An Irishman You Probably Never Heard About But Should Have
The banner said in Spanish: Kidnapped – March 25, 1977– Walsh, Rodolfo– We Shall Not Forget. It was printed by the Press Corps Union of Buenos Aires, Argentina and carried by members of their union as they milled about on the street after a parade held earlier that day. On the building above was another banner that said: “The worst opinion is silence” and another carried by a parade marcher: “The worst attitude is indifference”.
Who was this man, Rodolfo Walsh, with the Irish last name, that I had never heard about? What did he do and what did he stand for? And why was he kidnapped?
In 2006, while visiting Buenos Aires on the 30th anniversary of the March 1976 government takeover by the military junta, I watched a parade that lasted for several hours involving as many as a hundred thousand people, young and old, who came out to passionately proclaim that they would never again allow their country to be taken over by a military junta, the likes of which ruled from 1976 to 1983. This barbaric junta had left in its wake 15,000 people missing, 10,000 prisoners, 4000 dead and tens of thousands in exile. The voices of the marchers that day spoke loudly and with determination: This shall never again happen in Argentina.
Many of the marchers that day carried banners letting the world know that they would not forget the thousands who had disappeared, had been thrown into jail at the Navy Mechanics School (known as ESMA and also as “The Argentine Auschwitz”) and tortured, killed and had their babies stolen and given to rich or high ranking military couples who often raised them without telling them the truth of their origins. Other thousands had been exiled from their own homeland fleeing for their lives. Judges, lawyers, journalists, artists, physicians, priests and nuns and others in a position to know about the darker side of the junta's barbarous activity, and who disagreed out loud with what was happening, were arrested and disappeared never to be seen nor heard from again.
Rodolfo Walsh was a popular journalist and author who had challenged the junta in his growing list of investigative works and articles. He was on their wanted list. On March 25, 1977, a year and a day after the junta took over, he published his famous “Open Letter from a Writer to the Military Junta” accusing them of all kinds of atrocities against the Argentine people. For this, a group of agents were sent out to capture him. Walsh, who had been disguising himself as an old man to evade the junta police, also carried a pistol for protection and so a firefight ensued. He was mortally wounded, his body dumped into the trunk of a car and taken away never to be seen again. This was the Rodolfo Walsh whose name I had seen and had been captivated by.
Rodolfo was born on January 9, 1927 in Choele Choel in Rio Negro Province, a rural area about 1000 kilometers southwest of Buenos Aires. As he described himself, he was the son of two lines of Irish immigrants, who came to Argentina in the mid-1800's escaping the ravages of the great Famine. One of five children of Miguel Esteban Walsh and Dora Gill, Rodolfo had three brothers, one of whom became a Naval officer and a sister who became a nun.
In the 1930's, like many other countries, Argentina was experiencing hard economic times. This, in addition to his father's gambling problem, necessitated that the Walsh children be split up at an early age. Two brothers went to live with their grandmother in Buenos Aires and Rodolfo and the remaining brother, Hector, were sent to the Capilla del Señor, a boarding school run by the Sisters of Mercy from Baggott Street in Dublin. From there he went on to study at the Fahy Institute in Moreno. These schools were institutions where the Argentine-Irish community sent their children to get a superior education and where Rodolfo said he learned “reading, writing and arithmetic from priests who never forgot how to use the stick”. From an early age his mother fondly nurtured a love of reading in him, and so he never adapted well to the method of learning by force used by the Irish Pallotine priests at the Fahy Institute. His rebellious nature grew stronger and he learned to fight back. He would later write about his difficult boarding school years in his short stories entitled: Los Oficios Terrerestres (Earthly Tasks) and Irlanldeses detrás de un Gato (The Irishmen After A Cat).
After working at a series of dead-end jobs, Walsh got a break when he landed a position with Hachette Publishing as a proof-reader and translator (English was widely spoken at home even among second and third generation Argentine-Irish families). At Hachette, Rodolfo put together his Diez Cuentos Policiales Argentinos (Ten Argentine Detective Stories). He seemed to have a talent for writing investigative types of materials and he fell right into the detective story genre. In 1950 he took second place in a detective story contest and that concretized his career path for the future. He married Elina Tejerina that same year and they had two daughters, Maria Victoria and Patricia. However his growing success in writing was counterbalanced by his failure in marriage and so the relationship lasted only a few years.
One night late in 1956, when Walsh was playing chess at his local club, a man whispered to him that “One of the men executed, is still alive.” He was referring to a massacre several months earlier of eleven men, friends who had gathered together in an apartment to listen to a radio broadcast of a boxing match between the top Argentine and Chilean champions. What these men didn't know was that earlier in the evening there was an attempted coup against the recently self-installed military junta which took place some miles away and the military had gotten a tip that somehow these men were involved. The junta had planned to declare martial law after midnight, but their henchmen appeared at the apartment in advance and arrested the eleven taking them out to a garbage dump and machine gunning them all down.
Walsh wasted no time pursuing the whispering man's tip. His detective’s instinct, which earlier had produced fictional short stories, now took him to investigate every angle of this real-life occurrence, another one of the many traumas on the psyche of Argentine society. He tracked down and interviewed the “dead man” with a hole in his cheek, a fellow named Juan Carlos Livagra, a bus driver, who told him that there were several other survivors who had escaped into the darkness that night when the machine gun fire rang out. Next he went to interview another survivor Miguel Angel Giunta. Walsh was deeply moved by his testimony:
It kills you to listen to Giunta because you get the feeling that you're watching a movie that has been rolling in his head since the night it was filmed … Once he finished he's going to start again from the beginning, just as the endless loop must start over again in his head: "this is how they executed me."
Walsh's investigation led him to write what has been considered by some as the best work in all of Argentine literature. Operation Massacre, published in 1957 by Ediciones Sigla, put both author and publishers at serious risk for their lives. No other writer or editor would publish anything about this unbelievable atrocity. But Walsh was cavalier about it all, writing in his introduction: “I happen to believe … in the right of every citizen to share any truth that he comes to know, however dangerous that truth might be.” His career as an investigative journalist of real-life events was born.
From 1959 to 1961, during the first years of the Castro revolution, Walsh lived in Cuba. There with the assistance of the Colombian writer, Gabriel Garcia Marquez, he helped found Prensa Latina, whose purpose was to counteract the propaganda that was being put out by the American press. One day while in the Prensa office, he got his hands on an encrypted CIA telex and with his investigative mind and his knowledge of English, he doggedly kept at the task of deciphering the message until he came up with what was advance notice of the CIA-backed Bay of Pigs invasion. The Castro government was happy to receive this information and planned accordingly to counteract the invasion once it happened.
His life experiences, including his almost two year stay in Cuba, had not fully radicalized Walsh up to this point in his life. Once back in Argentina, he found that social conditions had not improved. News of Che Guevarra's death (his countryman whom he had met in Cuba) and continuing violence at home, contributed to Walsh's ambiguity about his support for the Peron regime. Making sense of the Peronist era in Argentina was never an easy task. While Peron's first wife Eva (Evita) Duarte was passionate about supporting the descamisados, the shirtless ones – the poor, the workers, her husband at times used demagoguery to enforce his rule on the people. His chameleon-like approach engendered such spirited supporters on both sides of the political spectrum, that in 1973 when he returned from exile after several years in Spain, delegations from each side went to the airport to welcome him home and ended up having a shootout in which 13 were killed and 300 were injured.
Walsh never thought of himself as a true Peronist, but he seemed to lean toward Peron as the best hope to improve the plight of the working man. He joined the Montoñeros who initially supported Peron's vision for improving working class conditions, but Peron died a year later and was succeeded as president by his second wife, Isabel who tended toward the right side of the spectrum. The Montoñeros could no longer consider themselves as Peronists. Their tactics now veered off into a more violent approach against the government which did not sit well with Walsh. And as rightist as she was, Isabel's presidency was toppled by the even more right wing dictator- generals in March 1976 and the Montoñeros were now clearly considered as guerrillas.
The ruling junta was oppressive right from the start. It became dangerous to write about the abuses that were being perpetrated in the streets. Writers and their sources would sometimes disappear. So Walsh founded an underground news agency, ANCLA, that was affiliated with the Montoñeros . Many journalists chose the safer path of not reporting on incidents that occurred because if they did so, their lives would be in danger. As a result a segment of Argentine society was kept in the dark about what was really going on and another segment had their suspicions but preferred to be kept in the dark. Under Walsh's leadership ANCLA forged ahead although it had limited means of circulation.
Walsh's daughter, Maria Victoria, was also a member of the Montoñeros . In a street confrontation with the authorities in September 1976, she took her own life rather than be captured and tortured by the junta's henchmen. Her death deeply affected Rodolfo and he memorialized her in his Carta a Mis Amigos (A Letter to My Friends). He wrote about her “short, hard, marvelous life whose true cemetery is in our memory.” Her death undoubtedly reminded him about how precarious his own life was but that didn't slow him down. He started his Cadena Informativa (Informative Chain Letter) a two-page newsletter which he distributed by mailing out copies to random names he found in the telephone directory. He would end each edition with the words:
Terror is based on the absence of communication, defeat it by breaking the isolation, so copy and circulate this information and be assured that pretentious dictators with bayonets and billy-clubs are fearful of spoken words and stimulating thoughts.
Over the course of his career Walsh wrote numerous articles and books, the most celebrated of which were Quien Mato a Rosendo (Who Killed Rosendo) and Caso Satanowsky (The Satanowsky Case). In the first he recounted the death of Rosendo Garcia who was killed in a local pizzeria in a shootout between rival trade unionists. In the second he writes about the murder of lawyer Marcos Satanowsky, assassinated by government agents for attempting to litigate against them.
Perhaps the most important written piece of Walsh's life was his Carta Abierta de Un Escritor a la Junta Militar (Open Letter from a Writer to the Military Junta). Nobel laureate Gabriel Garcia Marquez called it “one of the jewels of universal literature”. Walsh worked on his letter for more than two months in advance of the one year anniversary of the junta takeover. In it he accused them of:
Toppling an elected government … banning political parties … hampering trade unions … gagging the press … installing the worst reign of terror ever known in Argentina ... imprisoning thousands of people without due process … brutally torturing and summarily executing them … disappearing 15,000 people and exiling tens of thousands more … throwing prisoners into the ocean from aircraft … creating concentration camps where judges, lawyers, journalists and international observers cannot enter … plunging millions of people into preplanned misery by destroying industry, freezing wages and increasing prices … without the hope of being listened to, I know that I will be hunted down, but I am faithful to the commitment I assumed to give testimony in times of difficulty.
Unlike with other pieces and newsletters he had written, Walsh signed this letter and added his national ID number. No mistaking who authored this bold and direct piece. He knew his end was coming.
The wheels of justice in Argentina turn very slowly. In 2011, after a two-year long ordeal of hearing 160 witnesses (79 of whom actually were interned and survived at ESMA), a three judge panel came down with a verdict of guilty on 86 counts in the trial of the men responsible for the crimes perpetrated at ESMA. Eleven of those who ran the terror operation there were given life sentences for their participation in what was the most oppressive period in Argentine history. Four others were given between 18 and 25 years in jail for their participation in these crimes. The trial focused on the disappearance of Rodolfo Walsh (which was finally declared a homicide), on the disappearances of Azucena Villaflor, the foundress of Las Madres de la Plaza de Mayo (The Mothers of the Plaza de Mayo) and two of her associates, and two French nuns Leonie Duquet and Alice Domon, who were thrown into the sea from a military helicopter.
In the San Telmo district in Buenos Aires, there is a small shrine-like display in the Rodolfo Walsh Plaza. The life-sized figure of Walsh wearing his usual sweater and heavy framed glasses is standing on a balcony gazing out at the street below. And in March 2013 the SUBTE (subway) station close by at the intersection of San Juan and Entre Rios Streets was renamed Entre Rios–Rodolfo Walsh by the city council. It is small consolation to honor the memory of the man who is one of the bravest giants of Argentine political literature.