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Massacre at Trelew: 50 years on

Argentine Naval officer ordered to pay damages by US court

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Main video: Massacre at Trelew. Special programme for the 50th anniversary. Video: C7 Chubut. 23 August 2022


In an historic ruling in July 2022, a court in Miami has sentenced an Argentine former naval officer to pay US$24 million dollars in reparations to the relatives of political prisoners illegally shot fifty years ago this month (August) in what became known as the ‘Trelew massacre’.

Roberto Bravo, who has been living in the United States since 1973 was found by a jury in a civil action to be directly responsible for the deaths of several of the 16 left-wing prisoners killed by Argentine naval personnel on 22 August 1972 in the Admiral Zar naval base.

‘We’re very happy,’ Raquel Camps, the daughter of a survivor of the massacre, told reporters in Miami. ‘This is a huge step towards asking for his extradition and for Bravo to be tried in Argentina.’

Those killed had been members of different revolutionary groups, most notably the Guevarist ERP (People’s Revolutionary Army) and the Peronist Montoneros who had been captured and imprisoned during the rule of General Alejandro Lanusse, in power since 1971.

As opposition to years of military dictatorship grew in Argentina in the early 1970s, the authorities moved these political prisoners more than a thousand miles from their families and defence lawyers to the prison at Rawson near the town of Trelew in the far south of Patagonia.

Escape from Trelew

Special Report: 50 years since the Trelew Massacre. Video: TPA, Televisión Pública Argentina, 22 August 2022.

On 15 August 1972 there was a mass breakout from the prison and 25 of the political detainees managed to escape. Six of them hijacked a plane from the airfield at Trelew, and were flown to Puerto Montt in neighbouring Chile.

The other 19 men and women escapees waited on the airfield for the plane to return to fly them to safety, but it never came. They then surrendered to the naval forces, expecting to be returned to Rawson prison.

‘Sombre chronicle: the state crime which took decades for justice to catch up with.’ Interviews with relatives of survivors tell the story and explain the details of the prison breakout and its sequel. Video: Telam, 20 August 2022   

Instead, they were taken by Ensign Roberto Bravo and other naval officers to the Admiral Zar base, where they were put in punishment cells and tortured.

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In the early hours of 22 August 1972 they were roused from their sleep, lined up against a wall, and shot. Sixteen of them died. The other three survived and were eventually able to give their testimonies concerning the massacre.

La Patria Fusilada. The history of the book about the Trelew Massacre by Francisco Paco Urondo. Video: TPA, Televisión Pública Argentina, 22 August 2022.

Rear-admiral Hermes Quijada appeared on national television and claimed the marines were acting in self-defence, and that the prisoners were shot while trying to escape a second time. This version has never been accepted by the relatives of the victims, and was again specifically rejected by the court in Miami this year.

The six guerrilla leaders who sought asylum in Chile presented a political challenge to Salvador Allende, the then Socialist president.

Relations with the military government in Argentina, which was demanding their return, were already strained. In the end President Allende allowed them to leave Chile for Havana.

Allende’s daughter was reported to have told them on her father’s behalf that he did not share the path they had chosen, but that they should remain true to their ideals. 

Most of the guerrilleros soon returned to Argentina to resume the guerrilla struggle, only to be captured again or to join the lists of the thousands of disappeared following the March 1976 military coup.

One of them, Victor Fernández Palmeiro, plotted to gain revenge on the naval spokesman Hermes Quijada. On 30 April 1973 he and a companion on a motorbike shot and killed the rear-admiral, but the guerrillero was also shot by the Quijada’s driver and died of his wounds.

Justice at last

It was not until 2012, almost twenty years after the return to civilian rule, that some of those responsible for the Trelew massacre were tried in Argentina.

Prosecutors argued that they had committed a crime against humanity, and could not therefore benefit from an earlier amnesty for those involved in the civil strife of the 1970s.  Three ex-marines were sentenced to life imprisonment.

Bravo however had been sent in 1973 as military attaché to the Washington embassy, and after leaving the post in 1979 took US citizenship, and so escaped justice in Argentina.

Now relatives and human rights groups, who gathered in Buenos Aires to commemorate the 50th anniversary of the massacre, are hoping to be able to use Bravo’s conviction to press once more for him to be extradited to face a criminal trial in his home country.