Rodolfo Walsh
An Argentine Irishman

By Michael John Geraghty

Buenos Aires Herald, 29 March 2002

Obituaries at the best of times are dull, dry and depressing and Rodolfo Walsh’s would have read something like: "born 9 January 1927 in Río Negro, died tragically 25 March, 1977 in Buenos Aires. Deeply regretted by his loving family and friends. Religious ceremony and funeral arrangements to be announced. No flowers by request. We did not see you close your eyes, we did not see you die, we only knew you had gone without a last goodbye".

There was however no obituary to announce his death at the early age of 50 years, no religious ceremony was ever held, no funeral arrangements were ever made. Rodolfo Walsh lies forever in an unmarked grave on which no flowers were ever laid. The Buenos Aires Herald and offshore Radio Colonia were the only media to report his death and their journalists Robert Cox, Andrew Graham-Yool and Ariel Delgado had to flee Argentina and its bloodthirsty dictatorship..

Walsh was a member of the Montoneros, the leftist terrorist organization, and on the first anniversary of Jorge Rafael Videla’s dictatorship, 24 March 1977, he committed the unforgivable crime of accusing the dictatorship in an open letter of "toppling an elected government…banning political parties…intervening trade unions…gagging the press…installing the worst reign of terror ever known in Argentina… imprisoning thousands of people without due process…brutally torturing and summarily executing them…disappearing 15,000 people and exiling tens of thousands more …throwing prisoners into the ocean from aircraft…creating concentration camps where judges, lawyers, journalists, and international observers cannot enter… plunging millions of people into preplanned misery by destroying industry, freezing wages and increasing prices…without hope of being listened to, I know I will be hunted down, but I am faithful to the commitment I assumed to give testimony in times of difficulty".

The letter was "one of the jewels of universal literature," according to Gabriel García Márquez, but "the day after Walsh decried these atrocities", wrote US historian, Donald C. Hodges, "three army tanks demolished his home in the capital’s suburb of San Vicente and disappeared (1) him as well". He was murdered in broad daylight in downtown Buenos Aires by a military death squad whose instructions were to capture him alive, but had to kill him when he pulled a gun to return their fire. His dead body was dumped into the boot a car, taken to the notorious Navy Mechanics’ School (ESMA), gloated over, desecrated and never seen again.

At the moment of his death, Walsh, disguised as an old-age pensioner, was on his way to a meeting with José Salgado, the Montonero and police officer who - in July 1976 - placed in the Central Police Department the bomb which killed 20 policemen and maimed some 60 others. Strangely enough, Walsh - who was a high-ranking member of Montoneros intelligence - did not know on that fatal morning Salgado had been captured months previously, tortured beyond recognition and executed. In other words Rodolfo Walsh was set up by his own Montoneros whose leadership may have been working with and for the armed forces. The point has never been clarified, but there can be no doubt some terrorists were serving both masters and not everyone was as committed to their ideals as Rodolfo Walsh was.

"I was born in "Choele-Choel", he wrote, "which means heart of wood", and he added with the typical wit of the Irish, "many women have scolded me for my wooden heart!" The Walshes were typical Irish Argentines. One of his brothers is a naval officer and a sister is a nun. He inherited his love of literature from his mother, Dora Gill, an avid reader. When the family fell on hard times in one of Argentina’s always recurring crises, Rodolfo was sent to an orphanage-cum- boarding school "to learn reading, writing and arithmetic from priests who never forgot to use the stick". He also learned to stand up for himself to these abusive priests and bullying companions. Los Oficios Terrestres and Irlandeses detrás de un Gato are stories about his school days and portray the pitfalls, cruelty and loneliness of boarding-school life. In 1951 he published Los Nutrieros about the ups and downs of otter poachers. The die was well and truly cast and Walsh’s concern all his life was justice for the physically weak and the socially excluded.

He is credited with being the father of investigative journalism in Argentina. In 1957 he published Operación Masacre - based on an interview with a survivor - which tells the real story of how a group of 34 men, most of whom had no connection with a recent revolt against the Aramburu dictatorship, were taken to a garbage dump in José León Suárez, a suburb of Buenos Aires, and summarily executed in a hail of machine gun fire. "All Peronists", said Perón, "are indebted to the author of Operación Masacre", but Walsh was now a marked man and anonymous death threats became part of his life.

In 1969 he published ¿Quién Mató a Rosendo? which tells how trade-unionist, Rosendo García, died in an Avellaneda pizzeria in a shoot-out between rival unionists, Raimundo Ongaro and Augusto ‘Wolf’ Vandor (2). In 1973 he published ‘El Caso Satanovsky’ which tells the sordid tale of the murder of a leading lawyer who was litigating against the military government. None of these cases were ever solved and Rodolfo Walsh became an unpopular name for many powerful people for having investigated them.

He was also a master of the short story genre and Esa Mujer, published posthumously in 1986 is considered by many one of best short stories in Argentine literature. It evokes the memory of Eva Perón without ever mentioning her name. In it Walsh illustrates brilliantly through an interview with a drunken army colonel the immense power for good and for evil she exercised on Argentines even after her death. Unfortunately many of Walsh’s unpublished manuscripts were destroyed in the 1977 military raid on his house in San Vicente.

When the Videla government came to power in 1976, Walsh was already in the Montoneros after militating in catholic action, nationalism and Peronist Armed Forces (FAP). When the government closed Noticias, the Montoneros newspaper, Walsh, with an underground network of journalists and contacts, founded, published and distributed Clandestine News Agency (ANCLA). He was no newcomer to underground publishing and was, along with Gabriel García Márquez, one of the founders of Prensa Latina in 1959 in Havana, Cuba. "We need nothing," he told colleagues, "other than a typewriter and a mimeograph". ANCLA was the first Argentine news agency to report the casualties of the dirty war that was tearing Argentina apart and the atrocities that were taking place in ESMA and other concentration camps. Walsh was by now a very wanted man and high on the military hit list.

In September 1976, his oldest daughter María Victoria, also a member of the Montoneros, was killed in a shoot-out. Walsh was shattered emotionally and he penned Carta a Mis Amigos about "the short, hard, marvelous life" of his dead daughter "whose true cemetery is our memory". ANCLA was no longer enough, he probably sensed his end was near, and he founded Cadena Informativa, a two-page newsletter. He typed it himself on his battered, portable Royal typewriter "bought from Matusalem", mimeographed and distributed it however he could. It always ended telling readers "terror is based on the absence of communication, defeat it by breaking the isolation, so copy and circulate this information and rest assured tinhorn dictators surrounded by bayonets and truncheons are terrified by spoken words and stirring thoughts".

His second and surviving daughter, Patricia Cecilia Walsh, was elected to the House of Representatives in the last election on a leftist ticket and on 19 March 2002 she delivered on a campaign promise to table a motion in Congress to have the "full-stop" and "due obedience" amnesty laws repealed. However only 46 out of Argentina’s 257 legislators turned up to debate the motion which was dropped because of lack of quorum. Unfortunately Argentina continues to be a country with a great capacity to forget its own tragedies and is therefore irrevocably condemned to repeat them. Rodolfo Walsh overcame the illness of forgetting what should never be forgotten and immolated his own life in the process. May he rest in peace wherever he lies.


(1) ‘Disappear’ was an intransitive verb in English until English-language journalists and historians writing about the Argentine situation used it as a transitive verb to describe the disappearances of thousands of people in Argentina under the 1976 – 1982 Argentine hardline military dictatorship. A questionable contribution to philology, but a contribution nevertheless!

(2) Argentines have a great ability to nickname people and Augusto Vandor became ‘Wolf’ because he had a pretty little girfriend in Saavedra, a Buenos Aires neighborhood, who wore a Little-Red-Riding-Hood style bright-red cloak!


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