Winter 1972. The dictatorship of Lanusse is slowly losing its grip on power, and protests by left-wing organisations, trade unionists and students are becoming more and more frequent. The call for elections and a return to democracy is getting louder, and the country increasingly polarised.
Since the 1966 coup, human rights have deteriorated and arbitrary imprisonment of intellectuals, students and trade unionists – or simply those with different ideologies than the ruling junta – is a regular occurrence.
The jails are starting to fill with political prisoners, many of whose only crime is a different way of thinking. Outraged, the left-wing forces begin organising themselves, and by the end of 1970 many guerrilla and militant groups have formed, the most well-known being the Montoneros, ERP (the People’s Revolutionary Army, the militant wing of the PRT, the Worker’s Revolutionary Party) and the FAR (Armed Revolutionary Party).
The most dangerous – or perhaps just influential – prisoners are tucked firmly out of sight, away from Buenos Aires, in two maximum-security penitentiaries – one in Chaco, in the north of Argentina, and another in Rawson, close to Trelew, in a far-flung corner of Chubut, Patagonia.
At the door of Rawson penitentiary, the cold Patagonian wind whips around my head. The sky goes on forever, and the horizon is far away. It is flat and barren. The enormity of the landscape contrasts horrifically with what is on the other side of the door.
Standing in the cell, if I stretch my arms out no matter which way I turn I can touch the walls. It is cold and bare. And tiny. A metal stool and table are in the corner. And I am told two people would normally have been housed in this space in the 1970s.
One man breaks down, revisiting the cell where he spent nine hard years. He tells me that coming back is a contradiction – he is reliving the hell of all those years, but at the same time experiencing again the solidarity of the compañeros with whom he survived hell. He points out that we are not shown the punishment cell, where it was said you would lose a kilo a day, such were the conditions.
Someone else cracks a joke, and everyone laughs, easing the tension. It is what they used to do, they tell me, humour got them through. Except laughing was punishable, they are quick to add, and the sombreness returns.
And then I emerge from the cellblock and the dazzling sunlight is blinding. Although I cannot see the remote landscape outside – the whitewashed prison walls prevent such a view – there is something in the air, or the sun, or maybe even the sky that tantalises, making me aware of what I am missing out on.
The experience is overwhelming.
Faced with these devastating conditions, on 15th August 1972, over 100 political prisoners tried to escape.
Rawson was a fortress, and the junta expected that if an escape attempt was to happen, it would come from the outside. As a result the prison was heavily armed on the outside, but inside the defences were much lower, as if an unaided breakout would never happen. It would have been suicide – even if such a breakout could happen, where could the prisoners go? Adding to the odds against such an attempt, aero-naval base Almirante Zar was just outside of Trelew, and the region was thus teeming with military personnel.
However, as Fernando Vaca Narvaja, one of the masterminds of the escape, explains: “All of the prisons had escape plans. In Rawson there were two; the first was a tunnel, which we started, but it kept flooding, so we turned to a different idea, which was the one we undertook. We conceived it differently, conceptually. Some 100 compañeros on the outside were involved in the planning, and on the inside we hatched the escape in cellblock 5.”
The breakout had military planning and precision, with every detail and possibility considered and accounted for. The idea was for the inmates to take the prison from the inside, using one of the regular military inspections as cover.
“We managed to get on side one of the guards, Carmelo Facio, who smuggled in military uniforms and a gun,” Narvaja adds.
On the day of the inspection, 15th August 1972, Narvaja put on the uniform in the belief they would arouse less suspicion initially disguised as military personnel, and by the time the guards realised it would be too late.
The prisoners were split into three groups, the first consisting of six compañeros who would lead the operation, dressed as military personnel. The six included founding and leading members of the Montoneros, ERP and FAR.
The second group, consisting of 19 further detainees, would stabilise the prison, and leave in the second wave, and then a final group of 89 prisoners would follow behind.
The taking of the jail went almost like clockwork, the prisoners finding no resistance to their efforts, until a guard, Juan Gregorio Valenzuela, got into a violent confrontation with Marcos Osatinsky, of FAR, and was shot dead. Osatinsky had a silencer on his gun and the shooting went unknown by other guards, and so didn’t arouse suspicion. The operation carried on as planned.
They made it to the exterior posts of the prison, and guerrillas took up the positions of the guards, surveilling the Patagonian plains.
The first vehicle, a Ford Falcon, driven by a compañero came into the prison compound, and took the first six as planned. However, upon leaving they realised that the van and trucks were not there to take and second and third group of prisoners.
Jorge Lewinger, one of the FAR people planning the escape from the outside, takes responsibility for this. He misread one of the signals and interpreted it to mean the escape had gone wrong. Realising how dangerous it would have been if they were caught outside, he informed the drivers to abort the mission. They learnt of their mistake when talking having driven various kilometres, and turned back, but upon approaching the prison realised they were too late as the military were everywhere.
Meanwhile the first group of escapees drove around Rawson looking for the other vehicles. Narvaja explained: “We were supposed to only take 15 minutes to take the prison, and it took 17 or 18. We guessed they thought something had gone wrong, or they had got lost. We tried finding them, but to no avail. Knowing we had a plane to catch, we told the second group to call for taxis, and headed to the airport in Trelew.”
The second group made the calls, and three taxis soon arrived to take the 19 prisoners to the airport. The final group had little choice other than to remain behind.
Celedonio Carrizo, one of the 89 left behind, who, had the taxis been slightly bigger, would have been the next prisoner to taste freedom, says: “At the time we were obviously disappointed, but we were also happy as we felt the operation had been a success as 25 compañeros had made it out. And we were proud of them.”
The first group of militants made it to the airport in time to catch the flight, which was coming from Comodoro Rivadavia en route to Buenos Aires. Three other militants were on board the plane, and the plan was to hijack it at Trelew, and divert to Chile. The escapees arrived at the airport when the plane was already on the runway, preparing for takeoff. So they decided to head up to the control tower and tell the traffic controllers they had had a tip-off there was a bomb on board, and they would have to inspect the aircraft. This was plausible, as they were all dressed in military uniforms, and so were allowed to board the plane with little difficulty, which the three militants on board, seeing them coming, had already taken control of. They delayed taking off until they felt they could no longer, and managed to divert the plane to Puerto Mont in southern Chile, followed by the capital Santiago, where socialist president Salvador Allende guaranteed their asylum and safe passage to Cuba, some ten days later.
The second group of 19 escapees arrived at the airport in the three taxis just in time to see the plane take off.
Knowing the military would be on their tail shortly, and fearing for their lives should they be caught unprepared, they took control of the airport and held the passengers and staff hostage, demanding access to lawyers, doctors and journalists. They were granted all of their requests, and were allowed to speak to the judge and lawyers, as well as talk to the cameras about what had happened. They asked to be returned to the prison, saying they would go peacefully in return for the guarantee of their own safety.
Capitan Sosa, one of the military commanders at the Almirante Zar base, gave his word the military would comply. On the 16th August, the 19 found themselves en route to the prison, when they unexpectedly diverted to the military base. They were told Rawson jail was still under the control of the inmates, and they would be going to the base instead. The judge, lawyers and journalists who had accompanied them in their journey were not allowed to enter, and had no choice but to leave them at the entrance to the base.
Over the subsequent days the prisoners were interrogated and tortured by the military authorities, their maltreatment worsening daily, until on 21st August they were told they would be returning to Rawson institute the next day.
However, such hopes were never to be realised, as at 3.30am on 22nd August, 16 of the prisoners were shot dead.
Thirteen were killed outright, including Ana María Villarreal de Santucho, the wife of ERP leader Roberto Santucho who had made it to Chile in the first wave of the escape. She was four months pregnant at the time. Three more died later that day from blood loss sustained in their injuries, with just three surviving to tell the truth of what happened that night.
The official version of events, as told by Capitan Sosa, was that Mariano Pujadas, one of the prisoners, had taken his gun and tried to initiate an escape, and the military had been forced to return fire. This version, made public shortly after the shootings, was full of contradictions and widely questioned.
The three survivors’ testimonies, which were made public after the dictatorship fell the following year, told a very different tale.
At 3.30am the prisoners were violently woken and forced from their cells and told to form a line. Defenceless, they were machine gunned by a group of soldiers on the command of Sosa, after he said: “Now you’re going to see what anti-guerrilla terror really looks like.” The only thing that stopped all of the 19 prisoners from being killed was the arrival of other soldiers on the scene.
The massacre was an unprecedented incident in the history of Argentina, although an ominous sign of things to come later in the decade. It led to demonstrations around the country, and is regarded as the turning point in the history of ERP, which grew more militant almost overnight, having lost 11 members.
Of the incident, current secretary for human rights, Eduardo Luis Duhalde, who represented more than one of the 19 political prisoners, says: “As a lawyer, it is the most impotent I have ever felt. Under a dictatorship there is no rule of law, and therefore my role was demoted to one of watching.”
Last month over 350 former political prisoners returned to Rawson prison for the 35th anniversary of the massacre. To mark the anniversary, the old airport, which had stood empty for some 30 years, was opened as a space for memory.
One of the cellblocks of Rawson was also reopened for the anniversary, which allowed the former prisoners to re-enter where they had been housed all those years ago.