In a historic ruling, a judge in Chaco Province on Thursday declared the Argentine state responsible for the slaughter of over 400 indigenous people on a reservation almost a century ago.
Laden with symbolism, the final judgement on culpability for the ‘Napalpí Massacre’ on July 19, 1924, was read out in Spanish and the indigenous languages of Qom and Mocoit. It called for “historic reparations” to be made to the descendants of the victims.
At the close of the ‘truth trial’ seeking to clarify the facts behind the massacre, which lasted exactly a month, Federal Judge Zunilda Niremperger described the slaughteras "crimes against humanity committed in the framework of the genocide of indigenous peoples," adding: "The massacre provoked grave consequences, [those people] suffered the trauma of terror and were uprooted with the loss of their language and their culture."
This was the first trial to investigate the systematic persecution of indigenous peoples in Argentina with the Chaco provincial Human Rights secretariat and the Instituto Aborigen Chaqueño serving as plaintiffs.
The verdict considered proven "the responsibility of the Argentine national state in the process of planning, executing and covering up the commission of the crimes of homicide aggravated by cruelty and brutal perversity, repetition of the crime and the reduction to slavery." The massacre occurred during the presidency of Marcelo T. de Alvear (1922-1928).
The judge ordered the sentence to be published in the Official Gazette and for study of the massacre to be included in school and university curricula, among other "measures of historic reparation."
The reading of the sentence took an hour since each point read by the judge was also read out in Qom and Mocoit by members of those communities seated next to her in the courtroom in the Chaco provincial capital of Resistencia.
On July 19, 1924, Argentine police and settlers mowed down hundreds of indigenous people protesting inhumane living and working conditions on cotton plantations in the northern region of Chaco.
A federal judge has previously ruled the mass killing a crime against humanity, but no classic criminal trial has been held given the lack of defendants – who are long dead. Until Thursday, no guilt has never been officially assigned.
With no defendants in the dock, the “trial for the truth” centred on the responsibilities and the vindication of and reparations for victims via the reconstruction of the facts on the basis of taped testimony during the hearings.
In 2008 Chaco Peronist Governor Jorge Capitanich had begged pardon in the name of the state.
Historians have underlined that in the course of becoming an independent nation, Argentina subdued its indigenous peoples to the point of extermination.
One of the most tragic episodes was the so-called ‘Campaign of the Desert’ to incorporate Patagonia into the national territory, leaving a toll of at least 14.000 indigenous dead between 1878 and 1885.
The trial declared "proven that on the morning of Saturday, July 19, 1924, around 100 policemen, border guards and some armed civilians arrived with the assistance of aircraft at the zone of the reservation where around 1,000 members of Qom and Mocoit families and some farm hands were on strike."
They were protesting "over the conditions to which they were submitted, which were deplorable." They were underfed, paid with vouchers, taxed for the cotton they harvested and subjected to costly freight rates although most of them were obliged to work on the spot and denied freedom of movement, details the text.
The 100 armed invaders took up positions on the outskirts of the reservation and fired away at the people there for an hour.
"Under the hail of gunfire 400 to 500 members of the Qom and Mocoit tribes were shot dead," Judge Niremperger ruled, adding: "The wounded who could not escape were finished off in the cruellest form possible with mutilations and burials in common graves."
The survivors "had to hide for a long time to avoid being captured and murdered."
At that juncture the state constructed "an official story to deny and cover up the massacre," presenting it as "tribal warfare between the indigenous with four dead," a version upheld in court in a trial where no indigenous person testified, highlighted the judge.
Raquel Esquivell, a Qom descendent, celebrated that almost a century after the slaughter of ancestors a court had ruled the Argentine state’s responsibility and given voice to the indigenous.
"May the facts come to light and be told by indigenous voices," Esquivel told AFP in a telephone interview.
"It’s important that the truth come out and be told," insisted Esquivel, speaking from Machagai, a small city near the Napalpí reservation.
"My personal history begins with the search for identity, there was something missing – the language. My grandmother spoke Qom but not my mum or myself. That was my worry: Why hadn’t my grandmother taught my mum? I asked and she told me that many brethren – as we call those from the same community – had died. She did not give me many details," recalled the political science professor.
‘They began to tell’
Esquivel, 33, is one of persons who has most researched this case, along with the historian Juan Chico (who died last year). In 2007 she found in a public library her first reference to the Massacre of Napalpí:
"Barely three lines," she underscores. Thus began her investigation. "Firstly in books where there was very little information. I found out that there was a survivor in Machagai, Melitona Enrique, and I had the chance to interview her. She spoke Qom but no Spanish so her children facilitated the contact for me," she explained.
It was precisely for Melitona Enrique’s birthday on January 16, 2008, that then and current Chaco Province Governor Capitanich came to Machagai to beg pardon for the massacre in the name of the state. Melitona Enrique died shortly afterwards, aged over 100.
"Then she began to talk a bit, we embarked on that path. Other grandmothers starting telling, it’s very painful the fear I felt in them," affirmed Esquivel. But she kept on investigating.
"What we did was to reconstruct history with fieldwork, with the oral memories of our grandparents, the survivors and their relatives. Many plucked up the courage to talk when the Argentine team of forensic anthropologists began excavating in Napalpí," she details.
That is how they found 'Abuela (“Grandmother”) Rosa', Rosa Grillo, also aged over 100 and the last survivor whose filmed testimony was projected in the courtroom.
"They are beginning to emerge from their silence, the oldest hold workshops in the communities so that the children learn," explains Esquivel.
The trial sentence highlighted that Qom, Mocoit and Wichí all became official languages in Chaco in 2010.
"We are the consequence of the massacre of Napalpí. We lack our maternal language because those who spoke Qom were persecuted by the police and discriminated against. They resorted to silence to survive," points out Esquivel, who is busy learning the language and is about to earn a degree in intercultural bilingual education.