A State of Fear

Andrew Graham-Yooll


A State of Fear

Andrew Graham-Yooll


For ten hair-raising years, Andrew Graham-Yooll was the news editor of the Buenos Aires Herald. All around him friends and acquaint- ances were ‘disappearing’. Although the slightest mistake might have caused his own disappearance, he didn’t shrink from getting first- hand experience of this war of terror; he attended the clandestine guerrilla conferences, helped relatives trace the missing, and took tea with a torturer who wasn’t ashamed to make the most chilling confessions.

‘One of the most affecting books I have ever read.’ - The Times
‘... Graham-Yooll’s brilliant book is the portrait of a society that seems on the edge of final dissolution.’ - Spectator
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A State of Fear: Memories of Argentina’s Nightmare
ISBN: 978-1906011-34-5
Format:192pp demi pb
Place: Argentina

Author Biography

Andrew Graham-Yool was born in 1944 in Buenos Aires of a Scottish father and English Mother. He is the author of about twenty books, written in English and Spanish. A State of Fear has become a classic on the years of terror in Argentina. It was first published by Eland in 1986.

Graham-Yool joined the Buenos Aires Herald in 1966. He left the paper in 1973 when he had to go into exile during the military dictatorship. In Britain he worked for the Daily Telegraph and the Guardian, before becoming editor of Southmagazine in 1985. In 1989 he was appointed editor of Index on Censorship magazine. In 1994 he returned to Argentina and the Buenos Aires Herald, where he became editor-in-chief and president of the board. Since 1998 he has been the paper’s senior editor.

Before his return to Argentina, Graham-Yooll was a fellow at Wolfson College, University of Cambridge.


Extract from Chapter One

AFTER THE INITIAL greeting, after the pleasure of seeing him again – a man for whose release from prison I had campaigned as far as self-censorship and my own limited guts permitted – he sat on the chair by my desk. He put his elbows on his knees and looked down, took a long pull on his cigarette and blew a jet of smoke at the floor.

‘How would you like to be kidnapped?’ he asked, without looking up. Ten or fifteen heartbeats jolted my body. They filled my ears to deafness, reddened my face. The sound mixed with the thought of how worried my wife would be; whether the paper could afford a ransom; what the editor would say about my suddenly disappearing and whether I could go with so much of the paper still to be done. When the noise in my ears subsided I asked feebly, ‘Now?’

‘No, for Christ’s sake ... Let’s arrange a time and a place.’

The time of this story is in the distant dullness of undesirable memories which can become unnervingly vivid, then subside. The events are filed away with my dismay at the refinement of cruelty; with my anger at the stupidity of immolation of young men and women, of old school chums and newsroom mates, of the parents of my children’s friends ... They are filled with my bewilderment at the brutality of guerrilla action and counter-action in the place where I was born, Argentina. Life was easy, though often parochial, even in the largest cities, where the narrowness of views and absence of rational thought reflect the shallowness of oft-claimed cosmopolitanism. I am still shocked by the folly of youthful rebels. They found explanations for murder in a tone of voice which sounded like normal discussion in conversation, the outrage hardly noticeable in day-to-day dying, in a country where death is part of life. I am just as overwhelmed by the fury of the backlash; the blind cruelty of the most primitive beings, with the cold calculation of the very cunning.

Cruelty has run through the continent. A continent which European writers have failed to explain and few Latin Americans have succeeded in interpreting.

Now I am thinking of events between 1972 and 1976; but I am beginning to believe that it might have been any five years in the last four centuries. It is not that historical cycles have been repeated; it is just that there have been no cycles; the behaviour has never changed. There was change in the intensity of the action, not in the perspective.

Events put me now so far away from home; home on the south side of Buenos Aires, on the British-run railway line in a village built as a watering stop for British-built steam engines; where the evening train stopped at twenty-past-six, pre-established by an English manager of the Southern Railway traffic office, who thought half-past-six was the right time for the day’s first gin and tonic. It seems a whole era away from the annual outings of our village English School to the English pantomime in the city. This outing by the Ranelagh Community School (Ranelagh being fourteen miles south of Buenos Aires, not in south-west London) took place each year on Empire Day, the very eve of Argentina’s Liberty Day. Afterwards, we wrote essays – about Empire Day, of course.

He looked up, noticed my discomfort, and said: ‘We want to talk to you. We want you to come.’

He sat by my desk, the news editor’s desk, in the Buenos Aires Herald, Argentina’s centenarian English-language daily newspaper, next door to the English Club. He stood and walked across the newsroom to a large wall-plan of the city of Buenos Aires. His finger pointed to a little green box, a park, a few blocks from the Plaza Constitución terminal of what used to be called the Southern Railway (Ferro Carril Sud) and is now the General Roca Line of the Argentine National Railways.

‘I’ll meet you there. At ten o’clock in the morning,’ he told me. It was an order. I made a protest about the time, because I usually went to bed at 3 a.m. But I knew that my curiosity, his orders – he was a few years younger than I: a pip-squeak giving me orders – and my pride would combine to get me there on time.

He had surprised me with his visit. He had been out of prison only a few days, freed under the amnesty decreed in his first hours in office by our new President, Héctor Cámpora.

My visitor had walked into the newsroom with the air of a person who knew it. As he walked towards my desk by the window I had risen with my arms opening and a smile on my face. ‘Keep your voice down,’ he had snapped, with a thin smile. I had dropped into my chair.

I told him I was delighted to see him, remarked that he looked too thin. He had always been thin; but he had become anaemic in prison. He had been arrested one year before, accused of driving the car used in the kidnapping of the managing director of a car manufacturing subsidiary in Argentina.

My friend’s arrest in a flat in San Telmo, the old South side of the city, as evidence of his political activism, had come as a surprise to many of us. I remembered him from parties in the late sixties, usually parties which gathered fashionable writers, playwrights, artists and publishers. My wife and I were not fashionable, but somehow were invited anyway. He had been there, collecting praise as one of the better magazine journalists, writing on events concerning the Tupamaro guerrillas in Uruguay and the international arms market. His girlfriend in those days was a beautiful young woman who would go to those parties in the very short shorts, ‘hot pants’, then fashionable. I remembered sitting by her on the floor, in conversation, my eyes straying down the length of her long, white legs. The couple had parted that year – it must have been about 1970 – as politics entered their lives and took them separate ways. He went into the vernacular Marxist People’s Revolutionary Army; she into trade union activism (and later into the press and propaganda section of the nationalist Auténtico Party, the surface branch of the Montoneros guerrillas. In 1976, police would go to a meeting of party officers and she would be killed with several others).

Two days later, on a rainy wintry morning in June 1973, I set out for the prearranged abduction. Before leaving our home in Acassuso, half an hour north of the city, I told my wife not only where I was going, but also where the insurance policy was; which publishers had what of mine and at what stage of printing; whom to call, in case of ‘problems’; and other precautions one takes at times such as the eve of departure on a business trip or an aeroplane flight on holiday. But we hoped nothing would happen.

How could anything happen? These were people whom we used to meet at parties; the idea of guns in their hands was too remote, too theoretical. It is true that some of them killed, some of them got killed, but I had not yet seen a body ripped to bits by bullets, and so it all seemed a little inconceivable. The idea that I could stand around talking to people who killed and then discussed death as part of politics had not yet entered my field of political writing. It was 1973, and, politically, I was half-baked. Friends had been arrested, friends of friends had been killed. Even I had been arrested as a reporter once. A drunken policeman had once fired a shot rather close to me in Ranelagh, years ago; and even my father, in anger at my careless handling of a pistol, had fired a shot from a .22 Smith & Wesson between my legs, when I was ten. But it was all part of living, not of dying.

It was still drizzling as I came out of the underground in Plaza Constitución, a grey building that is not too distantly related to Victoria Station, but facing a lifeless park with a tile pavement around the perimeter, and tile pavements crossing diagonally and meeting at a bare tile area in the centre.

It was only a few blocks to the rendezvous, another desolate square with tile pavements around the perimeter and tile pavements crossing diagonally ... This part of town, loved as a warm ‘barrio’ by its residents, looked hostile to the outsider with its smelly food stores, which had spotty mirrors, cold stone counter-tops and floors covered with sawdust to take up the damp from the patrons’ wet shoes. The rows of assignation hotels along Santiago del Estero street fell behind and made way to the fortress-like flat-roof houses with deep doorways (often leading into beautiful patios) and tall shuttered windows which were opened only for a girl’s fifteenth birthday party, or a wedding; and then were shut again for years.

Close to the square he came into sight, walking towards me, looking even thinner than when he had come to the newsroom, as the rain plastered his hair down on his forehead, and his shoulders, hunched forward, drooped away from the upturned collar of his coat. As I looked at him, skipping over puddles, I wondered why anybody might ever think he could be a killer.

There was a strange feeling in my stomach. Some people call what I assume is a similar feeling to them, a knot. Others call it butterflies. It is a kind of sudden emptiness, in spite of any recent meal, and I had had a normal breakfast an hour before.

‘It is raining,’ he informed me as we crossed. ‘You better go for a cup of coffee.’ He said there was a bar just around the corner and I would be fetched there. I asked if anything had gone wrong.

‘I’m going to get some petrol for the car.’ I guffawed with relief at the normality of such a difficulty. Later I was annoyed that even on such a minor issue as transport there was need to distort the truth. I had been summoned early so that I could be watched, and so that transportation arrangements could be made in safety.

In the tiny corner café, sitting at a table, were a reporter from an Argentine morning paper, a staff reporter from the Buenos Aires office of a United States news agency, and a roving correspondent of the Madrid newspaper Pueblo. Two patrons were at the bar counter, talking to the proprietor. We kept the Espresso machine hissing for the next forty-five minutes with several rounds of coffee. Two of us ordered large ‘especiales’ sandwiches, ham and cheese in a French roll. I was not the only one with a feeling of emptiness.

Before President Cámpora’s inauguration and the amnesty for political prisoners, guerrilla press conferences had seldom been held; interviews with guerrilla chiefs had been almost impossible to arrange, except for foreign correspondents who came and went. When guerrillas had wanted to say something – usually to mark a special occasion, because ordinary statements on action were made by telephone or by post – they had carried off one or two journalists, blindfolded. The ‘conference’ had usually been held in a moving van or car to avoid using any location. The name of kidnapping remained; but like so much jargon adjusted to political requirements, it was believed by nobody. So many words have a double meaning in Argentine politics...

After about half-an-hour we were joined by a young man. He had short neatly combed hair and chubby cheeks; he wore a smart raincoat, underneath which was an open-neck shirt. This dark- faced gentleman had obviously never been to prison and, in fact, had probably kept a regular job without any need to lose the cover. Our new companion ordered a cup of coffee and a sandwich and offered us something to drink, which we refused. After another fifteen minutes he stood, paid his bill and told us to get ready, coinciding exactly with the arrival of a small, very old school bus, painted in regulation bright orange. We were told to get into the bus quickly and the chubby chap left the café last. As we were climbing the three steps into the bus, the running engine back-fired and we thought of a shot. But the thought was gone before it took shape. The middle-aged driver, and two young men with him, took us, jolting and shaking, for about fifteen blocks. Conversation, had we been less tense and desired it, was made impossible anyway by the rattling noise of the bus.

The bus parked outside a large depot-like building, with huge metal doors. As we got out, another man came onto the bus and paid the driver, who was obviously not aware of who we were or what was going on.

We went through a small side door into a large, square, sombre room. It was a dance hall, one of dozens in the district, run by Spaniards catering to their community. We were told that the old couple at the bar at the far side of the room had been informed that the premises, rented by our hosts, were to be used for the purpose of holding a press conference to launch a literary magazine.

Our hosts, four in all – although we later learned that there were three more in the street, patrolling the block – invited us to sit down at a cluster of five tables, around which had been set some chairs.

One by one we were sent into the gents’ loo, where we were frisked by a man who seemed an expert at going over every inch of the body with flat hands, checking every pocket and every corner of cloth. His hand froze over my right-hand coat pocket. It was a Ventolin anti-asthma aspirator. He asked sternly what it was, the shape unrecognisable. When told, his face relaxed into a one- quarter smile; he muttered a few words of sympathy and remarked on the nuisance of the illness. I felt that he even admired me a little, subconsciously, for he mentioned that it was the ailment Ernesto ‘Che’ Guevara suffered all his life.

After this introduction, we waited at the table. We were served another round of coffee and glasses of ginebra, Dutch gin, and advised that we could use photographic cameras and tape recorders if we wished to. Who was coming? Well, as far as they knew, the chief of the political bureau of the Workers’ Revolutionary Party (PRT), the body organising the People’s Revolutionary Army (ERP). Who was that? asked the Spaniard in his ignorance. Why, Mario Roberto Santucho, of course.

On that cue, the side door by the large metal door opened and into the tiled-floor dance hall came Santucho, aged 36, previously a certified accountant; followed by his lieutenants, Benito Jorge Urteaga, aged 27, a former office clerk; Enrique Haroldo Gorriarán Merlo, aged 31, formerly an engineer and a one-time member of the Uruguayan Tupamaros organisation, now a commander of the ERP; and Jorge Molina, aged 30, an architect.

Santucho, nicknamed Robi, was a figure approaching legend. His appearance hardly lived up to the reputation, but then, it is difficult to say what I expected of his presence. He had dark curly hair, trimmed short; he was slight in build and soft-spoken. All four were clean-shaven, wore casual, well-fitting new clothes. Gorriarán Merlo was balding and had the looks of a middle-class commuter from suburbia; Urteaga had the warm, impish smile of the boy- about-town; Molina, looking a little gaunt, had the air of a Saturday-afternoon rugby-match spectator with his brown jacket and a silk scarf at his neck.

Santucho, a Marxist, had organised the ERP as an irregular army. He had broken out of prison twice in the last three years; once from the Tucumán jail and once, in August 1972, from the top security prison in Rawson, Chubut, from where he, Gorriarán Merlo and four others, had escaped in a hijacked plane to Chile, where they were given safe-conducts to go to Cuba. Allende was then Chile’s president.

I remembered how another nineteen who had escaped with them had not reached the airport in time. Among them was Santucho’s wife, Ana Villareal, and Gorriarán Merlo’s girl-friend, who had both been killed a few days later. In Santiago de Chile, Santucho and Gorriarán Merlo had broken down and cried.

As they came into the dance hall on that wintry June day, again the thought rose in me, not in my mind, but in the stomach, that these men had all killed other men. And yet they seemed charming. They shook hands with their own men, and then all four walked to each of us, politely introducing themselves and briefly asking how we were and if we had found getting there difficult. Their forces had behind them the fame of Robin Hoods who had hijacked dairy trucks for distribution of the goods in shanty towns, had held up lumber yards and building companies to take the materials to working-class areas where families lived in packing-case homes. They were admired by just as many as hated them.

They were charming young gentlemen ... an accountant, an architect ... They are honourable professions ... but I am condoning crime by remembering charm.

The press conference itself was an anti-climax. I was soon to learn that all guerrilla press conferences, like any other, for that matter, were anti-climaxes. They were held to expose a face, to make contact; but very little that was new was ever said. Guerrilla press conferences are special in the preparations, the apprehension, the fear and the uncertainty. And afterwards, there is the knowledge that one is marked. Police call to check one’s address, and telephone callers threaten some form of reprisal. Only sympathisers are called to guerrilla press conferences, they say.

We asked questions and received political answers; we even chatted around the cluster of tables. Santucho said he was bitter at his wife’s death; but he was not in search of vengeance. He said a political action had ended their love and marriage, so it would have to be political action that gave a meaning to her death and not render it useless. He spoke softly, without ever raising his voice. He showed no irritation at any question, even when we pressed him for details of his organisation’s numerical strength. His answer was simply, and repeatedly, that internal security prevented him from replying. His organisation forecast that Dr Cámpora’s government would not last (it collapsed after 49 days). He said the ERP held no kidnap victims (which he referred to as detainees) in the cells of ‘people’s prisons’ – which we did not believe; but anyway, the thought does arise that it is a ridiculous name for a cage – and he assured us that ERP forces had greased their guns after the amnesty to await political developments.

I did wonder which of my interlocutors might have squeezed a trigger and seen the man in front of him go down, a large red stain spreading and spurting like a leak in a garden hose. What did that man in dialogue with me think and what had he felt? Or was it all so quick that there was hardly time to notice the shock in the other’s face, the shock of knowing that death was immediate? There must have been hardly time to be aware that he would be no more, that whatever was said from then on, whatever was done, the man was no more than the body of a dog, run over by a car and flung to the roadside, as seen so often by every road in Argentina.

Somebody would explain that the first time was the worst. A gunbattle was the best time for initiation; a man or woman shooting for the first time at human targets would never know if anyone had been hit, who fired the shot, and how bad the wound. Sometimes, in this kind of fighting, there was no way of knowing. It was different at close range. Friends had to help then, with comfort and constant reminding of the cause. But the fact was that somebody fired a shot and somebody dropped dead and there is no way to explain such evil later.

When these thoughts came, I shut my eyes tightly and wiped my mind clean, like a drunk trying to focus; because, after all, how can one chat almost amicably with people who go around squeezing triggers and knowing the result is death.

The editor would refer to ‘my friends’ with a sneer, with disgust, with repulsion at the idea of men and women who seemed charming, friendly and with an average sense of humour, and who


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A State of Fear

could kill. They were in the other team, the one playing against the team that society dresses in uniform and licenses to kill. And some of them, too, from soldier to general, are often charming, friendly, and have a sense of humour.

It was chatty and friendly. Santucho did not know his legal status, after the amnesty. We, on the other hand, enjoyed talking with one of Argentina’s most wanted men. We used the formal usted mixed with the colloquial and more intimate vos and the whole event was recorded on a small tape recorder. We drank many cups of coffee and small glasses of ginebra. There was no display of guns; and the tension of two hours ago had disappeared.

Before parting, we asked if we could have photographs with them, to which they readily agreed. The one reporter who had a camera with him took several pictures. The man from Pueblo and I sat with our hosts for a picture because we wanted evidence of the meeting’s existence. Santucho, a few months before, had denied the existence of an interview with the correspondent of the Italian newspaper Corriere della Sera, who had alleged that the speakers were hooded but that he had recognised the voices.

The parting was as casual but earnest as the arrival. The chiefs left first, then the lower ranked men, until we were left with only one, who told us when we could walk out into the street. The four of us, alone again, shared a taxi back to the centre of town.

The picture and my story were in the Buenos Aires Herald next day. It raised me to the rank of super-reporter in many eyes. In many more I seemed to be, and probably still remain, a guerrilla.

Anonymous telephone calls to our home and to the paper, with threats, started later that day.