Rodolfo Walsh and the Politics of Violence: Part II

[In the first part of this post, I discussed some of the factors that have made it difficult for scholars to address the armed militancy of figures celebrated today as defenders of human rights, taking journalist and Montonero intelligence leader Rodolfo Walsh as a powerful example of the missed opportunities that this reticence implies. This second installment looks at the substance of Walsh’s disagreement with the Montonero leadership, and concludes with a reflection on its implications for understandings of treason and responsibility today.]

Journalist by training, Rodolfo Walsh came to the Montoneros in the early 1970s, just as repression of the armed Peronist group was making it increasingly difficult to organize its once-massive political base. Walsh took on a leadership role within the organization’s intelligence structure, one which extended beyond the writing of news stories to encompass, for instance, the interrogation of the two brothers atop the major Argentine company Bunge & Born, kidnapped by Montoneros in 1974 and released the following year after the payment of what was reportedly the largest ransom in history. Yet it is his post-coup journalism for which Walsh is best known. Three months after the military’s seizure of power in March 1976, Walsh founded ANCLA, the Agencia de Noticias Clandestina, or Clandestine News Agency, circulating remarkably accurate descriptions of the military’s repressive apparatus. (Some representative ANCLA cables, including one from August 1976 naming ESMA, La Perla, and other military facilities as clandestine torture and detention centers, can be found here.)

AN ANCLA communique [From Infojus Noticias]
By the time of ANCLA’s founding, the Montoneros were facing a bleak outlook. Despite the organization’s significant base and explicit support from former president Juan Perón in the military-dominated opening years of the 1970s, Perón’s return to the country and then to the presidency in 1973 marked the beginning of the end of the armed group’s broad popularity. On May Day 1974, the aging president broke publicly with the Montoneros, setting the group on a path that would lead to its legal proscription two months after Perón’s death in July of that year. The national leadership’s decision to reorganize clandestinely changed the lives of countless Montoneros. As repression by the state-supported Argentine Anticommunist Alliance deepened, the group grew increasingly militarized, abandoning the political work that had built its base. “Territorial” militants, who had labored, with varying degrees of openness, not as soldiers but as organizers of factories, schools, and slums, were now dangerously exposed. Following the coup and the full implementation of the regime’s semi-secret apparatus of torture and extermination — of which the Montonero leadership had a remarkably thorough understanding from the start, and which they nonetheless welcomed under the revolutionary banner of “the worse, the better” — the organization adopted a strategy built around attacks on the regime’s “center of gravity,” principally the police. Chains of command were streamlined, extinguishing the regional autonomy that had long characterized an organization formed though mergers with several other groups. By the end of 1976, amid unprecedented repression, the Montoneros had largely abandoned political work in favor of military action and had closed all meaningful channels for internal dissent.

Yet strident critiques of this course nonetheless emerged from within the organization, most famously from the Columna Norte, the unit responsible for the populous northern stretches of Greater Buenos Aires. The Columna’s leaders demanded greater autonomy, particularly with respect to the group’s ransom-swollen budget, which they wished to use to finance the protection of the territorial militants being hunted by security forces. These criticisms were echoed to a lesser degree by leaders of other units, and by individual militants; all were rejected by the national leadership.

The Montoneros at the peak of their popular support in 1973 [From La Voz]
None of these internal critiques had the resonance of the documents which would soon be baptized Los papeles de Walsh (The Walsh Papers), a series of five related assessments that the journalist directed to the national leadership between late November 1976 and early January 1977. Published in 1979 by a dissident faction of the organization, these documents have been reprinted countless times since. As Eduardo Salas argued in a 2006 essay in the magazine Lucha Armada, “El debate entre Rodolfo Walsh y la Conducción Montonera,” these papers are at their most edifying when juxtaposed with the October 1976 report of the Montoneros’ leadership that inspired them.

This “October Document,” the summation of the conclusions reached at that month’s meeting of the group’s national directorate, was released to militants in parts, accounting for Walsh’s piecemeal response. The document’s very organization, methodically evaluating the Montoneros’ confrontation with security forces in terms of “space,” “time,” and “weapons,” clearly reflects the militarization of the group’s outlook. The regime, the document claimed, sought to defeat its armed opponents in a short war because it had no political resources and a deeply unpopular economic agenda. The Montoneros, in turn, would fight a long war, weathering the harsh blows of the military’s first campaign in order to return even stronger, after the regime had exhausted itself, for their definitive counteroffensive. This strategy would bear success in spite of the heavy losses inflicted on the group, the October Document held, because the support of the people granted the Montoneros a nearly limitless capacity for regeneration.

Despite the report’s generally optimistic outlook, the national leadership recognized the power of what it identified as the key method underlying the military’s campaign of annihilation: a cycle of kidnapping, torture, and delación (roughly, forcing militants to inform on their compañeros), generating the raw data on the basis of which the cycle could begin again. Because kidnapped militants were ultimately to be killed in secret rather than tried, even in military courts, security services could torture them for as long as they liked; indeed, “in kidnapping and torture,” the leadership explained, “the objective is to gain time in order to break the militant.”

By 1976, however, the national leadership’s position on torture was clear: it could always be resisted. As historian Laura Lenci has shown, the group’s 1972 disciplinary code proscribed punishment only for militants who talked during the first 24 hours of their captivity (thus depriving compañeros of the opportunity to learn they had been kidnapped) or who shared “unnecessary information.” The rules that replaced it in 1975, in contrast, made no such allowances, sanctioning militants who provided any information whatsoever, no matter the circumstances. This inflexibility reflected the view, as the headline of an article from the June-July 1975 edition of the leadership’s magazine Evita Montonera declared, that “Torture Is a Battle and It Can Be Won.” Replete with stories of heroic compañeros who had refused to yield the slightest bit of data, the article insisted that torture could always be endured, and as such, that every Montonero carried the obligation to resist it completely.

Evita Montonera No. 5, June-July 1975 [From Ruinas Digitales]
Working in this vein, the authors of the October Document thus found the solution to the power of the kidnapping-torture-delación sequence not in a strategic realignment but in the heroic refusal of all militants to concede any true information under torture, while leading the enemy astray through false revelations:

To prevent the enemy from achieving its objective through torture, the offensive counter-tactic consists of generating the conditions that allow [the militant] to escape or to die, and at the same time making the enemy lose time through erroneous information. The defensive counter-tactic consists of not saying anything: torture, even in its most savage form, is bearable. Hundreds of heroic compañeros have shown this to us, in the same way that traitors and informers have shown us that their collaboration with the enemy does not originate fundamentally in torture but in their own ideological weakness.

Secure in the conviction that even boundless torture could be resisted, the national leadership placed the responsibility for the success of the regime’s kidnapping-torture-information sequence not on the torturers themselves, but on those few “ideologically weak” militants unable to resist until escape (a virtual impossibility) or death.

In his five-part critique of the October Document, Walsh rejected this assignment of responsibility, placing the blame for the blows suffered by the group not on tortured militants but on the errors of the national leadership. His views on the topic were not new; torture had long figured prominently in Walsh’s work. One of the more reflective passages of the otherwise-straightforward Operación Masacre ponders “the torturer who becomes an executioner at the slightest provocation,” the “beast lurking among us” who has too long been ignored. The same practice would assume a central role in Walsh’s Open Letter, an indictment of the “kingdom of torture and death” erected by the military regime, which through the practice of enforced disappearance has “freed torture from its temporal limits” and raised it to an “absolute, atemporal, metaphysical” level.

Such an “atemporal” challenge could not be overcome through individual willpower alone. According to a 1994 reflection by Walsh’s former partner Lilia Ferreyra, the journalist considered the belief in the resistibility of “absolute” torture to be a reflection of the “idealism” that often clouded the Montonero’s judgement, one which in the case of torture “left the compañero alone in an extreme situation.” Walsh believed, Ferreyra explained, that the organization needed to develop better internal procedures, so that “the security of the group would not fall exclusively on the moral or physical strength of the individual.”

Yet Walsh’s critique of the organization’s approach to torture centered not on its capacity to be overcome, but rather on its relationship to the tension between politics and militarization. The leadership’s identification of the kidnapping-torture-delación sequence as the military’s key method was, Walsh argued, incorrect. Instead, “the principal characteristic of enemy intelligence” was “structural analysis”:

The determining factor is knowledge of our structure in its political, ideological, and organizational aspects…. [This] departs from the supposition that, knowing the objectives pursued by one’s adversary, the virtues and weaknesses of their cadres, chain of command, zonal base, functional practices and communications, one knows enough to destroy [the adversary] if one has superiority in arms and mobility.

Within this conception, torture, delación, and the creation of double agents should be characterized as procedures or search techniques, and should not be confused with the principal method. The meeting revealed to the enemy, the safe house that falls, are “logical accidents” that naturally derive from the structural analysis and geometric progression of accumulated intelligence.

Torture was not in fact the regime’s principal method, Walsh contended, but rather a tactic to advance the structural analysis that was the true lynchpin of the military’s campaign of annihilation. This distinction, which may at first seem minor or even petty, is in fact central to Walsh’s critique. Unrestrained torture may have been a powerful weapon, but it alone could not account for the military’s evident success. Meetings were intercepted and safe houses fell not because one militant talked but because the security services had achieved a profound knowledge of the organization and its operations, one which could grow “geometrically” with each new data point and which, coupled with superior arms and territorial control, meant inevitable defeat for the insurgent group. On the military front, in other words, the game was up. And the military front was the only front the Montoneros still had.

It was the Montonero leadership’s earlier decision, in the face of the clear and increasing superiority of the repression, to abandon politics and to transform a broad “territorial” movement into a narrow and isolated military one that most incensed Walsh. The bulk of Argentine society, he contended elsewhere in his critique, did not in fact understand itself to be at war with the military, and would not serve as the Montoneros’ strategic reserve. The choice of the national leadership to pursue alliances with the far Left and to ignore rest of political spectrum was a particularly grave mistake. By late 1976 the Left hardly existed in Argentina — the country’s other major guerrilla group, the People’s Revolutionary Army, had been effectively eradicated — and the remainder of the country’s political parties, even the Communist Party, fell somewhere on the spectrum between passive and active collaboration. The Montoneros had thus cleaved themselves from the Peronist masses and from nearly all other political actors. Responsibility for this mistake did not rest on the heads of militants subjected to horrendous torture, but on the leaders who had charted an incorrect course and stuck to it even in the face of ample evidence that it was leading to military defeat.

For Walsh, however, it was not too late for the organization to change course. Tactical retreat and political regrouping were possible, but only if the leadership could recognize that strategic errors, and not the ideological weakness of torture victims, were the source of its failings:

If talking under torture happened because of ideological weakness, the best course would be to pull down the curtain [and give up], because ideology takes half a century to change. [But people talk under torture] because of their lack of confidence in a project, owing to the grave political errors committed. For this reason, the errors can be corrected and we will not be defeated.

It is impossible to know whether, in the final weeks of his life, Walsh truly believed that the leadership’s “grave political errors” could be remedied. What we do know is that they were not. Subsequent documents from the organization’s national leadership maintained the view that militants’ ideological failings explained the success of the repression. Despite the near-total destruction of the Montoneros’ operative capacity in Argentina, moreover, the group stuck to its plan to follow its “strategic retreat” of 1977 with a counteroffensive launched in 1979, sending hundreds of militants who had earlier managed to escape the country back to Argentina, and to their certain deaths. Gratuitous almost to the point of unintelligibility, the counteroffensive prompted waves of defection from among the group’s leaders, expanding the dissident Montonero networks that would circulate and debate “Los papeles de Walsh.”

An early edition of Los papeles de Walsh [From Ruinas Digitales]

Yet for all the prominence that Walsh’s critiques have achieved among former Montonero militants, his refusal to place the responsibility for the success of the repression on the backs of torture victims has not been widely shared. The fact that the overwhelming majority of militants captured by the military were killed in secret has led many in Argentina to equate survival with collaboration. Like the reticence to discuss the connections of regime victims to political violence described in Part I of this post, the conflation of survival and delación was firmly established during the dictatorship itself.

The same year that the alliance of relatives of desaparecidos in exile, COSOFAM, asked the Comisión Argentina de Derechos Humanos (CADHU, or Argentine Human Rights Commission) to withhold details of desaparecidos’ political commitments from reports of regime violence, the Argentina-based group, Familiares de Desaparecidos y Detenidos por Razones Políticas (Relatives of Those Disappeared or Detained for Political Reasons), put out a similar statement. CADHU had continued to circulate testimonies of former desaparecidos released from captivity, most of which posited that the vast majority of desaparecidos had in fact been killed. This contention was understandably upsetting to relatives whose organizing centered on the demand that their loved ones be returned to them alive. “We cannot accept testimonies of liberated people,” Familiares declared, “who have been informants and torturers of their own compañeros, who take advantage of these testimonies to talk about kidnapping victims ‘broken’ by torture but who have not named even one among the many, we are sure, who behaved heroically, preferring their holocaust before relinquishing their ideals.”

The broad suspicion of survivors evident in this statement has only grown more entrenched over subsequent years. This sentiment has left its impact on organizations not only of relatives but also of ex-desaparecidos themselves, leading many — as anthropologist Rebekah Park has documented in her book, The Reappeared — to emphasize their own refusal to collaborate, in contrast to traitors in other groups.

The reticence of many scholars and activists to embrace the complexity of political violence and in so doing, to move beyond the binary of heroic resistance and traitorous collaboration, makes these painful issues that much harder to address. And it means, perversely, that the individuals who suffered the impacts of this violence most directly in the 1970s are those who must endure the worst effects of its silencing today. Walsh’s critiques reveal that since the year of the coup itself, we have had the tools to help us reckon more honestly, and more humanely, with its legacies — if we’ll only pick them up.


Leave a Reply