Dan Newland celebrates his addiction to writing and the right to life, literature and the (sometimes desperate) pursuit of happiness. Essays, stories and comments on writers, writing and life in general, in a twice-monthly blog published on the 13th and 27th of every month..."or any other time the spirit moves me."
Sunday, August 27, 2017
EXCERPT 10 FROM ‘VOICES IN THE STORM’ — DEATH THREATS
The following is a new
excerpt from the autobiographical book I’m currently writing, entitled “Voices
in the Storm: A Journalist’s Memoir”, about my early days working for a newspaper
in Buenos Aires.It is taken from a chapter called
“Cops on My Door”.
The first personal threats I got started coming even before the Herald’s
editor-in-chief Bob Cox had time to leave the country. His ten-year-old son
Peter had already received a threatening letter, warning him to “tell Daddy to
leave”, but Bob and his family were still tying up loose ends and preparing for
what they thought would be “temporary exile”. It wasn’t like these were the
first threats Bob had received, nor was it the first time he and his wife had
had a scare. But now the anonymous cowards in the military’s undercover
operations were going for the throat and attacking the Coxes’ children—and,
ironically, blaming it on the by this time disjointed Montoneros guerrilla
organization. Bob finally decided enough was enough. It was one thing to risk his
own life, but it was quite another to risk his family’s, especially when he was
a father of five.
The first telephone threat that I got came a few days after Bob had
called Jim Neilson and me in to tell us of his decision to leave. Jim had
already received a personalized phone threat and a couple of bomb scares had
been called into the editorial department. The Proceso was apparently turning up the heat in hopes of getting rid
of all editorial page by-lines at once. Now it was my turn. It was almost as if
they had overheard Neilson’s conversation with me when he told me that Bob had
asked him to take over as editor and that he wanted me to second him.
This first call came in early that evening, before the women on the
reception and classified ads desk downstairs had gone home. Evidently, the
caller had asked for me by name and whoever took the call passed it through
directly to my extension.
“Señor Dan Newland?” the
official-sounding male voice at the other end asked.
“Am I speaking to señor Dan Newland?”
the voice asked again, as if to definitely confirm my identity.
“Yes, this is Dan Newland,” I said in Spanish. “What can I do for you?”
Then the voice changed and in a clipped, vicious tone, the man said,
“We’re giving you seventy-two hours to get out of the country. Otherwise, you
will be executed on your way to or from work. Do you understand the message?”
But before I could say anything, he cut off.
I immediately went to Bob and Jim and told them about the call. Neilson,
who seemed a little rattled by the ones he had already received, appeared as
concerned as I was. This was obviously a pressure campaign, but who knew how
sincere the perpetrators were in their intentions? It wasn’t like threats of
this sort never had material consequences. By this time, some eighty newspeople
were among the thousands of “missing” or murdered in Argentina, spanning the
entire range of journalists from simple reporters to well-known political
writers like Haroldo Conti and Rodolfo Walsh. Still others, like Osvaldo Soriano,
our own Stuart Stirling (who was also the London
Times correspondent), Andrew Graham-Yooll (whose job as news editor I had
taken over), and now, Cox himself, had all opted for exile. And countless
others had been the victims of intimidation tactics, temporary detentions and
Then too, there were the ones like ‘El Gordo’ Blasco, a friend of a
friend and an excellent photo journalist and musician, who was murdered in a
parking lot after an altercation with a drunk who picked a fight with him in a
jazz club and who, according to my friend, later turned out to be a government
agent. Obviously, that crime went unsolved like all the others.
But Cox sought to reassure us. “This is about me,” Bob said. “They’re
trying to put on more pressure. They’re not after you.”
“They were pretty specific. Even the nice touch about when and where
they would kill me,” I said dubiously.
“It’s me they want out of here,” Bob repeated shaking his head. “They’re
just trying to scare you.”
“And doing a pretty good job,” I muttered. “I mean, killing me would let you know they meant business, wouldn’t it?”
Bob looked doubtful and shook his head again. “No, they just want to
The threats to Cox and his family had been reported to the police and to
a federal judge. This was pretty much Herald
SOP: If somebody was threatened, attacked, kidnapped, detained or otherwise
placed at risk, the idea was to 'officialize' the occurrence as quickly as
possible, so that if things escalated there would be a record, no matter how
tenuous, with the police and the courts. The hope was that, if they grabbed
you, they would be more likely to hold you legally and openly—even if at the
disposal of the Executive Branch—if there were a record of previous threats or
other intimidation. You wouldn’t enjoy many more rights in such cases, but at
least you wouldn’t just become an N.N. (no name or ‘Natalia-Natalia’ in police jargon) snatched off the street by a
paramilitary hit squad and dumped from a helicopter into the River Plate
estuary. Your name figured on a list of detainees somewhere. Secondly, if they
actually killed you, the fact that the threats were on record made it clearer
who had done it. In the end, of course, it was all a rather sterile exercise
since you would be just as screwed or just as dead either way, but it was what
passed for sanity in the demented and dangerous game in which we were players.
So I asked Bob if he thought I should report it. He shrugged and said I
could if I wanted to, or if I thought it would do any good. He was ‘short’, as
we used to say when I was in the Army when someone was close to shipping out,
and his impending exit seemed to be making him wax more philosophical.
I decided I would, and took the trouble of going to the Federal Police
Twenty-Second Precinct a few blocks away from the paper, on Avenida Huergo, next to the old port.
There, I went through the formality of filling out a police report with the
duty officer. I got the feeling that the only reason they were taking my
complaint was because the Herald had
off-duty cops from that precinct as its security crew (an irony to be sure).
But the report quickly found its way to the judge handling Cox’s case. That
same week, before leaving the country, Bob told me that the judge had been in
touch and suggested that “the other journalist” (moi) go to the local precinct for his home neighborhood and
formally ask for police protection. The judge’s secretary was supposedly going
to contact the Federal Police captain in my neighborhood to give them a heads-up.
I lost no time, going the next day to see the precinct captain in my
midtown neighborhood of Almagro. I lived three blocks from the park, Parque Centenario, which is sometimes
cited as the geographic center of Buenos Aires. It was also a place where the
bodies of more than one ‘Natalia-Natalia’
had been dumped into the carcass of one of the abandoned cars that littered the
park’s side streets, before being doused with gasoline and burned. This seemed
a rather too strange coincidence considering the location of the police
station. The Eleventh Precinct was right in front of the park at Avenida Díaz Velez 5152. When I arrived,
I stated my business and was told to wait, that the comisario was busy. When he finally deigned to see me, the precinct
captain, a cynical, sarcastic, poker-stiff, storm trooper type by the name of
Ricciardi, gave me a perfunctory handshake and didn’t ask me to take a seat,
attending me in the hallway instead. With barely veiled impatience, he listened
to my story of the threat and of what was going on in the newspaper. He wore a
kind of half smirk on his lips, eyes squinted, head cocked to one side, in a
pose not unlike that of a bird of prey. When I told him that the federal judge
handling the case had suggested I come to the police for protection, he shook
“Look,” he said, “you’re getting threats for the same reason your boss
is—for what you write. Maybe you should have thought of that before you wrote
what you wrote? You’ve made somebody angry.”
His condescending attitude was beginning to irritate me, so, despite
knowing all too well that police precincts tended to be places from which
people disappeared, I said, “Comisario,
I didn’t come here for a lesson in ethics or on journalism. I came for
protection because this is what the judge told me to do. Didn’t his office get
in touch with you?”
“No,” he said, “and it wouldn’t matter if they did. I decide what
happens in my jurisdiction. Listen, señor,
if they decide to kill you, it won’t make any difference if I put a guard on
your door. If they have to go over my men to get to you, they will. Then you
will be dead and so will my men. And what fault is it of theirs?”
“Well, I thought it was their job to protect and serve, and I know
that I can be killed if they set out to kill me, but I want my building
protected so that they don’t kill anybody else in the process. Let them gun me
down on the street, not at my house!” I said, beginning to lose my temper.
“Their job’s whatever I say it is,” he countered, “and I won’t risk it.”
Then he held out his hand, gave mine another perfunctory shake and said, “Good
day, señor,” turning on his heel and
marching off up the hallway.
When I got back to the paper that evening, I reported the experience to
Cox while we were having a cup of coffee together around the corner on Avenida Belgrano at El Nido. I told him that what worried me was that if the comisario could simply choose to ignore
a federal judge, perhaps my apartment building had already been declared a
“liberated zone” by the military, so that a hit squad could take me out at any
time. Cox tried to reassure me, hinting that I maybe shouldn’t take myself so
seriously, that they probably had better things to do than kill me, but I was unconvinced.
So Bob suggested I go see General Antonio Llamas, who, at the time, was
Public Information Secretary for the military Junta. In fact, Bob got me an
appointment to see the general.
Llamas was about the closest thing to a public relations manager that
the Junta had. But his day job was more like being the head of an Orwellian
‘ministry of truth’, with its own brand of ‘thought police’ that amassed
studies on the press and on individual newsmen, and crafted policies to twist
cultural expression to fit the Junta’s needs, while finding ways to suppress
whoever didn’t want to play ball. The real
public relations work was done by the nefarious, dictator-friendly,
devil’s-advocate New York PR agency, Burson-Marstellar. Ranked among the
world’s largest PR and marketing groups, one of their specialties was defending
the indefensible and the Park Avenue agency was already notorious by that time
for making big bucks pampering other clearly deplorable regimes around the
General Jorge Rafael Videla
The hype that the Junta was trying to push internationally was that the
National Reorganization Process was the last frontier in the fight against
communism, a true defender of Western and Christian ideals, and that, instead
of criticizing it, countries like the United States and those of Western Europe
would do well to thank the military government of Argentina and support it in
its struggle to stamp out godless Marxist terrorism in America’s own backyard.
Burson-Marstellar’s job was apparently to help the government articulate this
friend-of-Western democracy trompe l'oeil on an international
scale, in order to provide Argentina with a palatable enough image to permit
the country’s civilian Economy Minister José Alfredo Martínez de Hoz to attract
foreign investment and shore up the sagging economy.
There was little doubt among us that Llamas had sought to ostensibly
‘protect’ the Herald to the extent
that this served the purposes of his boss, Lieutenant General Jorge Rafael Videla.
For the moment, Videla headed the administration and represented the so-called
‘moderate’ line that was working with Burson-Marstellar on projecting an image
of a reluctant caretaker Junta that was “fighting a dirty war” to protect
Argentina’s Constitution and democratic way of life—paradoxically, it’s worth
noting, suspending democracy in order to ‘save it’. In ‘saving’ Argentina, the National
Reorganization Process had clearly ignored the words of eighteenth and
nineteenth-century Argentine journalist, politician and revolutionary patriot
Mariano Moreno who said he would “prefer dangerous liberty to tranquil
servitude”. Had the Proceso been in
charge back then, Moreno would very likely have been among its first victims.
Early on, the Junta—or at least Videla—had been under the mistaken
impression that the Herald, as a
small English-language daily, was no threat to the dictatorship at a local
level, and that by not killing the editor or shutting it down, the government
might use it as a showcase to attain an international image as being “tolerant
of free expression”. Indeed, on more than one occasion government officials had
countered international accusations of censorship and strong-arm tactics by
pointing to the Herald and saying,
“Censorship, what censorship? Look at the criticism the Herald’s publishing!”
By this time, however, it was becoming clear that the Herald’s burgeoning local and
international influence in reporting and denouncing gross human rights abuses
was turning into a major thorn in the Junta’s side. Informal data tended to
suggest that the Herald’s ten
thousand-copy press run swelled to a hundred-thousand-strong readership even
locally, since it was a paper that was quoted by other publications, as well as
being passed hand to hand among people for whom English was a second language.
Then too, there were those who knew no English, but sought out the paper simply
to read the unsigned editorial, which was the only item in the Herald that was published in both
English and Spanish. Since no few of the Herald’s
staffers were also stringers for international newspapers and magazines, many
of the stories it carried gained access to worldwide coverage. Its influence
was also bolstered by the fact that it was the lingua franca publication that got passed around the offices of
multinational firms and foreign embassies of every origin in Buenos Aires.
General Ibérico Saint Jean
Such influence meant that military moderates feared the international
consequences of taking decisive action against us. But they also feared the
increasingly infuriated Army hardliners for whom this was not the case, and who
would long ago have gladly shut us up, one way or another, with no compunction
whatsoever about what the rest of the world thought. By now, these more radical
generals like Third Army Corps Commander Luciano Benjamín Menéndez and First
Army Corps Commander Guillermo Suárez Mason, among others, were making their
presence felt, accusing the central government of being “soft on subversion”.
These were mad dog war lords whose attitudes and desires were best summed up by
their colleague, General Ibérico Saint Jean, who served as military governor of
Buenos Aires Province and who, two years earlier, had openly stated, “First
we’ll kill all of the subversives, and then, their sympathizers, and then, all
of those who remain indifferent, and, finally, we’ll kill the faint of heart.”