In Argentina, where politics were traditionally practiced by the Armed Forces and the economy was controlled by the managers of foreign companies, the generation of the ‘70’s, identifying themselves with the liberation movements in the world at that time (Algeria, Vietnam, the Cuban Revolution, the May ’68 in France), embodied the necessity of a thorough social overhaul with and for those marginalized by the system. The debate about the necessity of social change and the ways to achieve it reverberated throughout all of society.
The military reaction left no time to spare. Approaching 1972, during the military dictatorship of General A. Lanusse, the jails of Argentina were filled with political prisoners. The maximum-security jail at Rawson, Chubut, in Argentine Patagonia, 1500 km. south of the City of Buenos Aires, had been converted into a confinement centre for a group of numerous leaders of guerrilla organizations.
At first the local population avoided contact with the prison. Later, however, locals started to show solidarity to prisoners and their families, forming commissions of solidarity and aid, which even maintained personal contact with the imprisoned.
On August 15th 1972, the members of the guerrilla organizations carried out an escape involving more than 100 prisoners.
The objectives of the escape were crystal clear: the militants would return to armed combat and direct a blow to the dictatorship, in order to break the conditional framework of the call to elections for March 1973.
These political prisoners maintained that democracy was not to be drained in its first act – elections-, but rather, it was to thrive in all aspects of social life.
The guerrilleros succeeded in occupying the jail but external support failed to arrive. Only six political leaders reached Trelew airport, near the prison. They hijacked a commercial aeroplane and left for Chile. A second group of nineteen prisoners arrived late – after the aeroplane had already taken off, and decided to occupy the airport.
They were then surrounded by troops of the Army and Navy. After long and tense negotiations, they surrendered upon receiving the promise of being returned to Rawson prison and being granted a guarantee for their lives. Nevertheless, regardless of the agreement, they were taken to the Naval Air Base Almirante Zar.
A week later, on August 22nd they were machine-gunned at the doors of their cells. Three survived, sixteen died. Upon this, the Socialist Government of Chilean President Salvador Allende decided to grant orders of safe conduct to travel to Cuba to the six escapees who had arrived in Chile.
The Trelew Massacre was a forewarning of the State terrorism, which would be cultivated by the subsequent Military Dictatorship (1976-1983):
- The three survivors of the massacre were murdered
- Out of the six escapees, who managed to arrive in Chile, four are now “missing”.
- The author of the first book on the events in Trelew, “La Patria Fusilada” (“The executed Fatherland”), died in an armed confrontation with security forces.
- Various relatives of those massacred in Trelew were exterminated
- More than 100 lawyers speaking for the defence of the political prisoners have been murdered.
The population of Rawson and Trelew suffered the repression of the military government for its participation in the solidarity commissions with the political prisoners. Many were jailed, others had been forced to leave Argentina and live in exile and one remains “missing”.