Book review: Operation Massacre by Rodolfo Walsh

In any journalist’s pantheon, there has to be room for Rodolfo Walsh. I hadn’t heard of him either, but Wikipedia’s categories cover the bare bones of his life: “1926 births, 1977 deaths, Argentine people of Irish descent, people killed in the Dirty War, murdered writers ...”

Operation Massacre by Rodolfo Walsh

Old Street, 230pp, £9.99

Even if he hadn’t have been killed the day after he wrote a famous open letter in which he excoriated Argentina’s military junta, Walsh (inset, below) would have made it into the pantheon on the strength of this book alone. I’ve read nothing like it.

This story of a secret execution of civilians in 1956 Buenos Aires is hailed as a true crime classic in Latin America, and in its belated first English translation arrives garlanded with praise from the likes of Gabriel García Márquez and Ariel Dorfman.

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For all that, the comparison its publishers make with Capote’s In Cold Blood is wide of the mark. Where Capote, that egregious egotist, for once made himself invisible while concentrating on the inner lives of his murderers, Walsh was aiming for justice, not literary style. His own was the opposite of Capote’s, both whimsical and overblown: when a fellow journalist wakes up to find police in his flat, we are told of their “interesting assortment of rifles and other syllogistic tools”.

The story, though, is so compelling that this hardly matters. Walsh is on the tracks of a story that the mainstream Argentinian newspapers won’t go anywhere near: that on 9 June, 1956, five men suspected of participating in a failed pro-Perón coup against the military junta were executed in Buenos Aires. But the coup happened 35 miles away, and these five were civilians who had nothing to do with it. Six months later, Walsh hears that one of the executed men is alive.

He meets him. He’s a bus driver called Carlos Livagra and he has a hole in his cheek and a hole in his throat where the supposed coup de grace passed through.

He wasn’t the only one who escaped from the firing squad, he tells Walsh. There was a whole bunch of them.

It was a classic case of wrong place, wrong time. The wrong place was a flat where some friends had gathered to play cards and listen to a boxing match on the radio. A couple of Peronists were among the 12 men in the room: they would have readily joined in a coup had there been one, but they’d been told to stand down. Neither they, nor any of the other men in the room were armed.

It was the wrong time because a Peronist general had just escaped from a firing squad – though nobody knew this at the time apart from the police hunting him and tracking down all the revolutionaries they could find. They’d spotted the two revolutionaries earlier going into the house to play cards.

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So the police burst into it and arrest everyone there. It’s about 11pm. Most of the men being taken away guess that they’re being done for gambling. Meanwhile, 35 miles away in La Plata, the real coup, led by two army generals, gets underway. The fighting only lasts 12 hours, but in the meanwhile – at 12:30pm – martial law is declared. At 4:45am the order comes through to Buenos Aires: the card-players should be taken away and executed.

This is the secret execution no other journalist wanted to write about. The police had reasons to keep it secret: none of the men participated in the rebellion, none of them resisted arrest, and they were all arrested BEFORE martial law was declared.

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But Walsh, talking to Livagra the bus driver, knows that he has the story of a lifetime. He tracks down the other men who were in the room with Livagra, who were also taken out to some waste ground and shot. Five were killed but – astonishingly, and whether because the police used bolt-action Mausers, or because it was dark or because a couple attacked the execution squad – seven escaped.

Of them all, only the bus driver wanted to press for justice. Three fled to Bolivia, three went to ground, but the bus driver was so outraged at being thought political that he continued to press for an apology.

In a police state, the police could always ensure that he never got one. But Rodolfo Walsh showed why he he should have done, and named the guilty men. Fifty-six years on, this remains journalism at its most incandescently brave.