Los desaparecidos


Photos of the disappeared hang over a street in Cordoba

When in Buenos Aires, and again in
Cordoba, we visited sites used during Argentina’s ‘Dirty War’. In almost every country we’ve been to, we’ve found unspeakable horrors visited on the population in the recent past – and this was no exception.

In 1976, a bloodless coup once again put the military in charge of Argentina. At the time, there were a number of prominent left wing opposition groups, filling the full spectrum of approaches from political party to violent guerrilla terrorists. With popular (albeit not democratic) support from the press and a population whipped up into a fear of the extremist leftist terrorists, the military set about destroying these groups, in a ‘National Reorganisation Process’, known less euphemistically as the ‘Dirty War’.

Between 1976 and the end of the military’s reign after the Falklands war in 1983, it is believed that as many as 30,000 people were ‘disappeared’ – kidnapped, tortured, and in almost every case, killed. What is perhaps most chilling is that this happened in plain sight, in a modern and civilised society with a functioning press – and with support from other western nations, particularly the US as part of its global fight against the threat of Communism.

In other places we’ve visited, it has seemed possible to attribute the horrendous actions of those in power down to a form of madness or at least a lack of awareness, and that lack of logic made it easier to digest and understand. Mao had his swirling, vindictive personality cult, and held the view that progress was only possible through violent revolution. The Khmer Rouge in Cambodia swept in with absolute blood-filled insanity, tearing society apart at the seams to achieve the same goals as Mao but in a matter of days – and given the pace at which it was imposed, it’s no wonder that there was little organised opposition. And on the other side of the political spectrum, through the ‘Vietnam War’, the USA unleashed hell on the people of not only Vietnam, but also Cambodia and Laos – with a hell in chemical form to follow for decades later.

I think what hit me hardest in Argentina was how the actions of the military were so clearly calculated, part of a logical, forceful political strategy, and it was conducted in full view of the public – or at least as much visibility as for example the German public had under the Nazis. Did we learn nothing?


The Naval Mechanic School in Buenos Aires where some of the worst atrocities occurred

People who were considered opponents of the regime were kidnapped, sometimes in the street in broad daylight, and then taken to interrogation centres, where information was extracted under torture. Once they had served their useful purpose, they were generally then killed – through military ‘death flights’, where the unconscious victims were dropped into the sea from a plane, having been told they were being transferred to a prison and to be given a ‘vitamin injection’ which was in fact a sedative. Even in this respect there was a stark contrast in organisation to what we’d seen in Asia: the Khmer Rouge had avoided using even bullets to kill their victims due to the cost; dropping people from planes is an expensive way to massacre a population.

A basement at the interrogation centre in the heart of Cordoba

Amid this utter horror of systematic torture and murder, you then have this bizarre notion of ethics – for example, a priest blessed the plane from which people were then dropped to their death. I think this really shows how some of those involved really did think they were doing the right thing in order to fight the threat of the extreme left, or at least found cover in the support of the church. “We are not monsters” is the phrase apparently used at the time.

Another situation where these uncertain moral lines show is when pregnant women were among the disappeared. The interrogation centres had special areas to care for such women until they gave birth; our guide explained to us that the interrogators felt that the baby should not be punished for the actions of its parents and so should be allowed to live. However, they also felt that the child should not be given back to the remaining family who had been associated with such leftist views, and so the child was secretly adopted by a new family who supported the regime, many of whom were in positions of power. Argentina now has a movement ‘The Grandmothers of the Plaza de Mayo’, representing those who lost their children but still have grandchildren out there somewhere. They encourage those who were born during this period to verify their heritage; it is believed that some 500 children were appropriated by the state and given to new parents – to date 105 have been identified. One can only imagine the anguish that those now-adults go through to discover their true parents were killed, and that their adopted parents with whom they have grown up were likely complicit in what happened.

And there’s so much more; the Trade Unionists in factories working for well known multinationals like Ford who were disappeared en-mass and held in camps in the factory grounds; the secret island owned by the Catholic Church to which prisoners were relocated when the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights came to inspect the interrogation camps on the mainland; the two different estate agents run by the navy to sell off the appropriated houses from those they had killed. This was clearly a systematic and widespread process for purging those who disagreed with the regime, with the support of the church.


A police mural on the wall in Cordoba

All this happened at a time when through Operation Condor the USA was providing support to South American nations fighting communism. Through the ‘School of the Americas’, many of the Argentine naval officers involved in these atrocities were taught techniques of interrogation and torture, and how best to tackle the threat of the left. Given this, it is not surprising that there is so little trust of US foreign policy interventions now in South America.

I got the sense that this whole period is something Argentina is still very much trying to come to terms with – to find a way to justify what had been allowed to happen and why, and to find justice for so many victims. Few records were kept about those who were taken, and those involved at every level are still refusing to talk about it, so there is a huge gap in knowledge about what happened. But there is one thing our guide said again and again that really stuck with me : ‘nunca más’, ‘never again’. As she reiterated, everyone, everywhere has the right to a fair trial and transparent justice, even if they are being accused of mass murder or terrorism. I think we all would say the horrors of Nazi Germany or of the Dirty War should never be allowed to be repeated, but it’s a slippery slope. She drew parallels to Guantanamo bay, extraordinary rendition and the various processes going on right now around the world where people are being held, punished and sometimes killed without trial. In that context, one really has to ask oneself when we will ever truly mean those words ‘nunca más’.



Photos of some of the disappeared, Cordoba


A broken doorway, Cordoba



A replica of the famous motorcycle

While we were in Cordoba, we headed off to Alto Gracia for a day, and home to the house where Ché Guevara grew up.

I have to confess I didn’t really know the full details of the Ché story beyond the iconic picture and his symbol as a leftwing revolutionary – so it was good to have explained to us in the museum that his house has become. The £10 price tag did make us wonder if it was really holding to his principles, but then as wealthy tourists it is fair that we’re playing a lot more than the local visitors.

We did find out a few things we weren’t expecting to hear for a revolutionary fighter. For starters, at school he was a bit of a geek, playing chess and getting the best marks in class. Nothing wrong with that! He also had bad asthma, which is why his family moved to the better air in Alto Gracia in the first place. Again, not quite the macho leader one imagines.

Later in life, he (and Fidel Castro) then led the Cuban Revolution, creating the state that still exists today. I’ve heard before of the ‘miracle’ of the mere 12 fighters who took on the Cuban army and won – but the fact that is often omitted is that there were actually 82 fighters who landed in the country, but all but 12 were killed during a Cuban army raid on the first night.

The final shock came from the passport he travelled with. His birth name is actually Ernesto Lynch, and, well, his photo is hardly that of the Marxist revolutionary. Granted, he used this passport when going undercover into the Congo, and later into Bolivia, but it is somewhat surprising!


Ché's unexpected passport photo

It made me think about how we idolise people and turn them into over-saturated icons, airbrushing away the details that don’t quite agree with the popular narrative. It’s not to say that Ché wasn’t a hugely successful revolutionary who certainly made a big impact on the world stage (albeit through violent means). It’s just that when we depict our idols and role models without blemishes, although their achievements appear all the more great for it, we end up making their successes unattainable – and our attempts to imitate them impossible. Everyone has their flaws.

So, to redress the balance, as a gift to the geeks and thick-spectacle wearing, balding men of the world, I hereby present the alternative image of Ché the revolutionary. Marxist, yes. Pinup? Well, I’ll leave that decision to you!



The alternative Ché

Colour and Culture


The Cathedral

We’re in Cordoba, Argentina’s second city, a thriving mix of students and culture with a fantastic energy and warmth. There are 130,000 students here and you can really feel it.

Students protesting cuts to funding for cultural events. Yes, that is a conga line!

We’ve just spent the morning on a tour of the university, where we were given an impassioned introduction to the issue of ethnicity in Argentina, and particularly the question of its heritage. Essentially the argument is that in their quest to be European, Argentinians have forgotten some of their roots, with ‘invisibilisation’ of the African blood that made the country much of what it is today. It was a convincing argument.

Rosa, the curator of the exhibition, made the case that just because black faces aren’t immediately visible here doesn’t mean there is no African ancestry. In fact, a DNA study showed that 8% of Cordobans have African lineage. Many of the city’s buildings were constructed by African slaves, and although many were killed during the civil war, some survives and settled – and their descendants are around today. Most interesting of all, in the 2010 census, just 1.5% of Cordobans said they had African ancestors – so the question is where the difference comes from.

She argued that Argentinians have long believed themselves to be more European than the rest of South America, and that in emphasising this, the African element has been lost in the retelling of history. It was particularly interesting to hear her tell of the discovery of various artefacts which proved there was a strong African influence in Argentinian culture in the past – and from the period after the civil war, when the conventional narrative says there were no Africans left. Its been the case throughout history that ideas which go against the norm are much harder to get accepted and this was no exception. However, I was still surprised to hear that the academics who made the find rejected the pottery outright as fake because it didn’t fit with their expectations. Surely that’s the whole point of the scientific process!

Alongside the pottery, we were presented with many examples of African influence in modern day Argentine culture, perhaps the most striking being the word ‘Tango’ which emerged in the late 19th century. The European rationale is that it comes from the Latin ‘to touch’, but the name is also very similar to the word used to describe the place the (african) slaves used to clean in order to
dance. The university has enlisted various ‘obviously Argentine’ celebrities to drive their point home, with research being done into their histories revealing the African blood they have despite not being black.

That isn’t to say that Argentina is a country where we felt there was endemic racism, or indeed anything other than a flourishing multicultural society. However, it is fascinating to see such a vivid example of how the generally accepted consensus and fashion can be wrong – and how academia can (at least at one point in the past) fail to correct it. Our guide who was in her thirties told us that when she was growing up, the commonly word for a black child from a mixed race marriage was ‘salto atrás’, or ‘a step back’. It’s not hard to see how in that context, and with the fashions of Europe swirling around Argentinian popular culture, the African element has indeed become invisible.



Right in the middle of one of the main squares is this building. Yes, you read it right - the traffic light intelligence centre!


A dog jumping for bubbles in the park


Karoline and I went walking in the National Condor Park one misty day. This impression was as close as we got to seeing a Condor!


At the market in Cordoba


Sculptures in the park marking each year since the city was inaugurated


Looking futuristic at an art gallery


The church is missing a spire to symbolise human imperfection


This is a guy cleaning high-rise windows using the pendulum approach. He was swinging from side to side desperately trying to scrub in the half second he had in front of each pane of glass!


Another beautiful church roof


The three of us n our last night together before Karoline headed homewards


Our favourite red wine, this is just £1.06 a bottle!