alfredo Jaar wants to know: "Are you happy?"...
On the Chilean author-director Alejandro Jodorowsky...
Did you know LARB is a reader-supported nonprofit?
LARB publishes daily without a paywall as part of our mission to make rigorous, incisive, and engaging writing on every aspect of literature, culture, and the arts freely accessible to the public. Please consider supporting our work and helping to keep LARB free.