—Six of you, get off! —orders the corporal.
Mr. Horacio is the first to step out, from the right side of the truck. Rodríguez, Giunta, Brión, Livraga, and one more person follow, each guarded by an officer. They can see their surroundings for the first time. They are on an asphalt road. There are fields on either side of it. Just in front of where they got off, there is a ditch filled with water and, behind that, a wire fence. The location, despite everything, is nearly perfect.
But then a commanding voice rises again from the police van parked behind them:
—No, not here. Further up!
They get them back on the truck and resume the journey. Troxler has taken up his distressed, mute post once again. He is now trying to catch the gaze of the other prisoners, to coordinate with them, to get their attention and rally for a frantic, surprise attack. But it's useless. The others seem stunned, resigned, bewildered. They still don't believe, can't believe...Only Benavídez seems to respond to him. He is just as alert, tense, and anxious.
The truck carries on for three hundred meters more before stopping one last time, this time definitively. The seven-kilometer trip has taken almost thirty minutes.
The same prisoners get off. Carranza and Gavino as well. Maybe Garibotti and Díaz. Troxler will later confirm that Benavídez, Lizaso, and the anonymous NCO stay in the truck with him. Other testimonies are confusing, divergent, still contaminated by the panic.
To the right of the dark and deserted road, there is a small paved road that peels off and leads to a German Club. On one side of the street there is a row of eucalyptus trees that cut tall and bleak against the starry sky. On the other side, a wide wasteland extends out to the left: a slag dump, the sinister garbage heap of José León Suárez, tracked through with waterlogged trenches in winter, infested with mosquitoes and unburied creatures in summer, all of it eaten away by tin cans and junk.
They make the prisoners walk along the edge of the wasteland. The guards push them along with the barrels of their rifles. The van turns onto the street and shines its headlights on their backs.
The moment has come...
...The moment has come. It is signaled by a short, remarkable exchange:
—What are you going to do to us? —one of them asks.
—Keep walking! —they reply.
—We are innocent! —a number of them shout.
—Don't be afraid —they answer.— We're not going to do anything to you.
WE'RE NOT GOING TO DO ANYTHING TO YOU!
The guards steer them like a terrified herd towards the garbage dump. The van comes to a stop, shining its headlights on them. The prisoners seem to be floating in a glowing pool of light. Rodríguez Moreno steps out, gun in hand.
At this moment, the story ruptures, explodes into twelve or thirteen nodules of panic.
—Let's make a run for it, Carranza —Gavino says.— I think they're going to kill us.
Carranza knows it's true. But the slightest hope that he's mistaken keeps him walking.
—Let's stay...—he murmurs.— If we run, they'll shoot for sure.
Giunta is walking sluggishly, looking back with one arm raised to his brow to shield his eyes from the blinding glare.
Livraga is stealthily making his way over to the left. Step by step. Dressed in black.
Suddenly, it's like a miracle: the headlights leave him alone. He has stepped outside their range. He is alone and almost invisible in the dark. Ten meters ahead, he can make out a ditch. If he's able to reach...
Brión's cardigan shines in the light, an almost incandescent white.
In the assault car, Troxler is sitting with his hands resting on his knees and his body leaning forwards. He looks out of the corners of his eyes at the two guards who are watching the nearest door. He's going to jump...
Facing him, Benavídez is looking at the other door.
Carlitos, bewildered, can only muster a whisper:
—But how...They're going to kill us like this?
Vicente Rodríguez is walking slowly along the rough and unfamiliar terrain below.
Livraga is five meters away from the ditch. Mr. Horacio, who was the first to get off, has also managed to make his way ever so slightly in the opposite direction.
—Halt! —a voice commands.
Some of them stop. Others take a few more steps. The guards, on their part, start to retreat, taking some distance, the bolts of their Mausers in hand.
Livraga doesn't look back, but hears the turn of a crank. There's no time to make it to the ditch. He's going to throw himself on the ground.
—Forward, line up side by side! —shouts Rodríguez Moreno.
Carranza turns around, his face contorted. He drops to his knees before the firing squad.
—For my children...—he weeps.— For my chil...
Violent vomiting cuts his plea short.
In the truck, Troxler has pulled the bow and arrow of his body taut. His jaw is almost touching his knees.
—Now! —he howls and hurls himself at the two guards.
He holds a rifle in each hand. And now they are the ones afraid and begging:
—Not the guns, mister! Not the guns!
Benavídez is already up and grabs Lizaso by the hand.
—Let's go, Carlitos!
Troxler brings the heads of the two guards together and throws each one in a different direction, like dolls. He leaps up and is swallowed by the night. The anonymous NCO (or is he an apparition?) is slow to respond. He tries to get up too late. A third guard is aiming his rifle at him from the front end of the vehicle. A shot is heard. The NCO lets out an 'Aaah!' and sits back down, just as he was. Only dead.
Benavídez jumps. He feels Carlitos' fingers slipping away from his own. In a state of desperate helplessness, he realizes he has lost him, that the boy has been buried beneath three bodies that are holding him down.
The policemen on the ground hear the shot behind them and hesitate for a fraction of a second. Some turn around.
Giunta doesn't wait any longer. He runs!
Gavino does the same.
The herd begins to separate.
—Shoot them! —screams Rodríguez Moreno.
Livraga throws himself headfirst to the ground. Farther ahead, Di Chiano also takes a dive.
The shots thunder in the night.
Giunta feels a bullet whiz by his ear. He hears a commotion behind him, a low moaning and the thump of a body falling. It's probably Garibotti. An amazing instinct tells Giunta to drop to the ground and not move.
Carranza is still on his knees. They put a rifle to the nape of his neck and fire. Later they riddle his entire body with bullets.
Brión has little chance of escaping with that white cardigan that shines in the night. We don't even know if he tries.
Vicente Rodríguez has dropped to the ground once already. Now he hears the guards running towards him. He tries to get up, but can't. He has tired himself out in the first thirty meters of his escape and it isn't easy to move all one hundred of his kilos. By the time he gets going, it's too late. The second round of shots takes him out. Horacio di Chiano rolled over twice and froze, playing dead. He hears the bullets destined for Rodríguez whistle overhead. One cuts very close to his face and covers him in dirt. Another rips through his pants without wounding him.
Giunta stays glued to the ground for about thirty seconds, invisible. Suddenly he leaps up like a hare and starts to zigzag. When he senses the shots coming, he throws himself back on the ground. Almost instantaneously, he hears the astounding whir of the bullets again. But by now he is far away. He is nearly safe. When he repeats his maneuver, they won't even see him.
Díaz escapes. We don't know how, but he escapes. Gavino runs for two or three hundred meters before stopping. At that moment, he hears another series of explosions and a terrifying shriek that tears through the night and seems to last forever.
—May God forgive me, Lizaso —he will later say, weeping, to one of Carlitos' brothers.—
But I think that was your brother. I think he saw everything and was the last to die.
Up above the bodies stretched out in the garbage dump, where the caustic smoke of the gunpowder still burns in the glow of the headlights, a few groans hang in the air. A new burst of bullets seems to put an end to them. But then Livraga, who is still frozen and unnoticed in the spot where he fell, hears the bloodcurdling voice of his friend Rodríguez, who says:
—Kill me! Don't leave me like this! Kill me!
And now they do show him mercy, and they execute him.
from the Prologue
News of the June 1956 secret executions first came to me by chance, towards the end of that year, in a La Plata café where people played chess, talked more about Keres and Nimzowitsch than Aramburu and Rojas, and the only military maneuver that enjoyed any kind of renown was Schlechter's bayonet attack in the Sicilian Defense.
Six months earlier, in that same place, we'd been startled around midnight by the shooting nearby that launched the assault on the Second Division Command and the police department—Valle's failed rebellion. I remember how we left en masse, chess players, card players, and everyday customers, to see what the celebration was all about; how, the closer we got to San Martín Square, the more serious we were and the smaller our group had become; and how, when I finally got across the square, I was alone. When I reached the bus station there were several more of us again, including a poor dark-skinned boy in a guard's uniform who hid behind his goggles saying that, revolution or not, no one was going to take away his gun—a handsome 1901 Mauser.
I remember finding myself alone once more, in the darkness of 54th Street, just three blocks away from my house, which I kept wanting to get to and finally reached two hours later amid the smell of lime trees that always made me nervous, and did so on that night even more than usual. I remember the irrepressible will of my legs, the preference they showed at every street for the bus station, returning to it on their own two or three times. But each time they went a bit farther before turning back, until they didn't need to go back because we had gone past the line of fire and arrived at my house. My house was worse than the café and worse than the bus station because there were soldiers on the roof and also in the kitchen and the bedrooms, but mainly in the bathroom. Since then I've developed an aversion to houses that face police departments, headquarters, or barracks.
I also haven't forgotten how, standing by the window blinds, I heard a recruit dying in the street who did not say "Long live the nation!" but instead: "Don't leave me here alone, you sons of bitches."
After that, I don't want to remember anything else—not the announcer's voice at dawn reporting that eighteen civilians had been executed in Lanús, nor the wave of blood that flooded the country up until Valle's death. It's too much for a single night. I'm not interested in Valle. I'm not interested in Perón, I'm not interested in revolution. Can I go back to playing chess?
I can. Back to chess and the fantasy literature I read, back to the detective stories I write, back to the "serious" novel I plan to draft in the next few years, back to the other things that I do to earn a living and that I call journalism, even though that's not what it is. Violence has spattered my walls, there are bullet holes in the windows, I've seen a car full of holes with a man inside it whose brains were spilling out—but it's only chance that has put all this before my eyes. It could have happened a hundred kilometers away, it could have happened when I wasn't there.
Six months later, on a suffocating summer night with a glass of beer in front of him, a man says to me:
—One of the executed men is alive.
I don't know what it is about this vague, remote, highly unlikely story that manages to draw me in. I don't know why I ask to talk to that man, why I end up talking to Juan Carlos Livraga.
But afterwards I do know why. I look at that face, the hole in his cheek, the bigger hole in his throat, his broken mouth and dull eyes, where a shadow of death still lingers. I feel insulted, just as I felt without realizing it when I heard that chilling cry while standing behind the blinds.
Livraga tells me his unbelievable story; I believe it on the spot.
And right there the investigation, this book, is born. The long night of June 9 comes back over me, pulls me out of "the soft quiet seasons" for a second time. Now I won't think about anything else for almost a year; I'll leave my house and my job behind; I'll go by the name Francisco Freyre; I'll have a fake ID with that name on it; a friend will lend me his house in Tigre; I'll live on a frozen ranch in Merlo for two months; I'll carry a gun; and at every moment the characters of the story will come back to me obsessively: Livraga covered in blood walking through that never-ending alley he took to escape death, the other man who survived with him by running back into the field amid the gunfire, and those who survived without his knowing about it, and those who didn't survive.
translated from the Spanish by Daniella Gitlin
Used by Permission of Seven Stories Press. Originally published in Spanish by Ediciones de la Flor.
Operation Massacre will be out in bookstores in Aug 2013.
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