Almost 100 years after police officers and settlers in Argentina mowed down hundreds of indigenous people protesting living and working conditions on cotton plantations, a landmark trial has opened in Chaco Province to finally secure some form of accountability.
With all the killers long dead, guilt has never been officially assigned for the 1924 'Napalpí massacre' of members of the Qom and Moqoit communities on land settled by immigrant farmers from Europe, mainly Italy.
Now, finally, "we will demonstrate concretely... who participated and who was responsible for this genocide," Federal Prosecutor Federico Garniel said on Tuesday as the trial opened in the city of Resistencia in Argentina's northeast.
The milestone court case is the first to delve into the systematic persecution of indigenous peoples in Argentina. The provincial Human Rights Secretariat and community group, the Instituto Aborigen Chaqueño (Chaco Aboriginal Institute) are both plaintiffs in the case.
On July 19, 1924, some 130 police and ranchers with guns descended on protesting residents of the so-called Napalpí indigenous reservation where Qom and Moqoit people lived in conditions of semi-slavery, forced to work on the cotton fields.
Responding to then-governor Fernando Centeno, the attackers killed between 300 and 500 people, including children and old people, leaving their bodies mutilated and buried in mass graves, according to survivor accounts. Genitalia, ears and body parts were taken as "war trophies" by the victors.
The event has been ruled a crime against humanity by a federal judge but no traditional trial has been held given the lack of defendants.
Instead, victims are now getting a "truth trial," the government said, in a process that may also lead to reparations being paid.
“This is the first time in the history of the country that an act of genocide against indigenous peoples is brought to trial,” said the Chaco provincial government in a statement.
'They killed my dad'
Due to run until May 19, the trial will serve to give “an approximation of the facts” and does not seek to apportion criminal liability, said presiding judge Zunilda Niremperger.
Rather, its purpose is "knowing the truth... to heal wounds" but also to "generate an awareness so that these violations of human rights are never repeated," she said.
The trial’s start date was chosen to mark Día del Aborigen Americano (“Aboriginal American Day”) and two hearings will take place each week in Resistencia, with two additional dates in Buenos Aires set for May 10 and 12 at the Centro Cultural de la Memoria Haroldo Conti. Hearings are also being streamed live online.
Speaking this week, Chaco Governor Jorge Capitanich, acting as the plaintiff in the case, said that even though they are no longer alive, the perpetrators "must and deserve to be convicted in the collective memory of the original peoples."
In 2008, Capitanich had apologised on behalf of the government to the Napalpí victims.
Some 40 people will testify at the trial, according to the Fundación Napalpí, including survivors Rosa Grilo, 114, and Pedro Valquinta, 110.
In evidence provided in 2018 and replayed in court on Tuesday, Grilo told prosecutors in a mix of Spanish and her native language: "For me it's sad, they killed my dad. I almost don't want to remember. Sad things. Many people [were] killed."
"A plane above threw bags and they fell to the ground, and people went to look and they killed him there. And my grandfather and we shot off [ran away] because we wanted to live," she continued.
Valquinta agreed that “many people” were killed.
“They put them in a big well,” she remembered.
Juan Chico, a Qom historian and author of several books on the massacre who died last year, highlighted the value of oral histories in remembering the trial.
"This reconstruction is key," he said in a video.
Only about a million of Argentina's 45 million inhabitants today are members or descendants of the original 39 indigenous groups, according to census data collected a decade ago. Since 1994, the National Constitution has recognised the rights of indigenous peoples.
Historians say the settlement of Argentina by immigrants left its indigenous population on the verge of extermination.
During one of the most brutal episodes, known as ‘La Campaña del Desierto’ (“The Desert Campaign), saw at least 14,000 indigenous people killed between 1878 and 1885 in the effort to incorporate Patagonia into the rest of Argentina.
Some figures have already begun calling for additional trials.
“This will be a truth trial … one more step towards the historical truth of what happened in our country,” said Magdalena Odarda, the president of the Instituto Nacional de Asuntos Indígenas (National Institute of Indigenous Affairs).
"Even though so many years have passed, this state recognition is very important. And surely there will be other truth trials,” she added, arguing that the 1947 Rincón Bomba massacre in Formosa should also be investigated.
Approximately 750 to 1,000 people were killed in that attack by officers from the National Border Guard (Gendarmería).