Argentine Terror: A Memoir

Juan Peron
Juan Peron; drawing by David Levine

This article was written in May 1977 after a visit to Buenos Aires and the north of Argentina. Little has changed. The Falcons no longer operate, but the terror continues. Inflation rages on: Argentina is no longer cheap for the visitor. The poor are screaming; but the rich have become immensely richer: once again more Argentines go abroad, to shop, to buy the things of civilization. A new outburst is maturing lower down; a new generation of young men and women is already doomed. The society of cruelty ever renews itself.

In Argentina the killer cars—the cars in which the official gunmen go about their business—are Ford Falcons. The Falcon, which is made in Argentina, is a sturdy small car of unremarkable appearance, and there are thousands on the roads. But the killer Falcons are easily recognizable. They have no license plates. The cars—and the plainclothes men they carry—require to be noticed; and people can sometimes stand and watch.

As they stood and watched some weeks ago, in the main square of the northern city of Tucumán: the Falcons parked in the semicircular drive of Government Headquarters, an ornate stone building like a nineteenth-century European country house, but with Indian soldiers with machine guns on the balcony and in the well-kept subtropical gardens: a glimpse, eventually, of uniforms, handshakes, salutes, until the men in plain clothes, like actors impersonating an aristocratic shooting party, but with machine guns under their Burberrys or imitation Burberrys, came down the wide steps, got into the small cars, and drove off without speed or sirens.

The authorities have grown to understand the dramatic effect of silence. It is part of the terror that is meant to be felt as terror.

Style is important in Argentina; and in the long-running guerrilla war—in spite of the real blood, the real torture—there has always been an element of machismo and public theater. In the old days policemen stood a little way from busy intersections with machine guns at the ready; at night the shopping streets of central Buenos Aires were patrolled by jack-booted and helmeted soldiers with Alsatian dogs; from time to time, as a dramatic extravaganza, there appeared the men of the antiguerrilla motorcycle brigade. The war in those days was in the main a private war, between the guerrillas on one side and the army and police on the other. Now the war touches everybody; public theater has turned to public terror.

Style has been taken away from all but the men in the Falcons. The guerrillas still operate, but the newspapers are not allowed to print anything about them. They can print only the repetitive official communiqués, the body counts, and these usually appear as small items on the inside pages, seemingly unrelated to the rest of the news: in such a place, on such a date, in these circumstances, so many subversives or delincuentes were…

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