by J. Edgar Williams
We tend to think of terrorism mostly in its contemporary Islamic extremist manifestation, but it has been a part of Foreign Service life for many years. In this memoir, a retired U.S. Foreign Service Officer recalls the Marxist terrorism in Argentina in the early 1970s. – Ed.
I was stationed at the U.S. Embassy at Buenos Aires, as Commercial Attaché, for five years – 1970-75. For most of that time, we were in daily danger from Marxist terrorists-guerrillas, or, as their sympathizers preferred to call them, “insurgents,” “militants,” or “activists.” The situation then was nowhere near as bad as it has been recently in such places as Baghdad and Kabul, but it was dangerous. I was originally assigned for two consecutive two-year tours, but when my second tour was coming to an end, State/PER was having a hard time finding a replacement, so I extended for a year.
Here is a short background on the situation. After the overthrow of Perón in 1955 (by fellow generals), Argentina went through a series of military and civilian governments, none of which ruled honestly and effectively. The attitude of the civilian government ministers (with a few exceptions) was: “We’ve only got a couple of years – let’s grab all the money we can while we’re here.” The military, while not as corrupt as the civilians, seemed unable to govern well. The trade unions – traditionally Perónist – were increasingly influenced by communists, especially in the newer industries such as automobile manufacturing. This led to a violent Marxist uprising in Córdoba in 1969, which was violently suppressed. That became a pattern. The Marxists would engage in some act or campaign of violence, the military would suppress it, and the world media, plus many socialist-inclined governments, would put the entire blame on the military for reacting (sometimes over-reacting) to violence started by the Marxists.
At that time, many different Marxist terrorist-guerrilla groups were being formed in Latin America as a result of the Tri-Continental Congress in Havana in 1966. Its purpose was to coordinate all pro-communist, anti-American subversive and guerrilla activities world-wide to advance the “historically inevitable” movement towards the World Socialist Revolution. In Argentina, the main groups were the FAR (Revolutionary Armed Forces), the ERP (Revolutionary Army of the People), and the Montoneros. The latter was the more active group. It was formed by a toxic mixture of Catholics and communists, growing out of “Liberation Theology,” a very clever mixture of Marxism and Christianity, designed to make it easier for people brought up as Christians to accept the “correct” world view of Marxism. They had a mantra – “If Jesus Christ were here today, He would be marching with us against the capitalist-imperialists.” Their first major act was the kidnapping, torture, and murder of former President Aramburu, having spied on his home from a Catholic school across the street.
Marxist terrorism didn’t get really bad until Perón was permitted to return from exile in Spain in early1973. His return set off a war between different factions of terrorists. Many Marxists didn’t consider Perón a legitimate Socialist. After all, he got his training for dictatorship in Mussolini’s Italy, so he was more a Fascist than a Marxist. Perón was elected President (again) in 1973, but died in 1974, leaving the presidency to his wife, Isabel. The inter-gang fighting didn’t keep them from attacking the capitalist-imperialists and the government. The Montoneros murdered the Chief of Federal Police and his wife by putting a bomb in their boat one Sunday. A Commissioner of Police and his wife were assassinated by a university classmate of their daughter. She was invited to a sleep-over with the daughter at their apartment. She put a bomb under the parent’s mattress, and it exploded when they lay down on the bed. The explosion also killed an elderly woman in the apartment on the other side of the bedroom wall.
The ERP, also a very vicious gang, like the other gangs recruited many members from among university students. I recall a case in which a new recruit’s “initiation” involved going up to a police sergeant guarding the President’s suburban residence as if to ask directions, and shooting him point blank. He left a wife and three young children. This murderer was caught and dealt with appropriately.
One evening, my wife and I were having a reception, and one of our guests, an Argentine Air Force colonel, arrived late. He took me aside and explained. That morning, a young Air Force recruit was doing sentry duty along the fence of a small Air Force base on the outskirts of the city. Two girls, 19 or 20, walked by with a little dog on a leash. The dog “just happened” to get loose and ran over to the sentry. He leaned his rifle on the fence, picked up the doggie, carried it over and gave it to the girls. One of them shot him downward through the gut. It took him five hours to die in extreme pain. I hope those girls were among the genuinely “disappeared.”
As for the “disappeared,” unfortunately, the military government kept on taking the terrorists’ bait. A violent act or attack by a Marxist gang would lead to the detention of many people who had some connection with members of the gang, and many of these were killed (“disappeared”) by the government. However many of the “disappeared” escaped the country and turned up later, working with their Marxist comrades in Peru, Bolivia, Central America, etc.
The terrorists were attacking not only Argentine government agencies and institutions, but also individuals and installations (including embassies and consulates) of foreign governments who were presumed to be supporting the Argentine government, even if only by trade and commerce. Foreign businessmen as well as diplomats were attacked and sometimes kidnapped for ransom or killed. (The U.S. Consul in Córdoba was kidnapped and killed.) Most of the businessmen moved across the River Plate to Montevideo. (My bridge group was decimated!) Some of us at the Embassy felt a strong need to carry a gun, but we were opposed by the FBI guy – the Legal Attaché – who felt that us civilians didn’t know how to use one properly. As a former member of the Yale Pistol Team, I challenged him to come with me one Sunday to the National Shooting Club and have a pistol match – any weapon, any caliber. He didn’t accept. Ambassador Lodge got the government to agree to permit us to carry pistols.
We needed to be extra cautious. Many attacks occurred as people were leaving for work in the morning or arriving home in the afternoon. We varied our times of departure, and our routes to work. We learned to be always very conscious of our surroundings – nearby people or cars.
My wife and I lived in a fifth floor apartment facing a park. My chief Assistant Commercial Attaché, Peter, lived in apartment a half block up the street, also facing the park. Several times, we saw suspicious people who looked like university students sitting on benches in the park who appeared to be looking towards our apartments. I used to go out on my terrace every morning before departure and look around. One morning, I saw a man standing on the corner immediately below me, reading a magazine, and looking frequently towards the street. I thought this was suspicious. Then, suddenly, he put the magazine under his arm and started to walk across the street. I then saw Peter walking down the other side of the street towards the bus stops on the main cross-street. The man fell in walking about ten yards behind Peter. I grabbed an M-1 carbine which I kept in a closet beside the terrace door and aimed it at the man’s lower back. I expected that a car would pull up beside Peter, and the man would try to force him inside – in which case the man would have becomes a paraplegic, because at that distance – just over 100 yards – I would not have missed.
But that didn’t happen. Peter got to the corner, and instead of waiting for a bus, he hailed a cab. The man got to the corner and tried unsuccessfully to get a cab, so he turned around and walked back up the street, allowing me to get a good look at his face with my binoculars. I was able to identify him as a Montonero from a mug book. The CIA guys told us their usual technique was to observe a target for about three weeks, learning about his habits and his routes, and this was probably about the middle of their surveillance of Peter. I sent him off on a week’s leave to break up the targeting. So far as I know, I was never specifically targeted, and we couldn’t figure out why they chose Peter and not me. The terrorist’s name meant nothing to me, and I don’t remember it. But who knows – if I had had to shoot him, I might have been shooting the guy who became President of Argentina, Nestor Kirchner, a former Montonero.
Of course, my life in Argentina didn’t center around terrorism. I did a lot of commercial work, traveling around the country, looking for – and finding – good trade opportunities for American companies. I really think I earned my salary, with the big and small contracts American companies got with my help – a steel rolling mill, 150 railroad cars, ferry boats, a huge dredging contract, etc. So, despite the danger, I was glad to have been stationed there. And of course I can’t forget the great plays and operas we saw.
Ed Williams, secretary of the board of directors of American Diplomacy Publishers, was a U.S. Foreign Service Officer from 1955 to 1981. He served in Washington and at six posts abroad.