• Email
  • Single Page
  • Print

Argentine Terror: A Memoir

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 killed, so many men, so many women. The communiqués are thought to represent only a fraction of the truth: too many people are disappearing.

The military junta came to power in March, 1976. In the beginning—after the chaos and near-anarchy of the Peronist restoration—the killings were thought to be good for the economy. War was war, it was said; the guerrillas—now like private armies, with no recognizable aims—had to be rooted out; the trade unions and their leaders had to be disciplined after the license and corruption of the Peronist years. (No more free trips to Europe on Aerolíneas Argentinas for those union men, flashy provincial machos requiring attention from the crew, each man, after supper, settling down with his pile of comic books and photo-novels, light reading for the long night flight, the tips of ringed fingers wetted on the tongue before the pages were turned.) Another, more becoming, Argentina was to be created; the country (as though the country was an economic abstraction, something that could be separated from the bulk of the population) was to be got going again.

And while wages were kept down like sin, the banker-saints of Argentina worked their own inflationary miracles. They offered 8 percent a month or 144 percent a year for the peso, and momentarily gave back faith to many good Argentines who had for years been praying only for the water of their pesos to be turned into the wine of dollars. During the early months of the terror the stock market boomed; fortunes were made out of nothing; Argentina seemed to be itself again. But now—even with that 144 percent—the terror is too close.

No pattern can any longer be discerned in the terror. It isn’t only the guerrillas and the union men and the country’s few intellectuals who are threatened. Anyone can be picked up. Torture is routine. Even workmen unlucky enough to be in a flat at the time of a raid have been taken away, held for a few hours and tortured with everybody else, so automatic is the process: the tight blindfold, the eyes depressed in the sockets, the hooding, the beating, the electric shocks that leave burn marks for eighteen days, and then the mysterious journey in the boot of the Falcon and the sadism of release: “We are taking you to the cemetery…. Now, count a hundred before you take off your blindfold.”

Almost everyone in Argentina knows someone who has disappeared or been arrested or tortured. Even military men have, by the intervention of military friends, been called to receive the corpses of their children, corpses which might otherwise have been destroyed or thrown away, sometimes to roll ashore, mutilated and decomposing, at Montevideo, on the other side of the River Plate. One woman was sent the hands of her daughter in a shoe box.

There is still, for the distinguished or well known, legal arrest on specific charges. But below that there is no law. People are taken away and no one is responsible. The army refers inquirers to the police, and the police refer them back to the army. A special language has developed: an anxious father might be told that his son’s case is “closed.” No one really knows who does what or why; it is said that anyone can now be made to disappear, for a price.

Buenos Aires is full of shocked and damaged people who can think now only of flight, who find it no longer possible to take sides, who can see no cause in Argentina and can acknowledge at last the barbarism by which they have for long been surrounded, the barbarism they had previously been content to balance against the knowledge of their own security and the old Argentine lure of the spacious rich land, easy money, and abundant meat, the lure expressed in the words which so often in Argentina close a discussion: “Todavía aquí se vive mejor. Still, you live better here.”

Barbarism, in a city which has thought of itself as European, in a land which, because of that city, has prided itself on its civilization. Barbarism because of that very idea: civilization felt as something far away, magically kept going by others: the civilization of Europe divorced from any idea of an intellectual life and equated with the goods and fashions of Europe: civilization felt as something purchasable, something always there, across the ocean, for the man or woman with enough money: an attitude not far removed from that of the politician of a new country who, while fouling his own nest, feathers another abroad, in a land of law.

The official history of Argentina is a history of glory: of a war of independence, with heroes, of European expansion, wealth, civilization. This is the part of which Borges sometimes sings; but a recurring theme of some of his later stories is of cultural degeneracy.

Torture is not new in Argentina. And though Argentines abroad, when they are campaigning against a particular regime, talk as if torture has just been started by that regime, in Argentina itself torture is spoken of—and accepted—by all groups as an Argentine institution.

In 1972, at an elegant provincial hotel, an upper-class lady of Spanish descent (still obsessed with the purity of race, still fighting the old Spanish wars) told me that torture had started in Argentina in 1810, when the country became independent of Spain; and—middle-aged and delicate at the dinner table, drinking the yellow champagne of Argentina, and speaking English with the accent of the finishing school—she said that torture remained necessary because the penal code was so benign. “You have to kill a man in the most horrible way to go to jail here. ‘My client was excited,’ the lawyer says. ‘Oh?’ the judge says. ‘He was excited?’ And no jail.”

A young Trotskyist lawyer didn’t see the law quite like that. He thought only that torture had been used by “most of the governments” and had become “a pretty important feature of Argentine life.” Its abolition seemed at first to form no part of his socialist program; but then, noticing my concern, he promised, speaking very quickly, as to a child to whom anything could be promised, that torture would disappear “with the downfall of the bourgeoisie.”

However, the high Peronist trade union man I later went to see—this was in mid-1972, and the union man was close to power, waiting for Perón to come back—couldn’t promise anything. He said—and he might have been speaking of rain—that torture would always exist. It was this man, soft-voiced, reasonable, at that time still the representative of the oppressed, who told me—the map of the Paris metro and a photograph of the young Perón below glass on his desk—that there was good torture and bad torture. It was “all right” to torture an “evildoer”; it was another thing to torture “a man who’s trying to serve the country.”

And that was the very point made four years later by Admiral Guzzetti, one of the leaders of the present regime, when, defending the terror, he spoke to the United Nations in August 1976. The Admiral (who has since been wounded in a guerrilla attack) said: “My idea of subversion is that of the left-wing terrorist organizations. Subversion or terrorism of the right is not the same thing. When the social body of the country has been contaminated by a disease that corrodes its entrails, it forms antibodies. These antibodies cannot be considered in the same way as the microbes.”

Yesterday’s antibodies, today’s microbes; yesterday’s servants of the country, today’s evildoers; yesterday’s torturers, today’s tortured. Argentine ideologies, in spite of the labels of right or left that they give themselves, are really quite simple. What harms the other man is right; what harms me is wrong. Perón was never more Argentine—in his complaints and his moral outrage—than when, in 1956, the year after he had been overthrown by the military, he published his own lachrymose account of the affair. He called his book La Fuerza es el Derecho de las Bestias. The words mean, literally, “Force is the right of animals,” and the title might be rendered in English as “The Law of the Jungle.”

  • Email
  • Single Page
  • Print