Reading: The Butchers of Buenos Aires | Essay | Chicago Reader

Reading: The Butchers of Buenos Aires 

Now we have the official report on the Argentine holocaust. It is a nightmare. Its facts are unspeakable.

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"The Party seeks power entirely for its own sake. . . . Power is not a means; it is an end. One does not establish a dictatorship to safeguard the revolution; one makes the revolution to establish the dictatorship. The object of persecution is persecution. The object of torture is torture. The object of power is power. Now do you begin to understand me?" --O'Brien in George Orwell's 1984

In the first week of January of 1976 I arrived in Buenos Aires, Argentina, for a stay that would last ten months. The Peronist regime, upheld by the dictator's wife, was on its last legs, and the important question for those in southern Latin America was not whether the armed forces would strike, but when--and why the delay. "Countdown to a Coup" was what the American press called it. The routine of daily life went on in the midst of murderous confrontations between the soldiers and the remains of the two guerrilla groups, the ERP and the Montoneros. The economy staggered along, despite strikes, inflation, sabotage by the labor unions of the basic services, corruption, and the ruination of agriculture. This last was a singular defeat for a major food exporter. The reigning platitude, heard everywhere and repeated by everyone, was "This can't go on any longer." But it did.

For me it was a spectacle, exciting, bereft of pathos, and of course safe because I was protected from the worst. Doing my insignificant bit as a foreign correspondent, just 22 and spending a small quantity of American dollars that went very far, my routine suited me to a T. One could comfortably dine out in the evening--and in Buenos Aires they flock to the restaurants--for under a dollar, take in a recital for a quarter, occupy a spacious apartment in the most exclusive neighborhood for under $100 a month.

One night--it was not yet midnight--as I lay in bed I heard a boom, which I misinterpreted as a thunderclap. It was followed by another, but apparently much closer one, rocking the windows. My interest piqued, I rose, dressed, and went outside and around the corner to join the crowd gathering about the remains of a foreign-owned furniture store. The smell was acrid, shattered glass had rained on the street, the fire department was at work, the area shut off by police stands. A young soldier kept an automatic weapon at the ready, waiting for trouble. I learned the next day that a third detonation went off near the first two, the last intended for spectators. This was it, I thought, the real thing for high stakes. I was just a foreigner, with nothing to lose.

Buenos Aires was beautiful. Most of downtown retained its turn-of-the-century white-stone buildings, soaring and singularly handsome. The presidential palace, Casa Rosada, was in fact rose-colored, and that took some getting used to, but I gave myself up to that too. The Argentines consider their capital the Paris of Latin America; and despite deterioration the city kept up appearances, with chamber music and opera, bookstores and publishing houses, and a broad, sometimes sophisticated range of newspapers that perhaps escaped the bleached desiccation of the American press. The city faced the South Atlantic, had a lovely esplanade, and like Paris maintained its street cafes. The zoo at Palermo was impoverished--the animals might have been on public aid--but the park itself was a vast sea of green, with colors streaming as in a landscape by van Gogh. The only Americans who couldn't enjoy themselves were members of the embassy, exposed to an uncontrollable security threat, and perhaps expatriate businessmen, for the same reason.

And then came the coup. March 24, 1976. Buenos Aires is a city of nighthawks, and I was told that the armored columns advancing on the palace at midnight had been greeted by pedestrians with cheers. Certainly the sentiment most evident in the city was euphoria. The dark night of Peronism had ended. The economy would be righted. Order would be restored. There was so little resistance to the coup that by sunset the tanks and troops and machine guns surrounding the presidential palace had disappeared completely, replaced by a handful of soldiers on patrol. A very young businessman I'd spoken with during the day said that if the guerrillas wanted to make a fuss now, they could try their hand with the new government and the heavily armed soldiers circling downtown. I had attended a university with a radical past, and to hear a contemporary anticipate with relish the application of force was a jolt. But I understood it as a fair reflection of public opinion.

I ended my day in a brief conversation with an economist at the American embassy, a brainy chap who solicited my opinion about the generals and what they would do now. The experience of Pinochet and the Chilean coup was only three years behind us, and I was sure that the just-installed authorities would not repeat that experience. Come what may, the severity of the crackdown would not be duplicated in Argentina. The foreign reaction to events in Santiago assured us that a program so harsh would simply not recur. It was out of the question. My interlocutor nodded agreement.

For a while, we were right. The moderation of the government impressed everyone. But things changed around June and July, when word spread of "kidnappings," and soon it became evident that something widespread and severe was at hand. The question then shifted from what the government was doing to what the foreign press should be reporting. The situation was murky. Were the unknown victims truly abducted by the government? And what after all could be reliably reported in New York, London, Paris?

This was a professional difficulty, but for the Argentines it was more than that, much more, and especially for the innumerable refugees from elsewhere in Latin America. They were highly vulnerable, often dropping from sight (although the corpses of prominent politicians from Uruguay and Bolivia made big headlines in the local press). My Spanish teacher and her husband, who were from Montevideo, left early on; the capital was too dangerous. La profesora, as the hotel staff called her, did what she could with my Spanish and left.

I ended up leaving as well. Choosing between a position in the States and the rising tide of danger in Argentina, I decided to leave--part of a general exodus of reporters from Buenos Aires. Years passed. I followed Argentina in the American papers, even returned once, for an acutely depressing stay of two nights that offered painful testimony to the deterioration of the capital. I had heard all the rumors of what happened, kept up a modest correspondence with those unable to leave. Late last year, when a new acquaintance asked me what it was like after the coup, I answered that at the time I thought I knew. But a colleague in London had just sent me a translation of Nunca Mas, and I saw that I hadn't known a thing. Nothing at all.

Argentina's current president, Raul Alfonsin, instituted the National Commission on Disappeared Persons, which produced the 449-page Nunca Mas ("Never Again"). Alfonsin acceded to the presidency following the collapse of military rule in 1983. Discredited for mismanaging the economy, the generals had received a final blow to their prestige with the disastrous Falklands war with England the year before. Alfonsin placed the junta on trial, convicting five of its nine members, and formed a private group to investigate the so-called dirty war mounted by the armed forces against the civilian population. The commission describes the campaign as "the most savage and greatest tragedy in the history of Argentina."

Nowadays carnage washes over us like the weather report. Bodies litter the floors of airport terminals, and bomb blasts fell entire buildings. Images of shattered glass and toppling masonry are transmitted around the world in what Saul Bellow calls "a global death-peristalsis." Beirut could be the dark cratered moon--airless, silent. Our minds touching everything but comprehending little, we have before us as well the cataclysmic events of our century--Guernica, Germany's death factories, famines engineered by Stalin--that have taken the lives of millions. What are we to make of these catastrophic upheavals and explosions of blood? Do we all belong to the same species? Must people prey upon each other, like monsters of the deep?

Nunca Mas comes to the English-speaking world as a great and terrible document on the experience of modern political terror. Its tone is broadly factual and straightforward (although there are a few awkward sallies into philosophy). Ideological questions are deliberately ignored or kept to a minimum. But the report does bear witness to a Latin American holocaust, mass murder carefully planned and executed in a country that considers itself the most advanced on the continent. One student has called totalitarianism the unobstructed pleasure of murder--murder and, readers of Nunca Mas can add, torture. Nothing inhibited the generals, or the animals that carried out their policy. The right of control over the defenseless civilian population was absolute, unqualified by any moral sentiment. The report is a nightmare, its facts unspeakable.

According to the commission, the Argentine military constructed or improvised 340 "secret detention centers" across the country that served as the foundation for the Argentine holocaust, its inmates typically abducted and tortured. Tens of thousands underwent this experience. The commission was able to document the deaths of 8,960 persons, but the authors concede that their information is incomplete: many remain unaccounted for, and the true number is probably higher--much higher. Figures circulating in the American press at the height of the terror estimated the murder tally at 10 to 15 thousand, and perhaps as many as 20 thousand. After the generals fell, according to Nunca Mas, participants in the slaughter made a bonfire of their records. "We know only a fraction of the truth, and only time will tell the full dimensions of the tragedy," the report concludes.

Prisoners were exposed to almost every assault and degradation imaginable. Men and women were stripped and placed on the modern equivalent of the rack, with implements conducting electricity to the most sensitive parts of their bodies. One victim with such an instrument placed against his gums reported that "it was like a thunderbolt striking my head." Prisoners were routinely beaten; placed in solitary confinement; chained in their cells to bars sharply restricting movement; and buried up to their heads in damp earth, naked, exposed to the elements, and deprived of food and water. Others were suffocated with polyethylene bags. Prisoners, drugged but still alive, were taken up in planes and dumped in the South Atlantic, while others were removed to ships on a river and made to dangle from cranes, often completely submerged in water. Still others were dangled by ropes from helicopters.

The commission says that "the existence and widespread use of different forms of torture is particularly frightening because of the perverse imagination demonstrated. . . ." But what does it mean-- really--to bear torture? For the casual newspaper reader, not to mention those familiar with the literature of the holocaust and the Gulag, the word hardly registers anymore. I therefore turned with gratitude to a valuable description in a recent volume by Jean Amery, At the Mind's Limits. Amery, an Austrian Jew and member of the Belgian resistance during the German occupation, was a survivor of the Gestapo and later the camps. He writes: "With the very first blow that descends on him, [the prisoner] loses something we will perhaps temporarily call 'trust in the world.' Trust in the world includes all sorts of things. . . . But [most] important. . . is the certainty that by reason of written or unwritten contracts the other person will spare me--more precisely stated, that he will respect my physical, and with it also my metaphysical, being. . . . But with the first blow from a policeman's fist, against which there can be no defense and which no helping hand will ward off, a part of our life ends and it can never again be revived."

One Argentine victim describes being hung by the arms from a wall in front of him with his legs hanging from one behind, suspended in midair. A generator was then used to literally electrify him. Another, chained to a rack, was given a jolt of electricity that forced bodily contractions so powerful that the chains were snapped. Another victim says, "They took me out of my cell and, despite my swollen testicles, placed me facedown again. They tied me up and raped me slowly and deliberately by introducing a metal object into my anus. They then passed an electric current through the object. I cannot describe how everything inside me felt as though it were on fire."

Prisoners were usually fed once or twice a day, but often went days without a meal. They were made to sit straight up from the floor 14 hours a day, forbidden to move and with nothing to lean against. If not in solitary confinement--and chained to a metal crossbeam pitched low in the cell--they were hooded, and any communication with other prisoners was strictly forbidden. To restrict the spread of information and psychologically denude the prison population, victims were identified by numbers only. Nunca Mas relates that for six months this was the experience of one prisoner, sitting hooded in darkness, uttering hardly a word. At night they slept in blood, urine, vomit, sweat, and scraps of food on the floor; occasionally they were hosed down in groups like cattle and sprayed with insecticides.

Argentina today is littered with thousands of corpses. Not just in the conventional burial grounds, of course--but mountains of innocents put to death. "The country was scattered with the bodies of unidentified people," the commission says, "buried separately or collectively, illegally and secretly. They are in the cemeteries, the fields, the rivers, the dams, and, as we have seen, in the sea too." One soldier compelled to participate reported that "the prisoners were thrown into a pit which had been dug in advance. With their hands and feet tied, they were sat on the edge and shot." Prisoners marked for murder, according to this deponent, "were tossed in the back of a Mercedes-Benz truck like so many sacks of potatoes."

Consider this passage from a member of the border patrol coerced into the great policy of murder--in this case, of three men and a woman:

"The captain ordered that the youngest prisoner's hands be untied and that he be given one of the spades brought by the NCOs. He told the victim to begin digging a hole. This ended up about 1.80 meters deep, 3 meters long and 1.20 meters wide. The other prisoners were each guarded by two soldiers. I and another officer were next to the eldest of the four prisoners; I saw him pray very slowly, and as he did so begin to cry. No one spoke, a deep silence reigned as the Captain made the prisoner who was digging climb up to the edge of the ditch and positioned the three others next to him in a row beside the ditch. On a signal from the Captain . . . the four officers and the first lieutenant began firing on the four prisoners. The policemen fired too. While the three men remained motionless after the shots the woman, who had fallen, managed to stand up again and walk a few steps away from the ditch. Seeing this the captain took out his pistol and dispatched her with a bullet in the head."

The woman was 25 and five months pregnant. The corpses were doused with gasoline and burned. Small bonfires of corpses, according to the report, were common during those years, and the murder squads often sought to conceal the smell of burning flesh by lighting tires.

Perhaps the most terrible passages in the report describe the treatment of pregnant women. If they survived the torture sessions and rape by their guards, they often delivered their babies deprived of medical treatment. One female prisoner in a detention center offered what help she could to a teenage woman giving birth, calling futilely to a guard for help. After 12 hours, the woman "was taken to the prison kitchen and put on a dirty table, blindfolded, and in front of all the guards she had her child, assisted by a so-called doctor who did nothing but shout at her while the others laughed." The teenage woman kept the infant boy for four or five days, after which it was taken from her. Gynecologists at the Naval Mechanics School, a notorious murder center adapted by the regime to its own purposes, drew up lists of infertile military couples who wanted the children of doomed mothers. At a military hospital in the province of Buenos Aires, according to the commission, "births were speeded up and performed by means of Caesarean section." An elderly woman tells the commission that her daughter was kidnapped and murdered, surviving long enough, however, to give birth to a child. The government denied everything. "According to released prisoners," she testifies, "we know it was a son, that it was born on 26 June, 1978. A short time ago it would have been six years old. I am still looking for him. And I will go on looking for him all of my life."

I could go on and on and on. Families tortured in front of one another, the sexual degradation of women, the murder of nuns and bishops, the special barbarism reserved for Jewish prisoners. Nunca Mas is endless, unbearable. One of the victims, years later, returns to his prison with members of the commission and finds the prayer he scrawled in his cell: Help me, God.

Writing in 1933, during his years of exile, Trotsky offered a famous description of the new German Reich. "Fascism has opened up the depths of society for politics," he said. "Today, not only in peasant homes but also in city skyscrapers, there lives alongside the twentieth century the tenth or the thirteenth." Trotsky goes on to revile aviators piloting "miraculous machines" and wearing amulets on their sweaters and movie stars consulting mediums. "What inexhaustible reserves they possess of darkness, ignorance and savagery." This analysis, offered years before the killing installations were mounted in Germany and Poland, testifies to the parallel between Central Europe and Argentina.

There were no gas chambers in Argentina, and as unspeakable as the murder program was, genocide was not part of it. Members of the commission employ the word genocide, but in my view inaccurately. No ethnic, political, or racial group was singled out for destruction, and racial ideology did not play a role in the rivers of blood opened up by the government. No Argentine official I know of justified the measures in terms of the unique importance of Argentine blood and soil, factors conferring racial prerogatives that require the destruction of the defiling alien.

But in both Germany and Argentina, one finds human intelligence systematically applied to a policy of mass murder. That millions died in the one experience and at least ten thousand in the other hardly makes any difference; a purely quantitative standard in such cases is irrelevant. Argentina's detention centers involved photographic and fingerprint labs, infirmaries for prisoners, files and documents. Nunca Mas reports that a meticulous photographic registry of the prisoner population was maintained, and that interrogations were tape-recorded. Individual cases were microfilmed, with a description of the means of abduction, where the kidnapping took place, and details of the prisoner's background. A special unit for "financial administration" was instituted to dispose of the property of the kidnapped and murdered, who were forced to sign property over to the soldiers. Indeed, an elaborate system was organized for producing a broad array of counterfeit documents, including passports, identity cards, property deeds, drivers' licenses, police credentials, and so on. By February 1979, the report says, "an estate agency had been set up to rebuild for sale houses which had been partially destroyed in the attempt to kidnap their inhabitants." Had the coup taken place in 1986 instead of 1976, the whole program might have been executed on computer terminals. "Everything was scientifically arranged," comments one of the prisoners, "from punishments to meals."

This feature alone--a businesslike, methodical slaughter--links the Nazi and Argentine experiences, but the comparison can easily be extended. Ordinary soldiers and police participated, and the hierarchy and range of personnel employed tended to disperse responsibility; it is significant that the report describes the terror as "a collective crime." Foreign security services from Uruguay, Paraguay, and Bolivia were brought into Argentina for tracking down refugees, and likewise Argentine refugees in those countries were marked for abduction. After the signing of the Nazi-Soviet treaty of nonaggression in August 1939, the Gestapo and the NKVD, a precursor of the KGB, cooperated to move against enemies of Stalin and the Reich. Terror was used to pulverize the Argentine civil population, exposing everyone as a potential victim and eliminating any chance of solidarity. "At the heart of this policy of total disappearance," declares the report, "lay the prevention of every possible means of solidarity being shown by the population in general." Nacht und Nebel--"night and fog"--was the code language employed by the agents of the Reich for destroying the resistance; Nunca Mas describes "the huge blanket of silence and death" that covered the country.

The element of material gain was at work in both undertakings; indeed, was inseparable from them. "Anti-Semitism," says the report, "came to be yet another manifestation of the repressive groups, within the totalitarian vision of the ruling regime." Members of the commission do not shrink from calling the detention centers "extermination camps," and compare their physical characteristics--barbed wire, searchlights--to those of the German camps. As early as 1975, "pilot" detention centers existed in provinces remote from Buenos Aires, including Tucuman and Santiago del Estero. Their existence parallels German experimentation with alternative means of gassing victims, well before the chambers were installed. Admiral Emilio Massera, a.onetime member of the junta, instructs his subordinates "to react to the enemy with the utmost violence and without hesitating over the means employed." The language could have come from Himmler.

Recent press reports further extend the parallels: one, datelined Buenos Aires, identifies a top civilian prosecutor who claims that most military officers committing the crimes should be exempt from prosecution on the grounds that they were "just following orders." In legislation unveiled a couple of weeks ago, Alfonsin seeks to protect from prosecution most military officers still on active duty because they were acting "in a state of coercion" and freed from the moral burden governing private conscience. The gyrating official reactions to the question of accountability appear to stem from the antithetical moral and political pressures operating on the civilian regime.

Absolute possession of other human lives and murder with impunity--the butchers of Argentina were intoxicated with this. In a powerful memoir of his experience as an Argentine victim, Prisoner Without a Name, Cell Without a Number, Jacobo Timerman says one of his tormentors told him, "Only God gives and takes human life. But God is busy elsewhere, and we must undertake this task in Argentina." Survivor's interviewed by the commission often refer to soldiers and torturers who declared that they "were guided by the hand of God who had entrusted them with 'this great task.'"

Shortly after the March coup but before his abduction, Timerman spoke with a senior officer, who confided the new government's strategy for taking control of Argentina. Timerman advocated "a political defeat" of the guerrillas "that would enable the majority of youth to seek their symbols elsewhere."

"But if we exterminate them all," answered the officer, "there'll be fear for several generations."

"What do you mean by all?"

"All . . . about twenty thousand. And their relatives, too--they must be eradicated--and also those who remember their names . . . Not a trace or witness will remain."

How did it happen? How did these people take command and work their will on what was once the most civilized country in Latin America? Timerman describes the ruling fantasy that seized the Argentine officer corps: World War III is now upon us, but the struggle is not between the United States and the Soviet Union, but between left-wing terrorism and the West. Argentina has been selected as the initial testing ground for the coming engagement, and is misunderstood in Western Europe and America. Because fanatical anti-Semites, who made up a considerable number, had to be appeased, a Jewish conspiracy was added as well: the Israelis plan to occupy the Patagonia, a barren stretch of Argentine geography in the south.

Certainly Argentina disintegrated politically during the 70s, and the leftist guerrilla movements were completely uninhibited in their selection of methods and victims. Argentina bore the burden of a ferocious, unrelenting war between the security forces and the guerrillas. No quarter was given, no prisoners were taken, and successive civilian regimes appeared completely ineffectual in the struggle.

But there seems to be a gap nevertheless between Timerman's rational description, and any other rational explanation, and the terrible facts of Nunca Mas. The vast majority of the victims had no ties to the extremist movements on the left. Innocents were abducted and murdered--by no means accidently--sometimes for their property, sometimes to settle a score. The annihilating fury of the junta swept over everything in its path, torturing and putting to death men, women, and children to obtain "information" on a trumped-up security threat. It seems as though a metastasizing insanity lay just below the surface, waiting to erupt on a major scale, and that the leftist movements merely prepared the ground, serving as a pretext for these satanic impulses.

Was the junta a specifically antilabor phenomenon, a rightist initiative intended to satisfy the demands of Argentine capitalism? Certainly the commission offers evidence supporting this view. In the category combining victims still missing with those released from the detention centers, manual workers account for a full 30 percent, the largest single group. The government undertook numerous antilabor provocations, and one of the most remarkable revelations of Nunca Mas is that a detention center was found on the premises of Acindar, in the northern province of Santa Fe. Acindar is a huge steelmaker, one of the largest firms in Argentina, and one of its principals became the junta's first minister of economics.

But even if the regime did inflict its full fury on the labor movement, it is hard to believe that furthering a material interest was the critical force behind the unrestricted war on the civil population. Other occupational groups were exposed to violent attack, and to identify the terror as specifically antilabor is problematic. Labor may well have borne the worst because it had a history of resistance. Interpreters of Nazism in the 30s often considered it a depraved manifestation of the high German bourgeoisie, but after the revelations of the war that argument collapsed. Both cases testify instead to a larger and more frightful eruption.

The armed forces and their agents are, for the moment, out of the picture. But the six-year history of their power shows that the incubus of mass murder is still upon us, and that agents can be found to further it. Where are the killers today? Not the senior officers who faced trial, but the thousands who undertook the executions? Before the coup they were retired and active officers, pursuing conventional careers in the armed services or second ones in retirement. After the coup, for a period of years, they assumed a different identity and undertook a different task; now most have gone back to their old lives, with only their bloody memories. Nunca Mas supplies the factual details, or at least those obtainable after so much evidence was destroyed. What the country needs now is a Kafka to interpret the experience. A solitary writer, laboring at two, three, and four o'clock in the morning, tuberculous, spitting blood, passing the apparitions of thousands, their words and experiences, through his soul.

"Finally they left K. in a position which was not even the best of positions they had already tried out. Then one of them opened his frock coat and out of a sheath that hung from a belt gird around his waistcoat drew a long, thin, double-edged butcher's knife, held it up, and tested the cutting edges in the moonlight. Once more the odious courtesies began, the first handed the knife back across K. to the second. K. now perceived clearly that he was supposed to seize the knife, as it travelled from hand to hand above him, and plunge it into his own breast. But he did not do so, he merely turned his head, which was still free to move, and gazed around him. . . . His glance fell on the top story of the house adjoining the quarry. With a flicker as of light going up, the casements of a window there suddenly flew open; a human figure, faint and insubstantial, at that distance and at that height, leaned abruptly far forward and stretched both arms still farther. Who was it? A friend? A good man? Someone who sympathized? Someone who wanted to help? Was it one person only? Or was it mankind? Was help at hand? Were there arguments in his favor that had been overlooked? Of course there must be. Logic is doubtless unshakeable, but it cannot withstand a man who wants to go on living. Where was the judge whom he had never seen? Where was the high court, to which he had never penetrated? He raised his hands, and spread out all his fingers.

"But the hands of one of the partners were already at K.'s throat, while the other thrust the knife deep into his heart and turned it there twice. With failing eyes K. could still see the two of them immediately before him, cheek leaning against cheek, watching the final act. 'Like a dog!' he said; it was as if the shame of it must outlive him." --The Trial

Nunca Mas: The Report of the Argentine National Commission on the Disappeared. Farrar, Strauss & Giroux, $22.50.

Prisoner Without a Name, Cell Without a Number by Jacobo Timmerman. Alfred A. Knopf, $12.50 (hardcover), $2.95 (paper).

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): illustration/Peter Hannan.

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