Over four decades ago, South America experienced a dark period of home-grown terrorism led by socialist revolutionary groups, whose armed rebellion in turn sparked military dictatorships and state terrorism on a massive scale.
By the 1970s, one Argentine group, the Montoneros, stood out from the rest. They had amassed significant clout, with a membership that ranged from Catholic nationalists to young, leftist supporters of former president Juan Domingo Perón, who at first embraced these radical elements in the lead-up to his March 1973 election.
But a few months before his death in July 1974, Perón publicly repudiated them, forcing the Montoneros underground. What happened next is the subject of an absorbing book by Ceferino Reato, chief editor of Perfil, one of Argentina’s most widely read daily papers.
In Operación Primicia: El ataque de Montoneros que provocó el golpe de 1976 (Operation Scoop: The Montoneros Attack that Led to the 1976 Coup), Reato dedicates nearly 400 pages to analyzing a single action perpetrated by the Montoneros on October 5, 1975—an assault on the military barracks in the province of Formosa. It was the group’s first operation against the Argentine military, whom they viewed as—in the words of one of their combatants—a “sell-out army, allied with the oligarchy and Yankee imperialism that had to be replaced by a popular army.” But what also made it significant, according to the author, was that the action triggered the army coup less than six months later—and plunged the country into a military dictatorship that lasted until 1983.
In an account that reads at times like a Hollywood thriller, Reato describes in chilling and suspenseful detail the logistics of planning a complex, multiphased operation that included the hijacking of Aerolíneas Argentinas flight 706 with 102 passengers and six crewmembers on board; the takeover of the international airport of Formosa, leaving one dead; and the attack on Army Infantry Regiment Monte 29 in a half-hour conflict that left 24 dead (12 from each side, including 10 conscripted soldiers, all Peronists from Formosa).
The book begins with the author’s description of the realities and routines of a provincial military barracks, where the majority of conscripted soldiers were superstitious (a legacy of the native Guaraní in the territory), ill-prepared for combat, and whose officers complacently assumed they faced little risk from guerrillas in a tightly controlled border region. The province bordered Paraguay, which was then ruled by the dictator Alfredo Stroessner.
Reato vividly describes the start of the operation with the blue-clad, gun-wielding Montoneros waking the soldiers out of a Sunday slumber. Meanwhile, another armed contingent dressed as civilians efficiently managed the takeover of the Aerolíneas Argentinas flight for their escape. The attack, orchestrated by the “detail-oriented and obsessive” Raúl Yaguer, also known as “The Gringo,” went largely as planned. But the soldiers’ resistance was unexpected. Not only did this complicate Yaguer’s attack plan, but the public outrage over the soldiers’ deaths fueled a social and government backlash against the resistance movement.
But the book is not only a gripping drama. Reato uses his story as a prism through which he attempts to explain how the country continues to deal with its difficult past. The victims of the tragedy in Formosa received different treatment by the state, political parties and human rights groups. Eight of the 12 Montoneros killed in the attack, for example, figure in the Nunca Más (Never Again) list as victims of “mass execution.”
Many of their families received high-levels of compensation, in stark contrast to the paltry sums given to the soldiers’ families. Reato believes this is unjust and, in a radio interview about his book, he referred to the ever-expanding list of victims of the dictatorship as “a manipulation of the official history which cannot go on for much longer.”
The one-sided approach, according to the author, extended to the Kirchner government’s apparent unwillingness to investigate about 600 reported kidnappings by extremist groups before the military coup in March 1976. He points out that, instead, the government expanded the list of victims of state terrorism to include those killed before the coup. Most chroniclers of the coup period have accepted claims by human rights groups that some 30,000 people were either killed or “disappeared” during the military dictatorship. But the author says his own investigation suggests the number is probably closer to 10,000 people. The author claims that the government “fabricates history to serve its current interests” by exaggerating the number of victims of the dictatorship and glorifying the guerrilla groups.
By focusing on the late, former president Néstor Kirchner´s approach to the Montoneros’ activities, the author underlines the political uses of Argentine history. He suggests that Kirchner’s aim was to create a collective memory that favors “the wonderful youth of the 1970s, of which the Kirchners, their political cohorts and their followers consider themselves rightful inheritors.”
In a promotional book review written by the author and published in La Nación, Reato vehemently disputes this “fictitious history” that permits the Kirchners, under both the Néstor and Cristina Fernández administrations, to strengthen alliances with human rights groups and social movements, and shield their political partners against accusations of corruption. According to the author, this tactic also offers a powerful tool to pressure adversaries and nonsupporting journalists.
Operación Primicia represents a stark contrast with the majority of books about Argentina’s recent past. Without making excuses for the devastating dictatorship that followed, Reato does not, as many official accounts do, treat the socialist revolutionaries as idealists and martyrs. Instead, he offers a well-researched, critical view that directly links the military coup to the bloody atrocities perpetrated by the guerrillas themselves.
In this, he has support from some guerrillas. In fact, some ex-Montoneros interviewed for the book agreed with him that the violence in October 1975 was not only wrong but a strategic misstep.
While the text provides so much detail that it is easy to lose sight of the forest for its trees, Reato’s larger message is clear. Argentines, he suggests, should be wary of accepting official accounts of history that paint the military as the enemy and the revolutionaries as heroes. In Argentina’s contemporary environment, which displays little tolerance for journalists who do not follow the official line, the book is a commendable display of courage.