Journalist, fiction writer and political activist Rodolfo Walsh was a prolific and diverse writer. Famous for his 1957 book ‘Operación masacre’ and the open letter he addressed to the Argentine military junta one day before his murder, Walsh is remembered as a writer who sought not only to defend the free press but also to expose and share the truths he uncovered.
A hugely original and influential author, he is considered a forerunner of a style of writing known as ‘new journalism’ and is the undisputed but often overlooked founder of investigative journalism.
Early Life and Politics
Walsh was born in the Argentine province of Rio Negro in 1927. At five years old he moved to the province of Buenos Aires and was later sent to boarding school due to family separation.
After completing his secondary education, he began studying philosophy but dropped out, taking on a variety of jobs before eventually accepting a job as a proofreader at the publishing house Hachette.
By his mid twenties he’d fully immersed himself in a writing career, contributing short stories to magazines such as Leóplan and Vea y Lea. In 1953 he compiled the first Argentine anthology of detective fiction and that same year was awarded the municipal literature prize for his own book of short stories titled ‘Variaciones en rojo’.
Politically, Walsh became easily disillusioned. As a teenager he’d joined the right wing Nationalist Liberation Alliance, an organisation he later denounced as being a Nazi front. By the mid 1950s he was neither a supporter of Peronism or of the hard policies of post-coup leader Pedro Eugenio Aramburu.
Whilst he’d initially supported the uprising that had overthrown president Juan Domingo Perón in his second term, he became unhappy with the country’s new leadership within a year. In 1958 he expressed his disappointment with having to choose between the unwelcome ideologies of one party and the equally unwelcome ideologies of another: “What I don’t properly understand is how they intend to make us choose between the Peronist barbarity and the revolutionary one. Between the murderers of Ingallinella and the murders of Satanowsky”.
Besides several famous open letters, Walsh published a variety of literature from 1953 until his death in 1977. His bibliography includes short stories, several investigative novels, two plays and three posthumous works.
The fictional characters in his early books were well rounded and served as Argentine interpretations of classic detective figures such as Sherlock Holmes and Auguste Dupin. His subsequent texts followed less fictional and more documentary lines however, such as the investigative novels ‘Operación masacre’, ‘Caso Satanowsky’, and ‘Quién mató a Rosendo?’.
All three appeared as thoroughly researched investigations into real life murders and together formed an exemplary trilogy of what would later be labelled ‘new journalism’.
Of these texts by far the most famous and most commented upon is ‘Operación masacre’. First published in 1957, it exposed the illegal execution of a group of innocent civilians mistaken for Peronist sympathisers. Walsh described himself as having written the book “on the spur of the moment”, and later revised it on two separate occasions before publishing it in its final form in 1969.
Divided into three parts – the people, the facts and the evidence – the novel was based on real life events following a failed attempt to restore Peronism to power in 1956. Skillfully balancing fact and fiction, it anticipated the flurry of testimonial writing that emerged elsewhere in the 1960s and 70s and preceded the likes of Truman Capote by almost ten years.
Defender of Free Journalism
Following the success of ‘Operación masacre’ Walsh travelled to post-revolution Cuba in 1959. There he joined the Colombian writer Gabriel Garcia Marquez as one of the founders and earliest writers at Jorge Masetti’s Latin American news agency, Prensa Latina.
On his return to Argentina, he became involved in the newsletter of left wing union organisation the General Confederation of Labour of the Argentine (CGTA). Walsh took on a critical role in the production of the CGTA’s weekly from 1968-1972, as well as undertaking additional work for other Argentine weekly and daily publications.
By 1970 Walsh was associated with a branch of the Peronist Armed Forces, a leftist organisation that merged with Peronist guerrilla group the Montoneros three years later. From 1973 he worked for the Montoneros in areas of intelligence and press distribution but became discontent with the direction they were taking. In 1975 he expressed his disagreement with their leader’s decision to take the group underground, but would soon be forced to take his own reporting out from under the military’s radar.
Following the coup which gave way to Argentina’s infamous dictatorship in 1976, Walsh founded a clandestine Latin American news agency in response to recently imposed press censorship. That same year, several members of the Montoneros including Paco Urondo, Alberto Molina and Walsh’s own daughter Victoria took their own lives to avoid assassination by military leaders – events which Walsh relayed to the public through his letter ‘Carta a mis amigos’.
Walsh’s activism was reportedly not confined to literary means. Although not proven, some suggest he was the mastermind behind the bomb in the dining room of the federal police and that he was also responsible for the murder of Augusto Vandor, the union leader he blamed for the murder of Rosendo García in his 1969 book ‘Quién mató a Rosendo?’.
Shortly after posting the first copies of ‘Carta abierta de un escritor a la junta militar’ – an open letter addressed to the Argentine military junta – he was apprehended by members of the national security forces. He defended himself with a handgun but was assassinated on 25 March 1977 and became one of the many thousands of people who were “disappeared” during the dictatorship of Jorge Rafael Videla.
Although he considered himself a revolutionary above a writer, Walsh will always be remembered for the consistent manner in which his literature sought to uncover and expose the truth. An exponent of new journalism, the founder of investigative journalism and a defender of the free press, he played a hugely influential part in Argentine writing and investigative journalism worldwide.
Several films have been based on his life and work, including ‘Operación masacre‘ in 1973 and the 1979 film ‘Las AAA son las tres armas’. The Rodolfo Walsh prize remains Argentina’s most prestigious press award.