Wednesday, September 27, 2017
Wednesday, September 13, 2017
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”.
1979: Robert Cox with son Peter and daughter
Victoria at the international airport on their way to
the United States. Overnight, the entire family
had become political refugees.
The military had arrested Timerman on trumped-up charges in 1977 and the hardliners considered his head a real trophy. Timerman’s center-left daily,
publication the editor modeled after the famed Paris newspaper, Le Monde) was the only Spanish-language
paper at the time that was reporting on the Proceso’s
“dirty war” much in the same way that the Herald
was, with professionalism and without self-censorship. But while the government
might have been willing to reluctantly overlook the Herald’s ‘indiscretion’ in this regard, La
Opinión, as a
local Spanish-language paper, was another matter entirely. The hardliners
wanted it silenced by any means necessary. And the illicit activities of one of
Timerman’s associates gave the military ‘moderates’ a way to shut Timerman up
and take him out of circulation, without simply letting the hardliners gun the
publisher down and close his paper.
|La Opinión editor Jacobo Timerman|
I was present for that press event in the Army HQ, for which reporters from all of the local press and foreign correspondents of every description showed up. Lieutenant General Videla himself was the main speaker. I recall noticing that his back was stiff with tension and apparent anger as he made his way to the front of the large hall where we were all seated, that his ferret-like face looked sweaty and that his hands and knees shook as he made his presentation of the alleged ‘facts’ surrounding the Timerman-Graiver connection. And I remember too that, as I watched him and listened, what came to my mind was the phrase so often repeated by ranking military officers during those days, who said that “their hands would not tremble” in taking the lives of “the enemies of the fatherland”. His, I figured, certainly would if the way they were shaking right now was anything to go by.
By then, Timerman had already been snatched and arrested, and his
newspaper shut down and confiscated. While in jail, at the mercy of hardliner
General Ramón Camps, who was acting as chief of the Buenos Aires Provincial
Police, the fifty-four-year-old
publisher was held in solitary confinement and was repeatedly beaten and subjected
to electric shock torture. In the intervening two years before Timerman’s
release, it was Cox, who almost single-handedly mounted a desperate
international campaign against his colleague’s arrest, his detention without
trial, the violation of his rights, and the direct threat to the press that this
The front page of the mass circulation paper La Nación headlines
the press conference about the Graiver Affair. The picture shows
the de facto president, General Videla, addressing the press.
Videla: The 'disappeared' aren't here, either dead
or alive.They're 'disappeared'.
A La Opinión banner head from 1976 says
the government was investigating the
disappearance of journalists.
But the article suggests the probe is a ruse.
But the international campaign that Cox led for the editor/publisher’s release was having a powerful impact. And such were the petitions, editorial coverage and worldwide outcry for Timerman to be freed that now, in September 1979, the Proceso had finally bowed to worldwide pressure, and, in the face of the damage it was doing to its own international reputation, decided to let Timerman go.
The ‘triumph’ was clearly a bittersweet one: Timerman’s newspaper and personal property had been confiscated, and despite the fact that his family had emigrated from the Ukraine to South America when he was only five, he was stripped of his naturalized Argentine citizenship. He thus accepted the refuge offered to him by Israel, before later moving to Spain and finally to the United States.
|Major General Luciano B. Menéndez|
Less than a week before Timerman’s September 25 release and exile, Menéndez, together with a small group of other hardliners, mounted a countercoup attempt at the General Paz Military Academy in Córdoba Province, against the central Armed Forces government in Buenos Aires. He claimed that his threat of armed military action was to back his demand for the resignation of General Roberto Viola—another ‘moderate’ appointed by Videla, in his role as president, to command the Army, which automatically made Viola a member of the ruling three-man Junta and, as commander of the largest force, probable successor to Videla as president. Clearly, Menéndez wanted Viola’s head, charging, as he did, that Viola had reneged on a vow to completely annihilate leftwing subversion. As an extreme rightwing advocate of a “blood and fire dictatorship” like the one General Augusto Pinochet had led in Chile three years prior to the Argentine coup, Menéndez accused both Viola and Videla of being “soft” and had always maintained a strained relationship with his superiors. But it was clearer still to those of us covering Timerman’s impending release that this was quite probably the culminating event that sparked Menéndez’s revolt, considering that Viola had already been Army commander since his appointment by Videla the previous year. With the upcoming release of Timerman, hardliners were obviously sensing a trend toward greater moderation and a more prudent international image, following three years of witch-hunts, mass murder and institutionalized torture.
Menéndez revolted against Armywho, he said, was soft on terrorism.
Commander Lt. Gen. Roberto Viola,
Menéndez’s record spoke for itself. He had been Third Army Corps commander since 1975, when Provisional Senate President Italo Luder, temporarily exercising the presidency in the absence of a supposedly ailing Isabel Perón, had declared a state of siege and given the Armed Forces free reign to “annihilate subversion.” And although his command was headquartered in Córdoba, its influence in the “dirty war” extended to nine other Argentine provinces, where Menéndez had set up no fewer than sixty clandestine detention and interrogation centers. The most infamous was
La Perla, from which at least
two thousand detainees ‘disappeared’ and where the torture techniques were among
the most brutal of the entire military era. He was an unrepentant
ultra-rightwing authoritarian, who would have none of Videla’s qualms about
being referred to as a dictator.
Fortunately, Videla and Viola were able to maintain discipline within the Army and the other forces followed suit. Menéndez was forced to back down in the face of overwhelming military superiority and was placed under arrest. He served ninety days in the prison at Curuzú Cuatiá, Corrientes Province, and was retired from active duty. But there was speculation that the harsh terms of Timerman’s release—exile, loss of citizenship, confiscation of his property, etc.—were a concession to the hardliners, of whom Videla was very obviously terrified.
Little of this was speculation on our part. We had it right from the horse’s mouth. Time and again, General Llamas had “invited” Cox to “have a cup of coffee” with him at his office in Government House. These “invitations” were always a form of reprimand at which the general would state the Junta’s displeasure over the terms of the editorials we were publishing.
More recently, however, Bob had sensed the sharper tone of these complaints. Videla’s government was seeking to refloat the economy through foreign investment while fighting for its political life against the Army hardliners. And the thousands upon thousands of skeletons in its closet, gathered over the past three years of repression and murder, weren’t helping matters at all—particularly not in Jimmy Carter’s rights-conscious Washington. At the latest meetings he’d had with Llamas, Bob had been told in no uncertain terms that the military government was not willing to accept the Herald’s continuing publication of editorials about human rights abuses in Argentina. And in one such meeting, Llamas claimed he himself was being blamed for Cox’s disobedience and then he stormed out of the room, purposely leaving an open folder in plain sight on his desk, the contents of which were clippings of Bob’s by-lined articles on human rights abuses and disappearances published in major international news media, accompanied by formal complaints from military chiefs. This, Bob took as a final and serious warning, something more definitive than other threats he had received. But it wasn’t until his ten-year-old son, Peter, was threatened that his own personal decision to leave the country also became final.
Oddly enough, when Cox made public his decision to leave, General Videla scheduled a meeting with him. To Bob’s surprise, Videla asked him to stay. He said that he knew Bob thought the threats were coming from the Armed Forces—clearly there was no denying this despite the puerile attempts of Army Intelligence to cover their tracks by blaming the Montoneros, something they had done throughout their most high-profile counterterror operations—but said that it would be bad for the country’s reputation if the Coxes were run off. Everyone would blame the government, Videla said (the implication being that it wasn’t the Proceso itself, but the hardliners in the Army that were doing these things).
By now, however, there was no turning back. Cox and his family were leaving. Bob told Videla that he didn’t feel the government could guarantee his family’s safety. Videla tangentially agreed, saying he could no longer even guarantee his own.
So now it was my turn to go see General Llamas. But I went with the strange freedom of a condemned man. I had no doubts or false expectations. If my predecessor as news editor, Andrew Graham-Yooll, had taken his threats seriously enough to leave three years before, and if Bob, who had undoubtedly been the country’s most courageous newspaper editor, was now, three years later, calling it quits because he no longer had any illusions about these threats just being scare tactics, I realized full well that if I stayed, it was at my own risk. So why stay? I might justify the decision now by saying it was a career move, or that I liked living on the edge, or that it was an exciting time for a writer in Argentina or any number of other hollow excuses. But the truth is that it was out of stubbornness.
As a boy, I was once bullied for well over a year by three older boys who ganged up on me and beat me up every time they saw me on the street. It was a terrible, humiliating, traumatic experience that had me buffaloed and that kept me from going anywhere for fear of meeting up with them. More than a year along, when I had grown several inches and put on some poundage, I dealt with them one at a time and, suddenly, I was free. A weight had been lifted from my shoulders and those cowards never bothered me again. In fact, years later, when I was home on leave from basic combat training after joining the Army, one of the three walked into a bar in our town where I was shooting pool with friends, took one look at me, turned pale and left. I promised myself, once I got those guys off my back, that I would never, ever, allow anyone to bully me again.
Clearly, I was now really scared, and more frightened still for my wife’s safety. Threats from the regime were so very obviously worthy of fear, since thousands of people had already been ground up in its gnashing teeth. But even my wife wouldn’t give me the excuse I needed to leave. The night before my meeting with Llamas, I talked it over with Virginia.
“We could go,” I said. “I could get a job in the States with a paper in Miami or New York, maybe, or someplace else for that matter. I don’t know. But if I stay here, I won’t let up. In fact, I’ll be doing more writing than ever, a lot more, as Neilson’s second, and I won’t knuckle under. I’ll do my best to uphold Cox’s editorial policy. What I’m afraid of is that they might eventually go after you to get to me, like they did with Bob’s family.”
“Do whatever you want,” Virginia said. “But I’m Argentine, and I won’t let anybody run me out of my own country.”
So as far as I was concerned, the die was cast. We were staying, and from that time on, I promised myself that I would do my best not to flinch from the hardline liberal stance on rule of law and human rights that Cox had set or from my own ethical views. Even if they also managed to run Neilson out, I was staying. I had no children, no one but Virginia to worry about. And if she was as adamant about staying as I was, then—to paraphrase a line from my favorite Western, The Magnificent Seven, nobody was tossing me my own typewriter and telling me to run. Nobody.
When I went to my appointment with General Antonio Llamas, I did so without having totally thought out what I wanted to say. The truth was that I felt like a complete idiot going to the Army to ask for protection from the Army. It seemed like a page out of Orwell or Kafka. There might be different bands within the same force, vying for control of the dictatorship’s policies and power, but among themselves, they would never side with a civilian—and less still with a journalist. Our going to Llamas for protection from the hardliners was a little like Jews going to Goebbels for protection from the Brownshirts.
As I approached Government House, I started getting really angry. I detested being in this kind of position where I would always come out a loser, where I was ever at a disadvantage. Llamas would know precisely where the threats were coming from, yet would act as if he didn’t, just as he and Videla had done with Cox. It was a game. And we were the pawns they were playing it with. So my only choice was not to play it, not to politely pretend there wasn’t an elephant in the room with us when there definitely was, and when it was my foot that it was standing on with all of its weight. I couldn’t help but wonder how dangerous that would be, calling the bluff of the man responsible for “Operation Clarity”, a detailed propaganda policy designed by the Proceso as a means of seeking to infiltrate the media, in addition to controlling it via brute force. But as I entered Government House wearing my best suit as if it were a suit of armor against anyone who tried to see me as anything but a man to be taken seriously, I decided that I probably couldn’t be in any more danger than I already was. They knew who I was, where I worked and where I lived. They could kill me or take me any time they wanted. So why beat around the bush?
When I was ushered into the general’s office, I was surprised at how huge it was. Llamas was not a big man and the high ceiling, tall windows and enormous desk, behind which he was seated when I came in, dwarfed him. It was the first time I had ever seen him. Despite his rank, he was very much a behind-the-scenes figure in the Proceso, of whom one would have been hard-pressed to find a picture in the photo archives. Now, as I came into the stark, rather austerely furnished office, the general got up from his seat and hurried over to greet me. He was in full regular dress uniform, complete with olive drab jacket, khaki-color trousers, khaki shirt and slightly darker tie. I half-expected to find him in shirtsleeves since he was ‘at home’ and working in his office, but he appeared to have dressed for the interview, just as I had.
“Señor Newland,” he said shaking my hand and smiling, then leading me toward an armchair in front of his desk. In a voice of rehearsed concern, he went on. “So sorry to hear about the trouble you’ve been having, these terrorist threats…”
“I’m glad to hear you call them that, General,” I said, “considering where they’re coming from.”
“Yes, the Montoneros, I heard.”
“But of course you know that’s not true.”
The infamous 601st Army Intelligence Battalion in downtown
“And do you suspect some service?” he asked feigning innocence.
“Yes, sir, I do,” I said. “Yours.”
“And what makes you suspect this?” he asked.
“Because they’re coming from the same place Cox’s threats came from. I’m thinking maybe First Army Corps. Perhaps, the 601st Intelligence Battalion.”
The general pretended shock and started to say that he couldn't believe that this could be true but added that he would “certainly look further into the matter.” However, I held up a hand to stop him. I was glad to be sitting down because had I been standing he surely would have noticed that I was trembling and my knocking knees would certainly have given me away. As it was, I realized that I was sweating profusely.
But getting control of my voice, I said, “General, I'm not asking you to do anything, except make sure there's police protection on the door of my building to ensure that no one else gets hurt.”
I told him of my visit to Precinct Captain Ricciardi and of the comisario’s refusal to give me protection despite the judge’s orders. I said, “I don’t want them blowing up the entire building to kill me. I want protection for my neighbors and my wife. If they want me, they’ll take me no matter what.”
I noticed that Llamas was no longer disagreeing with my theories. That didn’t come as a relief to me. He said, “Señor Newland, I want you to know that when you get home, there will be Federal Police protection on your door. We’ll also have a policeman assigned to protect you personally.”
“You mean a bodyguard?”
“No thanks. I’m a newsman. I can’t work with a guy following me around all day, and like the comisario says, if they’re set on killing me, they’ll do it whether I have a bodyguard or not.”
Then I played a card that I had been mulling over all day before coming to this meeting. I tried to keep my voice from trembling when I said it. “One thing though,” I said. “I do indeed want a license to carry a weapon.”
The general was taken aback. “I see,” he said. “Well, I, for instance, don’t carry one.”
“You don’t have to, General,” I said. “You have people to carry them for you. But I do, and if they come to get me, I have a message for them. They’ll be facing an ex-NCO of the United States Army and an expert marksman. I still have the medal to prove it. If they come, they’ll only take me dead, and I’m taking some of them with me. I’ll carry a weapon whether I get a license or not, but I’m asking you, please, to get me one.”
To my surprise, Llamas said, “Yes, yes, of course. Give me a day or so, then call this number.” He wrote the number on a slip of paper and handed it to me. “Ask to talk to Señor Trentadue.”
When I recounted this part of the conversation to Cox later on, I saw him laugh genuinely and heartily for the first time in days. “Mr. Thirty-Two!” he exploded in mirth, “They’re sending you to Mr. Thirty-Two! Trentadue! It’s Italian for thirty-two. It’s a code name!”
But before I went in to work, I returned home. I found that when I came out of Government House, after my conversation with General Llamas, I was shaking like a leaf. What if that conversation were a sort of test, to see how far I’d bend? And what if my hardline stance was my own death warrant? What if Llamas was testing the waters to see if I’d leave the country, go peacefully and be no more trouble to the military? What if right now, while they knew exactly where I was, they just snatched me off the street? It wouldn’t be the first time someone was taken in broad daylight. Nor would it be the first time someone disappeared right after leaving a police station or a government office.
Feeling tense and nervous, I walked quickly across Plaza de Mayo in front of Government House, crossed the street and hailed a cab heading up Avenida de Mayo toward midtown. But after about ten blocks, I left the cab and took the subway. Then I left the subway two stations before my stop and walked the rest of the way home. These diversionary tactics that I spontaneously applied as a precaution were to become a habit for a long time after that. As would things like sitting with my back to the wall and facing the entrance—near a side exit if one existed—when I was in a bar or restaurant, walking on past my apartment building instead of going in if I saw suspicious cars or people in front of it, glancing up and down the block from the doorway before stepping off the stoop of my building onto the sidewalk, and carrying a knife in the outside pocket of my jacket where I could get at it quickly. Sometimes these precautions seemed silly, paranoid or plain futile to me. But then again, doing everything you could to foil an attempt on your life was the only insurance you had, and once you were in the midst of a situation it would be too late to wish you had been more precautious.
For many weeks to follow, Federal
Policemen like this one would
stand guard at my apartment building.
“Here he is now!” she said, excited by the prospect of our proletarian building’s being important enough to merit a police detail. “Hola,” she said as I made my way up the two steps from the street, and leaned forward to brush my cheek with hers. “Los señores are here for you,” she said.
Both of the cops were dark, very clean-cut and looked to be in good shape. They had politely removed their caps to talk to the portera and had them high up under their arms, like cadets. One was a sergeant, whose carefully trimmed black hair was graying a little at the temples. The other one was younger, a corporal.
“Señor Newland?” the older one queried, holding out his hand to shake mine.
“Yes, mucho gusto,” I said.
“We’ve been assigned to protect you.”
“Thank you for coming,” I said, then added, “Actually, as I explained to the comisario and to General Llamas, you’re here to protect the building. In reality, I’m going to have to take care of myself.”
The sergeant explained that there would be two or three pairs of policemen guarding the building in shifts twenty-four/seven until it was decided that their presence was no longer warranted. Whenever possible they would always be the same sets of policemen. We discussed details of where they would mount guard and how their presence would affect the other residents of the building.
Very soon, the cops on my door had become a regular feature of the building. We made sure they got coffee and sandwiches and snacks and the portera frequently plied them with refreshments of her own accord. On my way in or out, I would sometimes stop to chat with them for a while.
They had been assigned to me for about a week, when the sergeant with whom I had originally spoken took me aside one morning to talk to me. This was the first confirmation I had ever personally had of the rumor that the editorial pages of the Herald were frequently translated into Spanish by the government and disseminated among the country’s military and security forces, since now the policeman said, “Señor, we know what you think of the police.”
I looked puzzled and said, “What do you mean?”
“Well,” he said, “that if a corporal from the Army comes along and tells us to beat it, we will.”
I started to protest, but he held up his hand to stop me.
“All I want you to know, is that if anybody comes here and tries to harm you or your wife, they’ll first have to go over two from the ‘Federica’,” he said, using the nickname cops gave to the Federal Police.
I felt my face flush and said, “Thank you, Sergeant, I really appreciate that.”
“Ustedes lo merecen,” he answered, which means, “You folks deserve it.”
It was many weeks before the cops were taken off my door, as quickly as they had been put on. But for a very long time afterward, it wasn’t unusual when I was walking the streets of the Almagro district for a passing squad car to give its siren a little rev and for the occupants, one of whom, at some point, had stood watch at my home, to wave or touch the bills of their caps in an informal salute.
Never again after that did I think of all cops as being the same or of all of them as kowtowing to the military regime. It was the institution that was flawed, not necessarily the individuals.