Rodolfo Walsh shot first.
That’s not why he died—he died because he was ambushed while mailing his final story to the underground sources that would disseminate it. One of Argentina’s top military leaders reportedly asked that the “fucking bastard” be brought back alive specifically for him. Walsh had a motto: “It isn’t a crime to talk; getting arrested is the crime.”
He drew his gun and fired at the squad of 10 armed men sent to kidnap him. He was dead before the Ford Falcon (the car of choice for the Argentina secret police) could swing around.
The man who had intercepted CIA messages in Cuba, the man who was could “spy on spies,” a man who spent his life rubbing elbows (and opposing) dangerous men, was finally dead. Killed because he knew death was better than what awaited him in the cells of a military torture chamber.
He may have won, in the end.
The Father of Woodward & Bernstein
Rodolfo Walsh was an Argentinian of Irish descent born in 1927. He dropped out of college in the 1940s, leaving his study of philosophy to work odd jobs. He eventually landed a gig as a proofreader at a newspaper in Buenos Aires. It was here that he found his calling.
See, Walsh was a writer—a storyteller, both of short-form stories and crime tales. But he was also a detective himself, an adept sleuth with the mind of a puzzle-solver. Those two skills eventually coalesced into a career that Walsh invented:
Walsh reportedly intercepted and translated the CIA message that tipped off the Bay of Pigs invasion. He was an intelligence operative for underground resistance fighters, a man who believed in fighting power with words instead of guns (but didn’t fail to arm himself, at least on his final day).
This was a writer who didn’t run from a fight, who saw clearly the brutal and destructive patterns around him. That’s why he remained in Argentina in the 1970s during one of the nation’s brutal military dictatorships.
Argentina in a Time of ‘War’
In 1976, a wave of military coups swept through Uruguay, Argentina, Brazil, and Chile. Their aim was to install regimes of radical capitalism: slashing public services and government budgets, selling public assets to private interests, and lifting all market regulations. Chile and its neighbors were left-leaning and practically Keynesian prior to the 1970s. Such radical unleashing of market ‘forces’ would never have been accepted by the voting public.
So, the students of Milton Friedman and disciples of the Chicago School of economic theory didn’t wait for the public to vote their way. They worked closely with the military leaders who would eventually place them on top economic posts. They wrote the economic playbook for their conquered countries.
What to do with an entire culture of thinkers, poets, musicians, economists, officials, farmers, trade union members, and their families—all of whom didn’t ask for this ‘revolution’?
You shock them into compliance. You torture them, “disappear” them, publicly execute them as a message to dissenters: “it’s better for you if you keep your heads down.” Chile’s General Pinochet (who sought economic advice from Milton Friedman himself) turned entire soccer stadiums into public torture chambers. Argentina went a more subtle route: police squads kidnapped people in broad daylight, never to be seen again. No one would know if they were imprisoned or dead.
Mass graves started appearing in the countryside. People would see military helicopters fly over the river and dump nameless bodies. In one chilling story from 1987, a film crew was exploring the basement of Galerias Pacifico, the premier shopping center of Buenos Aires. Beneath Ralph Lauren, Nike, and Christian Dior outlets, they stumbled on an abandoned torture chamber. The walls were covered with scratch marks: names, dates, cries for aid.
Neighbors and loved ones would know what was happening, but no one could talk about it. People would scream their names while they were being hooded and thrown into vans so that passerby could notify family members—that’s how often kidnappings were witnessed. Argentines had a phrase for the sheer internal contradiction of their complicitness: “We did not know what nobody could deny.”
In this world, Rodolfo Walsh was not quiet.
Walsh lived through multiple military juntas, but the brutality of the 1976 regime shocked him. Friends and loved ones died or were disappeared, including his own daughter. In an earlier regime, Walsh served as a rebel intelligence officer. Without no strong rebel front this time—and the determination to fight with words—he committed himself to the typewriter.
Walsh spent a year gathering information about the people the Argentine government had kidnapped. Constantly on the run, he ran from safe house to safe house, using fake names and new identities as he traveled. He documented the vicious and repressive practices of the new regime, but he also documented why they happened—to keep the largely leftist population from protesting as their economy was eviscerated to test “pure” capitalism.
His aim was to create a full document of the regime’s crimes in time for the first anniversary of the coup. The document, titled Open Letter from a Writer to the Military Junta, was written (in his words) “without hope of being listened to…true to the commitment I took up a long time ago, to bear witness in difficult times.”
The next day, Walsh mailed the first copies of his report to contacts around the country. Later that day, he was walking to a meet a friend (who had been tortured and compromised) when he was ambushed.
Dying for Collective Remembrance
In my last blog, I talked about the necessity of holding our leaders accountable to the restraint their power necessitates. It’s not just for places like the U.S., where questioning our leaders in public spaces is a time-honored pastime. Ridiculing our leaders is openly tolerated here—in practice and in theory.
In places like 1977 Argentina, questioning your leaders would get you erased. Rodolfo Walsh did it anyway—not because it would change things immediately or because it would earn him a place in history. He did it because sometimes the best we can do is bear witness. Sometimes we need to sear history onto our souls just to remember it later—just so no one else forgets.
Rodolfo Walsh died bearing witness to the atrocities suffered by his home country. He and so many others gave their lives not for freedom or democracy, but for the collective memory of their neighbors and people around the globe.
They died so we would remember why.