Political Violence and Trauma in Argentina

Political Violence and Trauma in Argentina

Antonius C. G. M. Robben
Copyright Date: 2005
Pages: 480
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    Political Violence and Trauma in Argentina
    Book Description:

    For decades, Argentina's population was subject to human rights violations ranging from the merely disruptive to the abominable. Violence pervaded Argentine social and cultural life in the repression of protest crowds, a ruthless counterinsurgency campaign, massive numbers of abductions, instances of torture, and innumerable assassinations. Despite continued repression, thousands of parents searched for their disappeared children, staging street protests that eventually marshaled international support. Challenging the notion that violence simply breeds more violence, Antonius C. G. M. Robben's provocative study argues that in Argentina violence led to trauma, and that trauma bred more violence. In this work of superior scholarship, Robben analyzes the historical dynamic through which Argentina became entangled in a web of violence spun out of repeated traumatization of political adversaries. This violence-trauma-violence cycle culminated in a cultural war that "disappeared" more than ten thousand people and caused millions to live in fear. Political Violence and Trauma in Argentina demonstrates through a groundbreaking multilevel analysis the process by which different historical strands of violence coalesced during the 1970s into an all-out military assault on Argentine society and culture. Combining history and anthropology, this compelling book rests on thorough archival research; participant observation of mass demonstrations, exhumations, and reburials; gripping interviews with military officers, guerrilla commanders, human rights leaders, and former disappeared captives. Robben's penetrating analysis of the trauma of Argentine society is of great importance for our understanding of other societies undergoing similar crimes against humanity.

    eISBN: 978-0-8122-0331-8
    Subjects: Political Science

Table of Contents

  1. Front Matter
    (pp. i-vi)
  2. Table of Contents
    (pp. vii-viii)
  3. Preface
    (pp. ix-xii)
  4. Part I. Groundswell:: The Rise and Fall of Argentine Crowds

    • Chapter 1 Changing the Course of History: Dignity, Emancipation, and Entrenchment
      (pp. 3-24)

      “That’s the morgue,” she said calmly, having removed the padlock from the gate that gave access to a walled off wasteland surrounding a drab building. The morgue of Avellaneda cemetery near Buenos Aires consisted of three rooms. One room contained the skeletons of the exhumed bodies, another held various tools, while the central room was dominated by a stainless steel table. Autopsies used to be performed on the table years ago, but it served now to reassemble the remains of the disappeared. After taking off our coats, we walked to an area of ten by thirty meters overgrown with grass,...

    • Chapter 2 The Time of the Furnaces: Proscription, Compromise, and Insurrection
      (pp. 25-43)

      “There hung a murmurous atmosphere resembling the sea,” one reporter wrote of the crowd that celebrated the installation of General Lonardi as Argentina’s new president on 23 September 1955, “a constant surf of sounds: shouts and applause.”¹ The people were in a festive mood on this warm first day of Spring. Some fainted from the heat and the crowd’s pressure, while others refreshed themselves in the fountain at the Plaza de Mayo. The reporter compared the crowd to the Peronist crowds that used to monopolize the square, and asserted that never “has there gathered such a dense crowd as the...

    • Chapter 3 A Breeze Turned into Hurricane: The Apogee of Crowd Mobilization
      (pp. 44-63)

      The revolutionary insurrection of tens of thousands of workers and students, raising hundreds of barricades and fighting off police and army during two days of pitched battle on 29 and 30 May 1969 in Córdoba, constitutes the second crowd myth of twentieth-century Argentine history. Lieutenant-General Alejandro Lanusse recalled in 1977: “I sensed on that difficult 29th of May in 1969 that something was happening in the country, something new whose uniqueness I tried to gauge within the framework of my greater worries. I couldn’t know in what it would end, how I would react to the events, or what were...

    • Chapter 4 Crowd Clashes: Euphoria, Disenchantment, and Rupture
      (pp. 64-86)

      On Friday 17 November 1972, a seventy-seven-year-old Juan Domingo Perón steps on Argentine soil after an absence of seventeen years. Tens of thousands of Peronists walk through the rain to Ezeiza airport to welcome him, but they are stopped by a barrier of police cars, armored vehicles, tanks, and an army force thirty-five thousand strong. Numerous tear gas shells are spent to detain throngs of people trying to make their way to Ezeiza along railroad tracks or wading across the brooks and streams surrounding the airport. Only a select group of three hundred spectators and fifteen hundred reporters are present...

  5. Part II. Utopia Lost:: Guerrilla War and Counterinsurgency

    • Chapter 5 Shots in the Night: Revenge, Revolution, and Insurgency
      (pp. 89-106)

      The execution of eight workers at the garbage dump of José León Suárez in June 1956, after a failed military rebellion against the leaders of the 1955 coup against Perón, remained an enduring social trauma of the Peronist movement. The 1957 account by Rodolfo Walsh nestled itself firmly in the popular sentiment, and inspired militant Peronists for decades. Walsh had initially supported the Liberating Revolution, but the sight of a survivor’s face, “the hole in the cheek, the largest hole in the throat, the injured mouth and the opaque eyes where the shadow of death remained floating,” compelled him to...

    • Chapter 6 The Long Arm of Popular Justice: Punishment, Rebellion, and Sacrifice
      (pp. 107-127)

      On the morning of 29 May 1970, at the first anniversary of the Cordobazo, Fernando Abal Medina and Emilio Maza ascend to the eighth floor of 1053 Montevideo Street and ring the bell of former President Aramburu’s apartment. His wife opens the door and beckons the two young men posing as army officers to enter. An impeccably dressed Aramburu enters the room, drinks coffee with the two officers, while the men offer to improve the general’s security situation. At 9:30 a.m., the two men rise to their feet and ask Aramburu to accompany them outside. Aramburu is neither surprised nor...

    • Chapter 7 Revolution Postponed: Anger, Frustration, and Entitlement
      (pp. 128-146)

      The mood in Villa Devoto prison was euphoric the day before President Cámpora’s inauguration. Common and political prisoners took the pavilions in mutiny, mattresses were set on fire, and flames enwrapped the barred windows. The rebels were singing the Peronist march, making flags, painting slogans on prison walls, and preparing elaborate meals. The evening of 24 May 1973 was experienced as one big party because the political prisoners were promised amnesty. Relatives were visiting, and some prisoners even had their small children with them.

      After the newly sworn-in president had spoken to the people gathered at the Plaza de Mayo,...

    • Chapter 8 The Shadows of Death: Improvisation, Counterinsurgency, and Downfall
      (pp. 147-168)

      On Sunday 1 December 1974, at 1:15 in the afternoon, Captain Humberto Viola arrives with his pregnant wife and two little daughters at his parents’ home in San Miguel de Tucumán, He barely succeeds in squeezing his car between two parked taxis, and asks his wife to open the gate to the driveway. The moment Ms. Viola steps out of the car, fire is opened by several assailants. A badly wounded Viola abandons his car and staggers away with his wounded five-year-old daughter María Fernanda in his arms. One guerrilla approaches him and shoots him through the head. The three-year-old...

  6. Part III. Breaking Hearts and Minds:: Torture, Self, and Resocialization

    • Chapter 9 The War of Cultures: Hierarchy Versus Equality, Christianity Versus Marxism
      (pp. 171-189)

      “To the people of the Argentine Republic: The country is passing through one of the most difficult periods in its history. With the country on the point of national disintegration, the intervention of the armed forces was the only possible alternative in the face of the deterioration provoked by misgovernment, corruption, and complacency.”¹ Ten days earlier, on Wednesday, 24 March 1976, the Argentine armed forces had taken power. Videla’s opening sentence failed to mention the guerrilla insurgency, for the simple reason that the coup served primarily to construct a new foundation to Argentine society, and only secondarily to wage a...

    • Chapter 10 The Wheelworks of Repression: Assault, Abduction, and Annihilation
      (pp. 190-212)

      “I would leave in the morning, and wouldn’t know whether I’d return alive in the evening,” I was told by General Rivas as he showed me the scar on his hand inflicted by the teeth of a female Montonero combatant. General Rivas was the commander of the Campo de Mayo army base, and had invited me to visit the Major Juan Carlos Leonetti Museum of the Fight Against Subversion, founded there in October 1978.¹ The commander spoke with admiration of Leonetti who had died in a fire fight with Mario Roberto Santucho in July 1976. Naming a museum after Leonetti...

    • Chapter 11 The Operating Theater: Torture, Dehumanization, and Traumatization
      (pp. 213-235)

      Pablo Díaz was eighteen years old when he was abducted by a task group in La Plata, the capital of Buenos Aires province. Five days earlier, his friends Francisco López Muntaner (16 years old), María Claudia Falcone (16 years), Claudio de Acha (17 years), Horacio Angel Ungaro (17 years), Daniel Alberto Racero (18 years), and María Clara Ciocchini (18 years) had disappeared. History was repeating itself. Thirty years earlier, in 1946, four students and one worker had been abducted, disappeared, and tortured by police on the suspicion of placing bombs around La Plata.¹

      Pablo’s friends were all members of the...

    • Chapter 12 Political Prisons and Secret Detention Centers: Dismantlement, Desocialization, and Rehabilitation
      (pp. 236-258)

      Jaime Dri’s escape came as a deafening blow to the Argentine navy. Dri was a prominent Montonero held captive at the Navy Mechanics School in Buenos Aires. The former Peronist congressman had convinced his captors that he was willing to collaborate with Operation Latch (Operación Cerrojo). Operation Latch served to guard the harbors along Argentina’s northern frontier against guerrilla incursions by using captives to detect their comrades. Dri was taken to Puerto Pilcomayo, at the confluence of the rivers Paraná and Pilcomayo, right opposite Asunción, the capital of Paraguay.

      On Friday morning 19 July 1978, the thirty-six-year-old bald-headed Jaime Dri,...

  7. Part IV. Argentina’s Nightmare:: The Forced Disappearance

    • Chapter 13 The Disappearance: Despair, Terror, and Fear
      (pp. 261-281)

      Each and every night, Elsa Sánchez de Oesterheld lies awake for hours agonizing about her disappeared husband and four daughters. “I believe that the disappearance is one of the most brutal things that can exist in today’s war. It is the inhumane of the inhumane. I don’t know how to express it. It’s one of the most horrendous things because from one moment to the next a child disappears, a loved one, son, father, brother, whatever, husband, and this person has vanished into thin air without ever knowing what happened to him. It’s very difficult to come to terms with....

    • Chapter 14 The Search: Hope, Anguish, and Illusion
      (pp. 282-298)

      In July 1976, in the heart of the Argentine winter, Julio Morresi enters another bleak night to find his son Norberto who disappeared three months earlier. Through a labyrinth of contacts, he is sent to a place in Greater Buenos Aires between Quilmes and Bernal. Julio arrives late at night, stops his car and signals with his head lights. Lights off. Lights on. Lights off. Lights on. The response comes from a blinding searchlight. His eyes half-closed, his head tilted downward, Julio barely sees several men pointing their machine guns at him. “What are you doing? What are you looking...

    • Chapter 15 The Call for Truth: Defiance, Resistance, and Maternal Power
      (pp. 299-317)

      The recollection of my first meeting with the mothers of the Plaza de Mayo is vague. I have difficulty separating my earliest impression from later encounters, and even from the documentaries, newsreels, and the many photographs I have seen since then. I do remember walking along one of the fountains at the Plaza de Mayo in April 1978 where workers had cooled their tired feet during that momentous crowd mobilization of 17 October 1945. I also recall sitting on the glazed brickstone bench circling the fountain. Or was it a wooden bench closer to the statue of General Belgrano?


    • Chapter 16 Recovery and Reburial of the Past: Democracy, Accountability, and Impunity
      (pp. 318-340)

      On 26 October 1983 I observed a large crowd from a window way up in a high rise near Constitución railway station in Buenos Aires. The crowd was estimated by police at more than 800,000 and by the organizers at 1.5 million people. Raúl Alfonsín was ending his campaign for the presidency of Argentina. The podium was located near the obelisk at the 9th of July Avenue where soccer celebrations had been held in 1978. Many young supporters were wearing white berets as a symbol of Alfonsín’s UCR, the Radical Civic Union. I was struck by the relaxed atmosphere of...

  8. Conclusion: The Spirals of Violence and Trauma
    (pp. 341-360)

    “There are important details but it is difficult for me to talk about them. I think about them and I repress them. They were undressed while being unconscious and when the flight commander gave the order, depending on the location of the plane, the hatch was opened and they were thrown out naked, one by one . . . . As I was quite nervous about the situation, I almost fell and tumbled into the abyss . . . . I stumbled and they grabbed me.”¹

    Captain Adolfo Francisco Scilingo never recovered from the shock. He began drinking excessively and...

  9. Appendix 1: Interview List
    (pp. 361-362)
  10. Appendix 2: Acronyms
    (pp. 363-364)
  11. Notes
    (pp. 365-420)
  12. Bibliography
    (pp. 421-440)
  13. Index
    (pp. 441-464)
  14. Acknowledgments
    (pp. 465-467)