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.


Rodolfo Walsh and the Politics of Violence: Part I

While out for drinks one night soon after moving to Argentina in 2010, I learned a basic fact that threw me for a loop: Rodolfo Walsh, the Argentine journalist killed in a 1977 shootout the day after he released his famous Open Letter to the Military Junta, had been a Montonero. And not just any Montonero, but second in command of the Peronist insurgent group’s intelligence structure, and thus one of the key figures in the most prominent guerrilla organization of Argentina’s turbulent 1970s. By this point in my life I had probably seen a dozen academic references to Walsh, and not just to his open letter, which I had read several times through. His 1957 book Operación Masacrerecently translated into English, is a gripping account of a mass political killing the year before, and arguably the founding work of modern investigative journalism. (Truman Capote’s In Cold Blood wasn’t published until 1966.) Walsh, in short, was a figure I thought I knew. But the foundational biographical fact of his high-level Montonero militancy — a fact central to understanding the evolution of his thought and the circumstances of his death, one so basic I could have learned it on Wikipedia — had never been mentioned. I was flabbergasted.

Rodolfo Walsh [From]
Seven years and three history degrees later, I now understand that the elision of Walsh’s work with the Montoneros was the product of a heated strategic debate among Argentine human rights organizations that ran the duration of the country’s 1976-1983 dictatorship and continues through to today. The debate owes much to the particularities of the 1976 military coup. In contrast to the widespread condemnation that followed Augusto Pinochet’s 1973 overthrow of democratic socialism in Chile, Argentina’s coup was met not with international censure but with broad relief. The deposed government, led by the violent Peronist Right, had made few friends since President Juan Perón‘s death in 1974. Moreover, by moving away from worker and student organizing and toward increasing militarization at a time of widespread preoccupation with political violence, Argentina’s armed groups had likewise lost much of the public sympathy they had commanded when the country had last been under dictatorship from 1966 to 1973. This unfavorable pre-coup scenario gave the newly installed military regime ample opportunity to claim the mantle of moderation. In the years following the 1976 coup, denunciations of human rights abuses were inevitably — and effectively — met by government claims that such criticisms were simply hypocritical attempts by exiled guerrillas to continue their insurgency by other means. As a result of these maneuvers — and of the steadfast support of a major Argentine trading partner, the Soviet Union (!) — the generals were largely able to avoid the pariah status that had befallen Pinochet.

Human rights groups responded to this adverse situation in distinct ways. Formed through an agreement between Montoneros and the Ejército Revolucionario del Pueblo (ERP, or People’s Revolutionary Army) reached shortly before the 1976 coup, the prominent exile-based Comisión Argentina de Derechos Humanos (CADHU, or Argentine Human Rights Commission) made no effort to hide the political militancy of the regime victims whose testimonies it collected and disseminated. This is hardly surprising, given that the radical lawyers who comprised CADHU had been denouncing state violence in service of revolution since the start of the decade, a topic I discuss in the post, Revolutionary Human Rights.

Yet the stigma of subversion was now far greater than it had been just half a decade before. Indeed, as Argentine historian Paula Canelo has demonstrated, the dictatorship succeeded at turning the defeat of the armed Left into a durable source of political legitimacy, one which would remain largely intact until the regime’s spectacular defeat in the 1982 Malvinas/Falkland War. For many human rights and victim advocacy groups, CADHU’s willingness to acknowledge the guerrilla affiliations of regime victims was playing right into the dictatorship’s hands.

This was the argument advanced by COSOFAM, an alliance of relatives of individuals forcibly disappeared by the regime, in a February 1980 letter to CADHU. “We believe, as relatives, that it is incorrect to specify in testimonies the political militancy of the people cited as disappeared,” COSOFAM explained in the letter. “The reason for this is to avoid giving information that could serve the military dictatorship and harm those who are disappeared and their families.” Left unstated was that CADHU’s reports also complicated the attempts of groups like COSOFAM to portray victims in a politically neutral light, already a challenge given the regime’s efforts to cast all of its opponents as dangerous subversives. While CADHU did not change its position in response to the letter, COSOFAM’s approach — shared by other groups at the time — ultimately won out, and in subsequent years advocates and academics working in the human rights vein have rarely referenced, let alone grappled with, the political activities of those imprisoned or killed by the regime.

While an understandable and indeed savvy move in the context of the dictatorship, this elision of militancy has come with significant costs, as I experienced first-hand on my night out in 2010. The Argentines who told me about Walsh’s role in the Montoneros were not simply expanding my knowledge. They were attempting to discredit Walsh and, moreover, to cast doubt on the criminal trials of former repressors that had resumed following Néstor Kirchner’s election to the presidency in 2003. Their arguments hinged not on the fact of Walsh’s militancy but instead on their sense that it had been deliberately obscured. As my interlocutors revealed with unusual concision, attempts to recast the complex and disparate political logics of the past in the moral terms of the present represent a fragile foundation for the contemporary human rights regime. Yet recognizing the radically distinct political values that guided actors on both the Right and the Left in the 1970s need not be a strike against efforts to criminally convict repressors today; to the contrary, it is my firm belief that the two projects must go hand-in-hand.

Selective histories of political violence carry academic costs as well. They make it impossible to understand past conflicts in the terms in which they were lived, and thus to reconstruct the circumstances in which individuals and organizations were forced to negotiate their relationships to the regime and its opponents. As a result, we miss out on valuable contributions to debates about political violence and the nature of rights that are far from resolved today. This is particularly clear in the case of Rodolfo Walsh, a key participant in arguments no less vital now than in the 1970s.

In the second part of this post, I explain why, honing in on key aspects of a debate between Walsh and the Montonero leadership in the months before his death that speak directly to controversies regarding the uses of political violence and the nature of loyalty and treason that remain live wires in Argentine scholarship and politics today.

DevonThink for Archival Research

In a post about the wonders of ABBYY FineScanner back in May, I promised to write about another pillar of my archival process, the database management program, DevonThink Pro Office. Like ABBYY FineScanner, it’s quite pricey ($149.95 after a 150-hour test-drive), but coming up on 15 months together I couldn’t imagine my life without it.

I should say at the outset that I can claim no particular expertise with regard to this program. I have no doubt that someone with more technical skill could wring much more from it than I can. I should also note that the program is only available for Mac — I know, I know — so if you haven’t been sucked into the Apple vortex, this post won’t be of much use to you. But my fellow Mac-owning archival researchers looking to build a digital database may find something of value in the ensuing description of the DevonThink process I’ve come to rely on over the past year.

When I fire up the program and open my Dissertation database, I’m met with the menu you see below to the left. At the top are a few items: Inbox, the default repository for new files I drag into the program; Tags, which I don’t really use; Mobile Sync, a reception point for items that come in through the DevonThink ToGo mobile app, and Evernote, which receives clippings I make with the Evernote app. (You’ll find a bit more on these last two at the bottom of the post). All of these came with the program or with apps I connected to it, as did the four items at the bottom of the list (i.e., All Images, All PDF Documents, Duplicates, and Orphaned Files). The stuff in between, though, is user-generated.

The home screen.

The header labeled Archives is where I put the documents I scan and the notes I take on them, organized by country and then by archive. Books/Articles is where I take notes on secondary sources; it’s also organized geographically. For Others are documents unrelated to my own project that may be of interest to friends and colleagues. Internet (Clippings/Links) is where I sort stray news articles and websites of interest. Logistics is home to information about the infrastructure of academic life — fellowships, grants, conference funding, seminars, and the like. Notebook is where I take notes and organize documents in ways that cut across multiple archives. Random/Interesting is self-explanatory, and Teaching Aids are where I put things that may be helpful for teaching all of this when I’m back home.

When I’m at the archive itself, the Archives header is, unsurprisingly, where most of the action is. Let’s imagine I’m spending the day at Argentina’s National Library. The “Biblioteca Nacional” folder has three subfolders, which correspond to the three divisions I’ve used so far: Archivo, Historia Oral, and Libros. As I work through an archival collection, I’ll create a subheader for the collection, then one for each of its boxes that I consult, and finally for each archival folder of interest.

Let’s say I’m working with the Silvio Frondizi Subcollection, on which my recent post, Revolutionary Human Rights, was based. More specifically, I’m looking through a folder from Box 7, labeled “Movimiento Nacional contra la Represión y la Tortura 1/2” (see below). When I come across a document I want to take note of, I’ll create a Rich Text File (RTF) in the corresponding folder, titled first with the date as closely as I know or can approximate it, and then either its title or a phrase that more effectively conveys its use. (I mark my own date approximations with question marks.) In the body of the RTF, I’ll include any document or page numbers that I may need for later citation followed by whatever thoughts have come into my mind. In cases where I have general observations about a folder, or a box, or an entire archival collection, I’ll create a separate RTF file in the corresponding place in the database titled “0 Overall” and take notes there. (The initial 0 is a way to make sure the file jumps to the top of the alpha-numeric heap.)

The contents of the folder, “Movimiento Nacional contra la Represión y la Tortura 1/2.” At right, above the line, an alphabetized list of the files it contains. Below it, a space to scroll through them. At left, nesting drop-down menus organized by Country, then Archive, Collection, Box, and Folder.

If a document is worth copying and I am permitted to take photos, I’ll scan it with my cell phone and convert it into an OCR-recognized PDF, which I will then label with the same name as the related RTF I’ve just created in DevonThink. Then, when I get home, I can upload the PDFs from my phone and easily sort them into their corresponding DevonThink folders. As a final step, I’ll right-click on the PDF, choose “Copy Item Link,” and paste a permalink to the PDF into the RTF (see below). That turns the RTF into an all-purpose base of operations, which I can then use as a building block for subsequent indexing.

Copying the item link to the PDF for “1972? Ellos son torturados….” I will then paste this permalink into the identically named RTF.

What kind of indexing? Sometimes an archival collection is already organized in ways that make sense for my research. The Silvio Frondizi Subcollection, for instance, groups documents chronologically and by organization or project, which is exactly how I want them. On the level of the collection itself, then, there’s no need for further reshuffling.

But other collections aren’t arranged in ways that are helpful to my work. This is particularly true of police and military archives, which typically operate through master indexes of names but are physically organized into vast collections based on other considerations, such as reporting unit or jurisdiction. I want to preserve this original system of organization, both because I will need to specify where I found the documents that I ultimately cite, and because each security organ’s proprietary system is a window onto the repressive logics I am trying to understand. But relying exclusively on these original systems would greatly hobble my ability to draw connections across the archive and to conceptualize it in ways that correspond to my arguments.

In these cases, I create archive-specific indexes that meet my own thematic needs. Take the political police files held at the Arquivo Público do Estado de São Paulo (APESP), where I worked for hundreds of hours from March till May, and which I drew on for this earlier post about torture and São Paulo’s armed Left. After finishing at APESP, I created an RTF titled “0 APESP Index.” The index features a couple dozen topics grouped under five major headings: Police/Military, Armed Groups, Anti-Torture/Human Rights Groups/Campaigns, Links to Other Countries, and Torture Topics. Within each of these categories, I added as many subheadings as necessary — phrases like “Resisting Torture” and “Testimonies” in the case of the “Torture Topics” grouping, for instance. I then went through the full list of RTF files that I created at APESP one-by-one, right clicking, copying each of their item links, and pasting these links into the “0 APESP Index” RTF in whatever slots seemed right (see below). Helpfully, even if I move the linked RTFs around, or modify their content or titles, the links will still work.

The APESP index, at right. To the left, the organizational system used by São Paulo’s political police.

(Because I take reasonably thorough notes while in the archive, holding a future index of just this sort in mind, the whole indexing process is quite a bit less arduous than it might sound. In this instance, it took about an hour and a half to catalogue the 150-or-so PDF files that I’d created at APESP. To my mind, it’s a worthwhile investment given the organizational and analytic power it unlocks. To be fair, though, this sort of stuff is fun to me to an extent that sometimes even I find disturbing.)

Archive-specific indexes aren’t the only sort I use DevonThink to build. The second kind are the thematic indexes which fill the Notebook portion of my database. Here, I keep running compilations of links to documents that I come across related to specific organizations, individuals, places, or themes. For instance, the armed Peronist group Montoneros is of particular interest. When I come across a document that pertains to this group, I copy-and-paste its item link into the “Montoneros” RTF in my Notebook (see below). It is my hope that, as I move into the writing stage, these indexes will serve as proto-outlines and also help me with the macro organization of the dissertation and subsidiary articles.

A thematic index, for Argentina’s Montoneros.

This description of my process hasn’t touched on many of the features that set DevonThink apart, so allow me to mention them briefly. With DevonThink, you can:

  • — Import photos and merge them instantly into multi-page PDFs, which can then be OCR-converted
  • — Take notes on documents and PDFs
  • — “Replicate” files so that identical copies sit in various places at once, yet an edit to any is an edit to all
  • — Sync to your phone or tablet using DevonThink ToGo (a product which which I’m less satisfied than with DevonThink Pro Office)
  • — Import directly from EverNote (which has far better web-clipping capabilities than DevonThink ToGo)
  • — Develop customized workflows using Automator
  • — Create “smart groups” based on tags, keywords, or full text
  • — Enjoy powerful search functionality including concordance

This last feature alone is, to me, worth DevonThink’s purchase price. While no OCR is perfectly searchable, on net it works pretty well, especially when supplemented by the keyword-driven notes I take in the linked RTFs. The result is that when I have only the inkling of a document in mind, I can almost always find it quickly.  Full-database searches, moreover, at times yield parallels and connections that I wouldn’t have anticipated. I’d never create a thematic index without doing one first.

In closing, I want to stress that the process I’ve described here is not something I could have created whole-cloth at the outset — even having consulted the numerous academy-specific posts I found online. (Though this one in particular, by historian Rachel Leow, did serve as an extremely helpful jumping-off point.) Rather it’s a method that could only have grown, trial-and-error style, out of my intensive use of the program during a sustained period of primary research, and I’m sure it will continue to change as my work advances. If you end up going the DevonThink route, I’m sure your system will look different than mine; indeed, that’s the idea!

I hope these words and screenshots prove useful to someone. If you’re that person, or if you have any questions or have found anything here to be unclear, please do let me know!

Digital Resources for Study of the Argentine Left

One of the greatest aids to my research in Argentina has been the remarkable set of digital repositories devoted to the history of the Argentine Left. Allow me to share three particularly exciting sites, in the hope that they may be of use to other researchers:

Ruinas DigitalesA project of a group of political science students from the Universidad de Buenos Aires, Ruinas Digitales is the online home of all things left-Peronist, plus a bunch of other stuff, too. In addition to collections of Mundo Peronista and Evita Montonera, you’ll find manuals and communiques from the last dictatorship, human rights reports from the late 1970s, and copies of the 1968-73 magazine, Antropolgía del Tercer Mundo, among many other finds. Any student of 20th-century Argentina will want to check it out.

El Topo BlindadoAn online archive devoted to the armed Left, this site goes beyond the well-known Montoneros and Ejército Revolucionario del Pueblo to cover lesser-known groups including the Ejército Guerrillero del Pueblo and the Guerrilla del Ejército Libertador. Particularly interesting are the collections of documents from right-wing insurgent groups (it’s hard not to appreciate the directness of the Liga por los Derechos del Hombre No Judío) and from organizations working in exile. With dozens of groups represented, it’s a spectacular source for political history across the spectrum.

Fundación PlumaMore specialized than the previous two sites, Fundación Pluma collects and diffuses the documentary history of the Trotskyist groups centered on the figure of Nahuel Moreno. What Pluma may lose in breadth it more than makes up for in depth, with nearly 10,000 documents from the mid-20th century through the present. (A quick glance at the 2000+ subjects covered gives a sense of the collection’s remarkable extent.) Viewing and downloading documents requires registration, but this is free and easy to do.

If you’ve come across other digital repositories that have proven useful, drop a comment and let us know!

Revolutionary Human Rights

The modern Argentine human rights movement was born, it has been firmly established, in 1975. In December of that year, just three months before the coup that would inaugurate the most violent dictatorship in Argentine history, a small group of religious and secular activists gathered in a Buenos Aires church to found the Asamblea Permanente por los Derechos Humanos (APDH, or Permanent Assembly for Human Rights). The APDH was joined in early 1977 by the Madres de Plaza de Mayo, a courageous group of babushka-clad mothers who faced down the threat of violent repression as they demanded the return of their kidnapped children during weekly marches through Buenos Aires’ most iconic civic space. In so doing, scholars from Elizabeth Jelin to Kathryn Sikkink have argued, these organizations and their allies planted the seed that would give life to one of the most important social movements of the past half-century.

The Madres march, October 1982. [Photo by Eduardo Longoni]
Nothing about the preceding paragraph is wrong — except the sentence that opens it. While it is true that the Argentine human rights groups that were to achieve the greatest international prominence all took shape in the years surrounding the country’s 1976 coup, they did not sprout from barren soil. Indeed, in 1975 Argentina was just two years out of its penultimate period of military rule, a series of three consecutive governments that together constituted the self-proclaimed “Argentine Revolution” (1966-1973). Particularly in its later years, this dictatorship unleashed a wave of surveillance, torture, and disappearance that prefigured the extraordinary violence soon to be loosed on an even wider scale. This repression generated both armed resistance and a vigorous nonviolent response from laborers, lawyers, journalists, students. Drawing on deep-seated traditions of resistance, these individuals built a dynamic and multifaceted movement to denounce state violence and to aid its victims.

Guided by a chapter of Ariel Eidelman’s excellent 2010 doctoral dissertation on repression during the “Argentine Revolution,” I have spent much of the past month in Buenos Aires tracking down whatever I can about the hardly-studied groups that opposed it. Organizations including the Foro de Buenos Aires por la Vigencia de los Derechos Humanos (Buenos Aires Forum for the Enforcement of Human Rights, founded 1971); the Trotskyist Comisión de Familiares de Presos Políticos, Estudiantiles y Gremiales (Commission of Relatives of Political, Union, and Student Prisoners, founded 1971); and the long-standing, Communist Party-linked Liga Argentina por los Derechos del Hombre (Argentine League for the Rights of Man, founded 1937) all produced detailed reports available in various archives across the city.

These reports share many of the elements that would later be cited as hallmarks of a supposedly depoliticized human rights discourse: an emphasis on testimony, a tendency to foreground victims’ suffering rather than their political commitments, and an insistence on the systematic illegality of dictatorial repression, to name just a few. Yet the documents I have been reading are indisputably not apolitical: they present state repression as the servant of imperialism, and they find its solution in the end of exploitation and the transformation of society, at home and across the world. They offer a vision, in other words, not of minimalist but of revolutionary human rights.

A close look at any of the organizations named above could readily substantiate this point, but none could do so as compellingly as the Movimiento Nacional contra la Represión y la Tortura, the National Movement Against Repression and Torture. Founded in June 1971 and active at least through 1973, the Movimiento’s trajectory can be traced through the personal papers of one of its leaders, the leftist lawyer and presidential brotherSilvio Frondizi. From the early 1940s until his murder at the hands of a state-linked death squad in September 1974, Frondizi founded and led an array of significant leftist groups and publications, earning fame as one of the most prominent thinker-practitioners of the Argentine left. His papers, housed at the National Library and recently opened to public consultation, represent a picture window onto midcentury left-wing politics in general, and resistance to the “Argentine Revolution” in particular.

Frondizi and fellow left-wing lawyers on the cover of the magazine he directed, Nuevo Hombre (New Man). [From Changüí Revista]
Never kind to its opponents, the 1966-1973 dictatorship turned toward increasingly violent repression following the May 1969 outbreak of worker- and student-led uprisings across major Argentine cities. This state violence demonstrated the characteristics that would come to dominate the decade: an increasing role for the military in internal security; the kidnapping, rather than the arrest, of key opponents; frequent extrajudicial executions; enforced disappearance; and electric torture, sometimes in clandestine facilities, carried out by specialists and often supervised by doctors.

The Movimiento Nacional contra la Represión y la Tortura set about documenting and denouncing the ever-broadening use of these repressive tactics. It drew up lists of political prisoners, organized by province and detention facility, both to warn the government that these detainees had not escaped public notice, and also to paint a national picture of the scope and scale of repression. Testimonies of torture victims, quoted in press releases and disseminated at press conferences, presented first-person accounts sure to arouse horror and sympathy, and to allow the Movimiento to chart patterns of repression. A pair of press conferences held in Buenos Aires on April 12, 1972 is representative. The sessions addressed the experiences of five victims, four of whom had been tortured with the picana, or adapted electric cattle prod. One of the victims had also been drugged. Another, four months pregnant at the time of her detention, had lost her child. These cases, the Movimiento insisted, showed that torture had not only become systematic, but that, supervised by doctors and involving the use of drugs, it was also becoming medicalized. At a time when the national government had declared its commitment to “institutionalizing” the country in advance of promised March 1973 presidential elections, the Movimiento argued that this increasingly structured repression led away from the “true path to institutionalize the country,” a goal that could only be accomplished by “respecting the principles of our constitution and ensuring genuine democracy.”

A picana eléctrica. [From Paraguay’s Museo Electrónico MEVES]
Intensifying state torture was not the only deviation from the path of “institutionalization” that concerned the Movimiento. Most of the political prisoners on whose behalf the Movimiento advocated were arrested by uniformed security agents and, perhaps after a lag of hours or days, acknowledged by the state. These “legal” detainees could still be tortured without consequence, as they were ultimately to be tried not in civilian courts but in a newly created, military-dominated forum called the Cámara Federal en lo Penal (Federal Penal Chamber). Some high-value targets, however, were never to be tried at all. Instead, they were kidnapped by plainclothed agents and never seen again — a tactic that would come to be identified as “enforced disappearance” following the 1976 coup. Beginning with the December 1970 kidnapping of Néstor Martins, prominent lawyers began to join guerrilla fighters on the list of such victims, inspiring a new round of self-organization by the country’s left-wing law professionals.

The Movimiento joined other human rights groups in denouncing this terrifying practice. The most striking example of these efforts was a full-page advertisement placed in the magazine, América Latina, in July 1971. Titled, “Avoid a Kidnapping,” the ad advised anyone confronted by a group of armed, non-uniformed agents to resist detention by “every means possible,” and to try to draw attention to the event by screaming their own name. It also asked witnesses to immediately denounce kidnappings, and included the telephone numbers of newspapers and radio and TV stations to this end. The Movimiento understood that enforced disappearance relied on anonymity, and that the most effective means to help its victims was to publicly denounce their kidnapping from the first moment — a practice that would come to stand at the center of human rights advocacy following the 1976 coup.

The Movimiento was active far beyond Buenos Aires, denouncing state violence and participating in actions in cities including Rosario, Santa Fe, and Tucumán. Like the groups that would arise later in the decade, the organization also built channels of collaboration across civil society, including with the major proponent of liberation theology in Argentina, the Movimiento de Sacerdotes para el Tercer Mundo (Movement of Priests for the Third World). These “third-world priests” advocated revolutionary change as they challenged the government’s claim to defend “Western, Christian civilization” — a trope that predated 1976.

The Movimiento’s alliance-building saw its seminal expression in the Mesa Coordinadora contra la Represión y Tortura (Coordinating Board Against Repression and Torture), a collection of ten groups including the above-mentioned Foro de Buenos Aires, several political-prisoner advocacy organizations, and professional associations for psychiatrists, social workers, and journalists. Citing testimonies and forensic reports documenting torture, a May 1972 Mesa report linked deepening repression to an indictment of exploitation more generally. The regime’s campaign of “institutionalization,” the groups contended, was not about political liberalization but in fact the “institutionalization of repression against all those who seek to actively confront the policies of the dominant sectors of society.”

The Movimiento went even further in an undated document from late 1972 or early 1973. Titled, “Ellos son torturados y están presos por nosotros – Qué hacemos nosotros por ellos?” (“They are tortured and imprisoned for us – What do we do for them?”), the three-page text documents the “specialization” of the military to fight “subversion” by way of dedicated “tactial antiguerrilla commandos” operating in semi-clandestinity. Although this analysis anticipates the sort of human-rights reporting soon to reach global prominence, the very title of the document suggests an understanding of torture worlds apart from what is typically taken to represent “human rights discourse” — a promise on which the contents of the report deliver.

Repression, the Movimiento argues in “Ellos son torturados,” is not a security problem to be reformed away, but rather the inevitable expression of a capitalist system in freefall, in Argentina and around the world. “History demonstrates,” the report explains, “that no system gives up without a fight, and that facing its crisis and its foreseeable, definitive defeat, it will become ferocious and inhuman.” With the US losing in Vietnam and socialism ascendent in Chile, dominant elites staring down the “already visible collapse of the capitalist system” would “cast aside all ethical principles and transform them into various forms of Nazism-fascism.” The process already seen in “Germany, Italy, and Spain” earlier in the century was “now in progress in Brazil, Uruguay, Argentina, etc.,” where it was further amplified by “underdevelopment” and “imperialism.”

In this context of capitalist crisis, the Argentine government had called elections for March 1973. These elections were to take place under conditions of military rule and to exclude the most popular political figure in the country, once and future president Juan Domingo Perón. Paradoxically, they also enabled the regime to characterize a broad swath of the population as dangerous and therefore a legitimate target of state violence. “From this moment anyone who questions the electoral plan is called a subversive and for this can be tortured with the picana, quartered, and killed without the least inconvenience,” the report states. These subversives included not only armed guerrilla fighters, but also union activists, lawyers, teachers, and journalists. “From all of this,” the author says in closing, “we can reach only one conclusion: the people as a whole have been accused of subversion. And if being a subversive means opposing the current system, there is only one thing to say: LONG LIVE SUBVERSION. LONG LIVE THE WORKERS IN THE STREET. LONG LIVE PRISONERS AND TORTURE VICTIMS. DEATH TO TORTURERS AND THE POLICIES THAT SUSTAIN THEM.”

The Movimiento’s full-throated indictment is a powerful demonstration of a point that has largely fallen out of recent discussions of the transnational human rights movement: there is no reason that a defense of the victim qua victim need be an act of depoliticization. Some of the people subjected to torture and disappearance may have been guerrilleros, the Movimiento contended, but what united them all was their designation as “subversives,” a label that applied as readily to teachers and social workers as to armed revolutionaries. The abuses they suffered, the Movimiento claimed at a February 1972 press conference, constitute “an outrage against the most elemental human rights and a violation of all standing legislation.” The victims themselves were usually presented along these universalizing lines. Those cited in testimonies were almost never identified with a particular political current, and only occasionally were they linked to armed attacks against the dictatorship. But in the Movimiento’s rendition, these torturados were nonetheless fundamentally political agents, opponents of the regime — some of them justifiably violent — to whom society as a whole had incurred a massive debt. They have been tortured for us, the Movimiento implored. What do we do for them?

I do not mean, in calling attention to the work of the Movimiento and other members of the Mesa Coordinadora contra la Represión y Tortura, to suggest that there are not important contrasts between the strategies of these early-1970s groups and those that arose around the dictatorship of 1976. Such a claim would surely have seemed absurd to advocates from both periods. After all, to take just two examples, early-70s revolutionaries knew Emilio Mignone not as the future founder of the pioneering human rights group, Centro de Estudios Legales y Sociales (Center for Legal and Social Studies), but as a “technocrat of the Argentine Revolution,” given his service as Vice-Minister of Education from 1966 to 1970. Likewise, Jacobo Timerman, perhaps the most widely known victim of the 1976 dictatorship and later one of its loudest critics, appeared in a 1972 report about the persecution of reporters by the Buenos Aires Journalists’ Association not as a defender of human rights but rather as an object of censure when, as editor of the daily La Opinión, he provided the police with the home address of journalist Zito Lema. Timerman, Mignone, and Frondizi came from very different political traditions, and they spoke in distinct registers — a fact surely not lost on allies and opponents alike.

Timerman (second from right) receiving the Moors Cabot Prize from Columbia, 1981. [From tea&deportea]
If my goal is not to equate the opposition figures of the early and late 1970s, then why present the former as a challenge to the truism that the Argentine human rights movement was born in 1975? I can see at least three benefits to framing the Movimiento and its allies as an important if partial precedent for subsequent human rights activism.

First, this approach allows us to cultivate a broader conception of what “human rights” have meant, and thus to avoid oversimplified explanations of complex sociopolitical phenomena. Of course, diverse groups and individuals have long emphasized different sorts of rights; socialists may choose to focus on “second generation” economic and social rights, while liberals may look to “first generation” civil and political ones. This is hardly news. Yet the distance between the discourse of the Movimiento and the most prominent human rights groups of today demonstrates that the very same rights — in this case, the right to basic physical integrity, to not being tortured — can be understood in radically distinct manners. If torture is the product of a crisis of capitalist imperialism, then there is no incompatibility between human rights advocacy and calls for revolution, and the rise of the former cannot easily be called to account for the decline of the latter. (I find the vicious repression of revolutionaries a decent place to start the search for a better explanation.) Likewise, if denouncing torture can serve the ends of revolutionary socialism as well as incremental reformism, then the decline of the first at the expense of the second does not seem to be a compelling explanation for the explosion in talk of torture in the 1970s. (The torture of an enormous number of people with social capital strikes me as a more plausible point of departure.) This more expansive approach also casts the conflation by the region’s dictatorships of armed opposition and human rights in a fresh light — one which I look forward to exploring in a future post.

Second, turning to the early 1970s allows us to call up a broader cast of characters than has populated most recent histories of human rights — and to recognize that rather than crossing it sequentially, they shared the stage. At the same time that groups like Amnesty International and the International Commission of Jurists were forging the foundations of liberal cross-border advocacy, the Russell Tribunal and later the International League for the Rights and Liberation of Peoples were building a parallel infrastructure for the left. This was also true in Argentina, where for the first year after the 1976 coup, the only source of reliable information on state repression was the Comisión Argentina de Derechos Humanos (CADHU, or the Argentine Human Rights Commission), which brought together many of the lawyers who had formed the backbone of the 1966-1973 opposition. Decidedly leftist in orientation, CADHU worked in exile to denounce regime violence and played a leading role in the creation of two important UN instruments, the Working Group on Enforced or Involuntary Disappearances (formed in 1980) and the 1984 Convention Against Torture. Keeping sight of this diverse spectrum can also help us see what many have characterized as the Madres’ anti-imperialist “radicalization” of the 1990s less as a break with the mainstream human rights movement than as an embrace of one of the strains that has long comprised it.

Finally, bringing 1966-1973 back into the picture affords the opportunity to think transnationally about repression in the Southern Cone. This is true not only because opposition to the “Revolución Argentina” was itself transnational, though indeed it was — the Foro de Buenos Aires, for instance, emerged from a meeting of Latin American scope held at the Universidad de la República in Montevideo, Uruguay in 1971, and Frondizi opposed a 1972 Argentine crackdown on refugees from Bolivia’s 1971 coup as a self-destructive “competition with Brazil” to play a sub-imperial role in the region. The longer timeframe also enables us to see parallels between militant responses to Brazilian and Argentine repression in the early 1970s and to thereby locate the two countries, not at sequential points along a timeline of repression and response, but rather in a single, understudied regional system.

Each of these points demands much more elaboration. Long as this post has been, any one could be at the center of its own dissertation. I share these thoughts here in raw form, to help myself work through an illuminating set of documents from an under-discussed chapter in the all-too-relevant history of state repression and the brave people who oppose it.

When Torture Wasn’t A Crime

All of us can agree — I hope — that torture is morally abhorrent. But that does not mean that it has always been understood to be a crime.

Today, it is hard to see beyond the idea that torture is a criminal act and that those responsible for it deserve to be punished. This vision has become so ingrained in international law and political discourse that it can seem both obvious and inevitable.

Yet a half century ago, the criminality of torture was far from self evident. Indeed, many on both the left and the right understood torture not as a criminal violation but as a tactic of war, one to be counteracted through violent confrontation. This framing of torture surfaces again and again in my research, but rarely with the clarity of the 1980 interview with guerrilha fighter Reinaldo Guarani that I encountered yesterday in the archives of Rio de Janeiro’s political police.

Like many of his peers in the leadership of Brazil’s student movement, Reinaldo Guarani grew convinced in the late 1960s that the dictatorship that had seized political power in 1964 could be defeated only through force. So Guarani joined the insurgent group Ação Libertadora Nacional and took up arms against the regime. In 1970, he was captured and interrogated by agents of the country’s joint military-police force, DOI-CODI, who repeatedly tortured him. Guarani was eventually released and expelled from the country. The amnesty law passed in 1979 allowed him to return, and occasioned a striking in-depth interview published in Rio’s Tribuna da Imprensa in June 1980.

The former headquarters of DOI-CODI in Rio [From the Ministério Público Federal]

Asked about his experience with torture, Guarani responded:

The torture phase [of my detention] was nothing new, nothing original. From a sociological point of view, it’s understood: they [DOI-CODI] believed we were at war, and we did too. So, when they captured someone from a clandestine organization, they knew they had little time to extract something new about the group. That’s why they hit us so hard in the face, to uncover a meeting point or a safe house. Then came the torture, pau-de-arara [suspension in a stress position], blows, electric shocks, suffocation, palmatória [beatings to the hand with a metal instrument].

These tortures served a function clear to Guarani: to extract from suspected “subversives” as much information as possible. Knowledge of this purpose, he explains, offered seasoned guerrilheiros limited but still meaningful room for counteraction:

[…T]he guy with a little more experience, instead of revealing a meeting point that was still in use, he’d reveal a cold one. That’d give him a three, four hour break. And because the repressors had to go one way or the other to all the places you mentioned, he could even give another cold one that the police would have to investigate. Back then the activity in the jails was immense, incessant; the torturers had to beat everyone as quickly as they could, so they couldn’t get lost in the details.

In just a few sentences, Guarani brings the reader into a terrifying and violent world, one built not on sadism but on the drive to extract the maximal quantity of information from the largest number of people in the least possible time. The frenetic pace of this world is corroborated by many repressors themselves, who in period documents and subsequent interviews repeatedly emphasized the urgency of the first hours of interrogation and the need for “efficiency” above all else. While Guarani does not play down the horror or the power of the torturers’ violence — even the “experienced” militant has to tell her captors something — his emphasis is on the ability of more skillful guerrilheiros to manipulate their interrogators even under conditions of extreme adversity. Sending agents to disused meeting points didn’t just earn a few hours of rest for the victim, it also bought her comrades critical hours to discover that she had been captured and move to safer ground. Indeed, the security practices of insurgent groups were centered on detained militants’ ability to hold out for a specified period of time — often two days — before revealing any “hot” information that could compromise the group.

Nowhere does Guarani indicate that he was not disgusted by DOI-CODI’s deployment of torture — only that he was not surprised. “They believed we were at war,” he explains, “and we did too.” Torture may have been immoral; it may have been a violation of the law of war. But these questions mattered less to Guarani than torture’s use to those employing it — its specific value, in other words, as a tactic of war. Understanding the counterinsurgent information-gathering ends to which torture was employed could give Guarani and his comrades a bit of space to maneuver, granting them a degree of power they could then turn against the regime.

Guarani’s words make the case at the heart of my dissertation more compellingly than I possibly could. The history of torture cannot simply be the history of our abhorrence of it — or we will miss what repressive violence meant to those who lived it, and to the political struggles within which it was deployed.

ABBYY FineScanner for Free!

A brief follow-up to last week’s post on my love affair with ABBYY FineScanner: I’ve just received 10 promo codes good for unlimited access to ABBYY FineScanner Pro, the app on which I’ve come to rely for document capture and recognition. Five are for iOS and five for Android. They’re each worth about $60 and must be redeemed in the next 28 days. I’d hate for them to go to waste, so if you’d like one, leave a comment below or on Facebook or drop a note via this contact form. Please include your email address and specify iOS or Android. I’ll pass along a code to the first five users of each platform who get in touch.

ABBYY FineScanner for Archival Research

Since starting grad school, I’ve tried out — and cast aside — quite a few tools for reproducing and organizing archival documents. Digital cameras, portable scanners, FileMaker, EverNote, RefWorks — these are just some of the detritus lining the long and winding research road I’ve traveled these past four (!!) years. Now, at the halfway point of my time in Brazil, I can finally say that I have found my logistical footing. Three pieces of software have emerged as the pillars of my archival process: ABBYY FineScanner for document capture, DevonThink Pro Office for organization and note-taking, and Zotero for secondary bibliography.

While Zotero is both widely used and straightforward, the other two programs may be less familiar. With the Northern-summer research season fast upon us, I’d like to share my experience with these pieces of software, in the hopes of saving researchers at earlier stages of their projects from the hassles of constant platform-shifting that have plagued mine. In this post, I’ll talk a bit about document capture; in a later installment, I’ll describe my approach to organization and note-taking.

For my first three years of grad school, archival document capture meant taking digital photos of individual pages. I’d also photograph the boxes and folders that contained these documents, in the order that I reviewed them, all the while taking notes in an archive-specific word document. The result would be two interlinked narratives of my research, one textual and the other photographic, which I could then draw upon to assemble the individual photos into whole-document pdfs.

This approach carried a single distinct advantage: it enabled me to copy large quantities of documents quickly. But the downsides were massive. For one, no matter how hard I tried, I’d consistently wind up with about one unreadably blurry picture in 50. Even in the best photo-quality case, the process of turning images of individual pages into pdfs was painstaking and extraordinarily time-consuming. Indeed, I still have a large backlog of archival photos awaiting such processing, months or even years after they were taken. Finally, the resulting pdfs were quite large, even when I reduced the component photos — and sending them through a time-consuming OCR converter made them bigger still. Even as I’d find ways to tweak this process, my fundamental dissatisfaction remained.

All the while, I knew from historian friends that there was another way: I could turn my phone into a handheld scanner using one of the many apps on the market. Even with this knowledge, however, for years I found reasons to resist making the switch. I valued the flexibility and speed of digital photos, I though. Wouldn’t scanning on the spot slow me down? Plus, I’d invested a bunch of money in a nice digital camera; was I really going to abandon it in favor of my phone’s lower-quality one?

In January, though, my first smartphone went caput. When its replacement impressed me with its higher photo quality, I realized that it was finally time to give scanning apps a chance. I dug up this PC Mag breakdown of the major options, and ABBYY FineScanner immediately caught my eye. The full-featured version is pricey — on the order of $20 for a year or $60 for a lifetime of OCR-equipped scanning — but I’d used ABBYY products extensively in Columbia’s Digital Humanities Center and had always been satisfied. So I decided to take the plunge.

By the end of my first day using the app in the archive, I knew that my research life would never be the same. There could be no doubt, of course, that FineScanner makes for a much slower capture process than simple photo-taking. The basic trick is this: you take a photo of a page, and no matter the angle of the photo, the app will identify and crop the document into a flat, undistorted image. This is what an original photo looks like at the cropping stage:

While this “autocrop” functionality works pretty well, I still need to double-check every page, and in the end I have to manually crop quite a lot of them (depending on the document, the proportion ranges from 10 to 100% of the pages I scan). Then, in order to turn the photos into searchable pdfs, I upload them to the ABBYY server — something doable either between document scans at the archive or once I get home, depending on the size of the documents and the pace of the day.

These slight hassles, though, are vastly outweighed by the utility of the final product. FineScanner is able to recognize nearly all of the documents I send it, meaning that the individual photos I take come back to me as completely searchable, centered and undistorted pdfs, which I can then upload directly to the cloud or send via email or text. Here’s the page from above, post-processing:

The app can recognize nearly 200 languages, and while I can’t vouch for most of them, my experiences with English, Portuguese, Spanish, and French have been excellent. And miraculously, the recognized pdfs that emerge are tiny — generally about 10% of the size of the smallest unrecognized pdfs I used to make. (Fifty-page pdfs, for instance, usually weigh in around 2.5 MB.)

The advantage of the OCR phone-scanning approach is clearest in comparison. Whereas before, I would end a day at the archive with several hundred individual photographs and the dreadful knowledge that hours of processing awaited at some sure-to-be-later time, now my days end with tiny, fully-searchable pdfs ready to be organized and consulted on demand.

If you’ve made it to the end of this post, there’s a good chance that you belong to the tiny minority of people whose lives can be changed by a well-crafted OCR-optimized portable-scanning smartphone app. And if indeed you do, I’d recommend giving ABBYY FineScanner a spin.

The Armed Left Confronts Torture: São Paulo, 1970

Planning has its limits, in historical research as in life. This has never been clearer to me than at the archive where I’ve been spending most of my time these past three months, the Arquivo Público do Estado de São Paulo (APESP), where receiving the wrong box late one Friday afternoon opened a path to understanding a critical but seemingly inaccessible dimension of the past.

APESP, I’ve mentioned before, houses the voluminous files of the state’s political police, the Departamento Estadual de Ordem Política e Social, or DEOPS. Extant from 1924 to 1983, this police force produced hundreds of thousands of pages on groups and individuals linked — according to DEOPS, at least — to communism or other forms of subversion. Miraculously, the documents are open to researchers with virtually no restrictions — beyond, that is, the difficulty of navigating them. Unlike the fully text-searchable Paraguayan police archives to which I dedicated last October, the DEOPS files can be accessed only through the name-based index built by their creators, making it easy to reconstruct, but hard to escape, the repressive logic of DEOPS itself.

Understanding these constraints, I’d arrived with a list of names to follow through the archive. I kept to this plan for the first week, and it yielded some insights. Thanks to the kind suggestions of those who know the files well, I was able to hone in on documents sent to DEOPS from the São Paulo unit of the joint military-police intelligence operations system know as DOI-CODI, responsible for a disproportionate share of the dictatorship’s worst violence. These DOI-CODI files illuminate the counter-revolutionary constructs and operational patterns that guided the repression, but they do little to clarify the meanings of torture for those who lived it most acutely.

At the end of my first week at APESP, however, my archival fortunes took a sharp turn for the better. That Friday, about two hours before closing time, I received a folder one code away from the document I’d requested. As it was already sitting in front of me, I figured it couldn’t hurt to give the folder a quick glance before I took it back.

The contents of the folder didn’t look anything like the documents I had been requesting. Instead of standardized third-person accounts of endless interrogation sessions, it was brimming with hard-to-read copies of notebooks, letters, and pamphlets — papers that DOI-CODI had seized, I soon learned, from the Vanguarda Popular Revolucionária, or VPR. One of the armed revolutionary groups to emerge from the post-coup shakeup of the Brazilian Communist Party, the VRP set out in 1969 to build an insurgent training camp in the south of São Paulo state, led by former Army captain and famed insurgent Carlos Lamarca. The facility, located in the fertile Vale do Ribeira, was operational for ten months. But in May 1970, following leads provided under torture by captured VPR militants, security forces learned of the camp’s location and quickly encircled it with a force of thousands. A small band of militants, including Lamarca, managed to escape, enabling the group to carry on until, battered by ongoing repression, the VPR dissolved itself in 1971.

Lamarca training a VPR militant in the Vale do Ribeira. [From the Comissão da Verdade do Estado de São Paulo.]
One of the escapees was Yoshitane Fujimori, who returned to São Paulo to continue organizing. In December 1970, he and fellow guerrilheiro Edson Quaresma were spotted by DOI-CODI operatives and gunned down as they tried to escape in Fujimori’s car. The documents I was looking at, it turned out, had been in the vehicle at the time of the killing. Among them were letters, records of internal debates, self-critical evaluations, and notes from strategy sessions; taken together, they offered an unvarnished look at a persecuted insurgent group’s attempts to counteract and overcome the devastating effects of widespread interrogatory torture.

Given this context, it is hardly surprising that the documents seized from Fujimori’s car paint torture, above all, as a threat — it was, a letter from April 1970 states, the regime’s “most efficient weapon to combat us.” The Vale do Ribeira camp fell, the group understood, because of comrades who had talked under extreme physical duress. These militants had been unable to resist weeks of torture, the VPR concluded, because they had not managed to commit themselves sufficiently to the cause, to fully extinguish the internalized liberalism that led them to treason. Only “daily combat” against the individualistic enemy lurking within could constrain the torturers’ power.

Yet while torture was the dictatorship’s most effective weapon, it was also one that the VPR hoped to turn against the very regime employing it. The group’s most powerful tools for consciousness-building and recruitment, one leader wrote in November 1970, were agitation and propaganda, and nothing made for agitprop like direct accounts of torture. “For example,” the leader wrote, “an agitator could demonstrate at the entrance to a factory, speaking to hundreds of workers, denouncing the brutal repression in the [regime’s] treatment of political prisoners. This should be detailed, citing the most brutal concrete cases, such as the death under torture of a comrade they know.”

The reach of this anti-torture agitprop, the VPR believed, should not be limited to Brazil itself. Some “honest liberals” abroad had begun to investigate systematic torture by the regime, a practice that had deepened in the wake of the December 1968 “coup within a coup” that pushed the dictatorship far to the right. These liberal denunciations were a good sign, another writer posited in October 1970; the regime needed to be attacked on all fronts, and international denunciation of state repression was a promising one. Indeed, as early as June 1970, the VPR had written a report titled “Sequestro e Tortura” (Kidnapping and Torture), to lend further force to the growing wave of condemnation from abroad.

Two hours with these papers on a Friday afternoon were sufficient to convince me that if I wanted to understand what torture meant to the groups grappling with it most immediately, I would have to read more documents like the ones I had just seen. Fortunately, leads have a way of generating more leads, and painstaking work over subsequent months led me to dozens more documents addressing torture, from the VPR as well as several other insurgent groups. These documents include descriptions of organized campaigns to denounce torture at home and abroad, to prepare individual militants to resist it in detention, and to come to grips with its effects once released. They offer, in sum, a window onto understandings of torture that overlapped in certain ways, but differed in many other crucial ones, from those of the “honest liberals” who would soon come to dominate discussions of state violence in Latin America and beyond. All but absent from the academic literature until now, this is a perspective that only period documents can reconstruct — an operation now possible thanks to one of the most fortuitous mistakes to which I’ve ever been party.

The World According to DEOPS

I’ve spent the bulk of the past month in the archives of São Paulo’s political police, the Departamento Estadual de Ordem Política e Social (DEOPS, or the State Department of Political and Social Order), in operation from 1924 to 1983. The DEOPS files, transferred to the Arquivo Público do Estado de São Paulo in 1991, look quite like they did when DEOPS ceased to exist. The interrogation reports, confessions, memoranda, and other records are grouped by person/organization of interest and cross-indexed meticulously, though in ways that better suit the repression of “subversion” than, say, the documentation of torture by actors linked to the state.

The DEOPS record room [Photo from APESP]
In a future post, I’ll talk more about a particularly exciting subset of the documents I’ve come across — specifically, those produced internally by left-wing insurgent groups and apprehended in military-police raids. For now, however, I’ll just mention one special find from today: a 37-page classified “Dictionary of Terms, Expressions, Names, and Abbreviations Used by Terrorist Subversives,” prepared by DEOPS’ Specialized Delegation of Social Order in December 1973. (By this point in time, nine years into Brazil’s dictatorships and four years past its sharp repressive turn, most revolutionary groups had been thoroughly crushed.) Many of these dictionary entries stand out, often in ways that don’t require much elaboration. I’ll leave a few of them below, so that we can all jump briefly through the looking glass and into the world according to DEOPS.

“DICTATORSHIP – Communist slogan, used to attack a government that does not tolerate subversion” (p. 10)

“HUMAN RIGHTS – Slogan adopted in a campaign undertaken by elements of the subversive left, exclusively in favor of imprisoned comrades, with the aim of attracting, through compassion, the sympathy of the public” (p. 10)

“POLITICAL OPENING – Slogan of the left, with the aim of facilitating the subversive movement” (p. 2)

“TORTURERS – Expression utilized by subversives and by communists in general, to designate those who directly and indirectly effect or contribute to the imprisonment of terrorist subversives” (p. 33)