Operation Massacreby Rodolfo Walsh
1956. Argentina has just lost its charismatic president Juán Perón in a military coup, and terror reigns across the land. June 1956: eighteen people are reported dead in a failed Peronist uprising. December 1956: sometime journalist, crime fiction writer, studiedly unpoliticized chess aficionado Rodolfo Walsh learns by chance that one of the… See more details below
1956. Argentina has just lost its charismatic president Juán Perón in a military coup, and terror reigns across the land. June 1956: eighteen people are reported dead in a failed Peronist uprising. December 1956: sometime journalist, crime fiction writer, studiedly unpoliticized chess aficionado Rodolfo Walsh learns by chance that one of the executed civilians from a separate, secret execution in June, is alive. He hears that there may be more than one survivor and believes this unbelievable story on the spot. And right there, the monumental classic Operation Massacre is born.
Walsh made it his mission to find not only the survivors but widows, orphans, political refugees, fugitives, alleged informers, and anonymous heroes, in order to determine what happened that night, sending him on a journey that took over the rest of his life.
Originally published in 1957, Operation Massacre thoroughly and breathlessly recounts the night of the execution and its fallout.
"This captivating and clear-eyed book, a true crime narrative first published in Spanish in 1957 and fluently translated here by Gitlin [...] provides a moment-by-moment account and [Walsh] reveals as much as he can about the survivors and those who were executed.”—Publishers Weekly, Starred Review
"“Rarely has the ideal of a writer speaking truth to power been more aptly embodied than in Argentine journalist Rodolfo Walsh.”—Financial Times
"...brave, committed, dangerous journalism with more than a hint of polemic. It is also frighteningly human.”—The Times of London
"The book is a document of the effort to which a writer will go simply to hear a person’s story; to question the details; to construct a narrative that both allows for the inconsistencies of individual eyewitnesses and yet is not undone by them […] Daniella Gitlin’s translation is clean, attentive to the subtleties of Walsh’s prose, and her introduction and notes are very good indeed… In this moment of anxiety over the flow of information, confusion over the responsibilities of writers and journalists, the publication of this volume is well timed.”—Los Angeles Review of Books
"It’d be too cheap to call this required reading for its relevance to contemporary issues of government dishonesty and violent military suppression of opposition. It’s more than that: it’s the introduction to our literature and history of a writer of almost inconceivable courage, suppressed only by death, and of the terrible events of a night that must not be forgotten.”—Bomb Magazine, Editor's Choice
"It is a powerful assertion of the force of testimonial writing relayed by a literary master. Read it and weep. More importantly, to understand how terrorism functions in the hands of the powerful, as an instrument of indiscriminate State manipulation, even massacre, perpetually dictated by the supposedly paramount demands of ‘national security.’”—The Independent (UK)
"Finally, this classic of Latin American literature is available in English! Walsh not only exposes a terrible crime with precise and haunting prose, but establishes, many years before Capote and Mailer, a whole new genre of personal investigative journalism that transcends its immediate circumstances."—Ariel Dorfman
"A great publishing event. That Operation Massacre had not been translated into English before this was shameful; that it is available to English-readers now is a marvelous thing."—Alma Guillermoprieto, author of Looking for History: Dispatches from Latin America
"Rodolfo Walsh's dramatic investigation of extra-judicial murders in 1950s Argentina was an act of great journalistic courage. Told in cinematic prose skillfully rendered into English by Daniella Gitlin, Operation Massacre is a testament to Walsh's tenacity in his personal search for truth and justice."—Michael Scammell
"Rodolfo Walsh’s work perfectly synthesized the most hard-hitting journalism with literature of the highest caliber. His example of adeptness and dignity in literary reportage lives on beyond his death at the hands of a military dictatorship."—Eduardo Galeano, author of Memory of Fire, Mirrors, and Children of the Days
"All of [Walsh's] work demonstrates...his commitment to reality, his almost implausible analytical talent, his personal bravery, and his political ferocity."—Gabriel García Márquez
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Read an Excerpt
News of the June 1956 secret executions first came to me by chance,
toward the end of that year, in a La Plata café where people played chess, talked more about Keres and Nimzowitsch than Aramburu and Rojas, and the only military maneuver that enjoyed any kind of renown was Schlechter’s bayonet attack in the Sicilian Defense.1
Six months earlier, in that same place, we’d been startled around midnight by the shooting nearby that launched the assault on the
Second Division Command and the police department—Valle’s failed rebellion.2 I remember how we left en masse, chess players,
card players, and everyday customers, to see what the celebration was all about; how, the closer we got to San Martín Square, the more serious we were and the smaller our group had become; and how, when I finally got across the square, I was alone. When I
reached the bus station there were several more of us again, including a poor dark-skinned boy in a guard’s uniform who hid behind his goggles saying that, revolution or not, no one was going to take away his gun—a handsome 1901 Mauser.
I remember finding myself alone once more, in the darkness of
Fifty-Fourth Street, just three blocks away from my house, which I
kept wanting to get to and finally reached two hours later amid the smell of lime trees that always made me nervous, and did so on that night even more than usual. I remember the irrepressible will of my legs, the preference they showed at every street for the bus station,
returning to it on their own two or three times. But each time they went a bit farther before turning back, until they didn’t need to go back because we had gone past the line of fire and arrived at my house. My house was worse than the café and worse than the bus station because there were soldiers on the roof and also in the kitchen and the bedrooms, but mainly in the bathroom. Since then
I’ve developed an aversion to houses that face police departments,
headquarters, or barracks.
I also haven’t forgotten how, standing by the window blinds,
I heard a recruit dying in the street who did not say “Long live the nation!” but instead: “Don’t leave me here alone, you sons of bitches.”
After that, I don’t want to remember anything else—not the announcer’s voice at dawn reporting that eighteen civilians had been executed in Lanús, nor the wave of blood that flooded the country up until Valle’s death. It’s too much for a single night. I’m not interested in Valle. I’m not interested in Perón, I’m not interested in revolution. Can I go back to playing chess?
I can. Back to chess and the fantasy literature I read, back to the detective stories I write, back to the “serious” novel I plan to draft in the next few years, back to the other things that I do to earn a living and that I call journalism, even though that’s not what it is.
Violence has spattered my walls, there are bullet holes in the windows,
I’ve seen a car full of holes with a man inside it whose brains were spilling out—but it’s only chance that has put all this before my eyes. It could have happened a hundred kilometers away, it could have happened when I wasn’t there.
Six months later, on a suffocating summer night with a glass of beer in front of him, a man says to me:
—One of the executed men is alive.
I don’t know what it is about this vague, remote, highly unlikely story that manages to draw me in. I don’t know why I ask to talk to that man, why I end up talking to Juan Carlos Livraga.
But afterward I do know why. I look at that face, the hole in his cheek, the bigger hole in his throat, his broken mouth and dull eyes where a shadow of death still lingers. I feel insulted, just as I felt without realizing it when I heard that chilling cry while standing behind the blinds.
Livraga tells me his unbelievable story; I believe it on the spot.
And right there the investigation, this book, is born. The long night of June 9 comes back over me, pulls me out of “the soft quiet seasons” for a second time. Now I won’t think about anything else for almost a year; I’ll leave my house and my job behind; I’ll go by the name Francisco Freyre; I’ll have a fake ID with that name on it;
a friend will lend me his house in Tigre; I’ll live on a frozen ranch in Merlo for two months; I’ll carry a gun; and at every moment the characters of the story will come back to me obsessively: Livraga covered in blood walking through that never-ending alley he took to escape death, the other man who survived with him by running back into the field amid the gunfire, and those who survived without his knowing about it, and those who didn’t survive.
Because what Livraga knows is that there was a bunch of them,
that they were taken out to be shot, that there were about ten of them taken out, and that he and Giunta were still alive. That’s the story I hear him repeat before the judge one morning when I say I’m
Livraga’s cousin so they let me into the court where everything is infused with a sense of discretion and skepticism. The story sounds a bit more absurd here, a little more lush, and I can see the judge doubting it, right up until Livraga’s voice climbs over that grueling hill, to where all that’s left is a sob, and he makes a gesture to take off his clothes so that everyone can see the other gunshot wound.
Then we all feel ashamed, the judge seems to be moved, and I feel myself moved again by the tragedy that has befallen my cousin.
That’s the story I write feverishly and in one sitting so that no one beats me to it, but that later gets more wrinkled every day in my pocket because I walk around all of Buenos Aires with it and hardly anyone wants to know about it, let alone publish it. You begin to believe in the crime novels you’ve read or written, and think that a story like this, with a talking dead man, is going to be fought over by the presses. You think you’re running a race against time, that at any given moment a big newspaper is going to send out a dozen reporters and photographers, just like in the movies. But instead you find that no one wants anything to do with it.
It’s funny, really, to read through all the newspapers twelve years later and see that this story doesn’t exist and never did.
So I wander into increasingly remote outskirts of journalism until finally I walk into a basement on Leandro Alem Avenue where they are putting out a union pamphlet, and I find a man who’s willing to take the risk. He is trembling and sweating because he’s no movie hero either, just a man who is willing to take the risk, and that’s worth more than a movie hero. And the story is printed, a flurry of little yellow leaflets in the kiosks: badly designed, with no signature,
and with all the headings changed, but it’s printed. I look at it affectionately as it’s snatched up by ten thousand anonymous hands.
But I’ve had even more luck than that. There is a young journalist named Enriqueta Muñiz who has been with me from the very beginning and has put herself entirely on the line. It is difficult to do her justice in just a few sentences. I simply want to say that if I have written
“I did,” “I went,” “I discovered” anywhere in this book, it should all be read as “We did,” “We went,” “We discovered.” There were several important things that she got alone, like testimonies from Troxler,
Benavídez, and Gavino, who were all in exile. At the time, I didn’t see the world as an ordered sequence of guarantees and certainties, but rather as the exact opposite. In Enriqueta Muñiz I found the security,
bravery, and intelligence that seemed so hard to come by.
So one afternoon we take the train to José León Suárez and bring a camera with us, along with a little map that Livraga has drawn up for us in pencil, a detailed bus driver’s map. He has marked the roads and rail crossings for us, as well as a grove and an X where it all happened. At dusk, we walk about eight blocks along a paved road, catch sight of the tall, dark row of eucalyptus trees that the executioner Rodríguez Moreno had deemed “an appropriate place for the task” (namely, the task of shooting them), and find ourselves in front of a sea of tin cans and delusions. One of the greatest delusions was the notion that a place like this cannot remain so calm, so quiet and forgotten beneath the setting sun, without someone keeping watch over the history that is imprisoned in the garbage that glistens with a false tide of thoughtfully gleaming dead metals. But
Enriqueta says “It happened here,” and casually sits down on the ground so that I can take a picnic photo of her because, just at that moment, a tall sullen man with a big sullen dog walks by. I don’t know why one notices these things. But this was where it happened,
and Livraga’s story feels more real now: here was the path, over there was the ditch, the garbage dump and the night all around us.
The following day we go see the other survivor, Miguel Ángel
Giunta, who greets us by slamming the door in our faces. He doesn’t believe us when we tell him we’re journalists and asks for credentials that we don’t have. I don’t know what it is that we say to him through the screen door, what vow of silence, what hidden key, that gets him to gradually open the door and start to come out, which takes about half an hour, and to talk, which takes much longer.
It kills you to listen to Giunta because you get the feeling you’re watching a movie that has been rolling and rolling in his head since the night it was filmed and can’t be stopped. All the tiny details are there: the faces, the lights, the field, the small noises, the cold and the heat, the escape from among the tin cans, the smell of gunpowder,
and panic. You get the feeling that once he finishes 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.” But the more upsetting thing is the affront to his person that this man carries within him, how he has been hurt by the mistake they made with him, because after all he’s a decent man who wasn’t even a
Peronist, “and you can ask anybody, they’d tell you who I am.” But actually we’re not sure about this anymore because there appear to be two Giuntas, the one who is talking fervently as he acts out this movie for us, and the other one who is sometimes distracted and manages to smile and crack a joke or two, like old times.
It seems like the story could end here because there is no more to tell. Two survivors, and the rest are dead. I could publish the interview with Giunta and go back to that abandoned chess game in the café from a month ago. But it’s not over. At the last minute
Giunta mentions a belief he has, not something he knows for sure,
but something he has imagined or heard murmured: there is a third man who survived.
Meanwhile, the great picana god and its submachine guns begin to roar from La Plata.3 My story floats on leaflets through corridors at Police Headquarters, and Lieutenant Colonel Fernández Suárez wants to know what the fuss is all about. The article wasn’t signed,
but my initials appeared at the bottom of the original copies. There was a journalist working at the newspaper office who had the same initials, only his were ordered differently: J. W. R. He awakes one morning to an interesting assortment of rifles and other syllogistic tools, and his spirit experiences that surge of emotion before the revelation of a truth. They make him come out in his underwear and put him on a flight to La Plata where he’s brought to Police
Headquarters. They sit him down in an armchair opposite the Lieutenant
Colonel, who says to him, “And now I’d like you to write an article about me, please.” The journalist explains that he is not the man who deserves such an honor while quietly, to himself, he curses my mother.
The wheels keep turning, and we have to trudge through some rough country in search of the third man, Horacio di Chiano, who is now living like a worm underground. It seems as though people know us already in a lot of these places, the kids at least are following us, and one day a young girl stops us in the street.
—The man you’re looking for —she tells us— is in his house.
They're going to tell you he isn't, but he is.
—And you know why we’ve come?
—Yes, I know everything.
They tell us he’s not there, but he is, and we have to start pushing past the protective barriers, the wakeful gods that keep watch over a living dead man: a wall, a face that denies and distrusts. We cross over from the sunlight of the street to the shade of the porch.
We ask for a glass of water and sit there in the dark offering wheedling words until the rustiest lock turns and Mr. Horacio di Chiano climbs the staircase holding onto his wife, who leads him by the hand like a child.
So there are three.
The next day the newspaper receives an anonymous letter that says “Livraga, Giunta, and the ex-NCO Gavino managed to escape.”
So there are four. And Gavino, the letter says, “was able to get himself to the Bolivian Embassy and was granted asylum in that country.”
I don’t find Gavino at the Bolivian Embassy, but I do find his friend Torres, who smiles and, counting it out on his fingers, says,
“You’re missing two.” Then he tells me about Troxler and Benavídez.
So there are six.
And while we’re at it, why not seven? Could be, Torres tells me,
because there was a sergeant with a very common last name, something like García or Rodríguez, and no one knows what’s become of him.
Two or three days later I come back to see Torres and hit him pointblank with a name:
His face lights up.
—How’d you do it?
I don’t even remember how I did it. But there are seven.
So now I can take a moment because I have already talked to survivors, widows, orphans, conspirators, political refugees, fugitives,
alleged informers, anonymous heroes. By May, I have written half of this book. Once more, roaming around in search of someone who will publish it. At about that time, the Jacovella brothers had started putting out a magazine. I talk to Bruno, then Tulio. Tulio
Jacovella reads the manuscript and laughs, not at the manuscript,
but at the mess he is about to get himself into, and he goes for it.
The rest is the story that follows. It was published in Mayoría from
May through July of 1957. Later there were appendices, corollaries,
denials, and retorts that dragged this press campaign out until April
1958. I have cut them all out, together with some of the evidence
I used back then, which I am replacing here with more categorical proof. In light of this new evidence, I think any possible controversy can be set aside.
Acknowledgements: to Jorge Doglia, Esq., former head of the legal department of the Province’s police, dismissed from his position based on the reports he gave for this case; to Máximo von
Kotsch, Esq., the lawyer for Juan C. Livraga and Miguel Giunta; to
Leónidas Barletta, head of the newspaper Intenciones, where Livraga’s initial accusation was published; to Dr. Cerruti Costa, head of the late newspaper Revolución Nacional, which ran the first articles about this case; to Bruno and Tulio Jacovella; to Dr. Marcelo Sánchez
Sorondo, who published the first edition of this story in book form; to Edmundo A. Suárez, dismissed from his position at State
Radio for giving me a photocopy of the Registry Book of Announcers for the broadcast that proved the exact time when martial law was declared; to the ex-terrorist named “Marcelo,” who took risks to get me information, and who was horribly tortured shortly thereafter;
to the anonymous informant who signed his name “Atilas”;
to the anonymous Cassandra who knew everything; to Horacio
Maniglia, who gave me shelter; to the families of the victims.
For a full excerpt of the text please visit the link below:
Meet the Author
The grandson of Irish immigrants, Rudolfo Walsh was born in a small Patagonian town in 1927. He wrote crime fiction and worked as a translator before publishing Operación Masacre in 1957. Walsh then traveled to Cuba in the midst of the revolution and launched a newspaper in collaboration with Gabriel García Márquez, among others. Upon his return to Argentina in 1961 he was shunned by the journalistic community for his connections to the Cuban Revolution. In 1972, Walsh updated Operación Masacre for the fourth and final time before joining the radical leftist group, the Monteneros, the following year. A day after submitting his now famous 1977 “Open Letter from a Writer to the Military Junta,” Walsh was gunned down in the street by agents of the State.
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