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Operation Massacre, by Rodolfo Walsh, translated by Daniella Gitlin, Old Street Publishing, RRP£9.99, 230 pages
Rarely has the ideal of a writer speaking truth to power been more aptly embodied than in Argentine journalist Rodolfo Walsh. An outspoken critic of the various military-supported governments that ruled the South American country following the 1955 coup against populist president Juan Perón, Walsh is perhaps best known for his “Open Letter from a Writer to the Military Junta”. In it he vigorously denounced the regime’s absurd economic policies and ghastly human rights record: “Fifteen thousand missing, ten thousand prisoners, four thousand dead, tens of thousands in exile: these are the raw numbers of this terror.” Walsh posted his letter to national newspapers on March 24, 1977. On March 25, he was killed.
Walsh had already attracted the regime’s ire two decades earlier with a series of newspaper articles laying out in chilling detail the events surrounding the execution in 1956 of five innocent men in what he dubbed “Operation Massacre”. His masterpiece of documentary literature, first collected in book form in 1957 but only now published in English, predates by nine years Truman Capote’s non-fiction crime classic, In Cold Blood, and is an emblematic title in the canon of Latin American investigative journalism.
On the evening of June 9 1956, 12 men gathered at a friend’s house in a working-class suburb of Buenos Aires. Most were there to listen to a boxing match on the radio and were unaware that, at about the same time, an insurrection against the government had broken out.
Around 11pm, shortly after the fight ended, a squad of policemen entered the house claiming to seek one of the leaders of the insurrection. All the men were arrested, taken to a police station, and then driven out to a garbage dump on the city’s edge. There, under the auspices of martial law declared in the early hours of June 10, they were executed. But the execution was botched; only five of the men were actually killed – the rest were injured and left for dead, or managed to escape. They are the main witnesses to the horrifying tale that Walsh investigates.
The facts of the case seem inarguable – independently verified by both survivors and even some perpetrators. But Walsh’s argument for a legal prosecution of those responsible rests on proving that the arrests on June 9 were made moments before the installation of martial law. If the executions followed arrests made before martial law was in place, then they constituted criminal acts. Or in Walsh’s pithily damning verdict: “that is not execution. It is murder.”
“I wrote this book for it to be published, and for it to act,” wrote Walsh in the prologue to the first book edition of Operation Massacre. “I investigated and recounted these awful events to bring them to light in the fullest way possible, to provoke fear, to have them never happen again ... I cannot, I will not, and I should not renounce one basic feeling: indignation in the face of abuse, cowardice, and murder.” In 1969, when the book was in its third edition, Walsh had lost hope that his book would ever have the desired effect: “Within the system, there is no justice.”
Justice may have been denied to the victims of “Operation Massacre”, and the perpetrators may have gone unpunished, but Walsh’s furious indictment of Argentina’s authoritarian regimes still stands as a monument to clear-eyed investigative reportage.