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A ‘truth trial’ in Argentina, 98 years after the Napalpí massacre of Indigenous people

Argentina opened a trial almost 100 years after the Napalpí massacre in which at least 200 Indigenous people were killed in 45 minutes. The “truth trial” is the first to look at the persecutions of Indigenous groups in the country.

Demonstration to support the 'truth trial' about the Napalpí massacre that took place almost 100 years ago in Argentina
Demonstration to support the ‘truth trial’ about the Napalpí massacre that took place almost 100 years ago in Argentina

In 1924, Napalpí, a small rural town in Chaco Province in northern Argentina, was the scene of a mass shooting that targeted Indigenous ethnic groups who protested against their living and working conditions.

Almost 100 years later, Argentina opened the “truth trial” with the first hearing on April 19 in order to determine responsibilities as well as the role of the State in the “Napalpí massacre” against the Qom, also known as Toba, and the Mocoví people, two Indigenous groups of Argentina. It is the first trial that looks at the persecution of Indigenous populations in Argentina.

We will demonstrate who participated and who was responsible for this genocide,” Federal Prosecutor Federico Garniel said as the trial opened in Resistencia, a city in the northeast of Argentina.

The Human Rights Secretariat of the province and the Chaco Aboriginal Institute are both plaintiffs in the case.

No individual is being prosecuted as none of the policemen, landowners, or politicians involved in the massacre are alive. The trial will not rule on criminal liabilities. Nevertheless, it will recognize survivors and descendants of victims and bring reparation.

The trial for the truth does not seek criminal responsibilities. It doesn’t have criminal repercussions. You will not find defendants. This is about laying out the facts, knowing the truth of what happened (…) to soothe the wounds, to repair. But it also has the purpose of stimulating memory and raising collective awareness that these violations of human rights must not be repeated,” Judge Zunilda Niremperger said.

Only one survivor is still alive today. Rosa Grilo was a girl when the massacre happened. Her exact birth date is unknown but she is now well over 100, maybe 114 years old. She saw the plane that dropped bags and candies and the people who were shot when they gathered to pick up the items on the ground.

On July 19, 1924, more than a hundred policemen and settlers shot members of the Qom and Mocoví people. Five thousand bullets were fired in approximately 45 minutes. Girls, boys, women and men of all ages were murdered, mutilated with machetes, and buried in mass graves. In total, it is estimated at least 200 and maybe 400 people died that day. Repression continued for weeks with the persecution of survivors who escaped the scene.

For about a century, the crimes committed by the state of Argentina remained silenced. But with the determination of the survivors of the massacre and their relatives, the federal court eventually organized the truth trial. The official version used to be that there were only four deaths in Napalpí and were the results of confrontations between the Qom and the Mocoví.

In 2019, a federal court of Argentina declared the massacre of Napalpí a crime against humanity and was, therefore, excluded from the statute of limitations.

Pedro Solans, journalist and author of Crímenes en sangre (Blood Crimes) published in 2007 was able to interview another survivor, Melitona Enrique, who is now deceased but became publicly known with his historical investigation. Her testimony recorded before her death, along with Rosa Grilo’s, will be reproduced on April 26.

As the textile industry was looking to diversify its supply of cotton, authorities tried to include local communities as a cheap labor force. In Napalpí, local ethnic groups were to be taught to harvest cotton, in exchange for pay and a roof.

But the Qom and Mocoví community leaders denounced a breach of the agreements from the administration and relations deteriorated to the point of near slavery. Salaries were not paid or money was replaced by merchandise. Working hours were not respected and workers were not allowed to move freely, were confined in camps, or reducciónes.

David García, from the Napalpí Foundation, said he believes the trial will help Argentine society have better knowledge of the massacre and create an opportunity to bring awareness about the Indigenous people in Argentina. There are about 1 million Indigenous people in a country of 45 million.

Horacio Pietragalla Corti, the Secretary of Human Rights of Argentina, stressed that “this trial is going to build through justice a truth that remains written, that symbolically repairs families of the victims, democracy and new generations”.

Further hearings will be held in May. They are all available to the public and broadcast live on YouTube.

Update May 19: Judge Zunilda Niremperger attributed the responsibility to the state of Argentina. She ordered public recognition from the state of its responsibility in the massacre. Schools need to include the Napalpí massacre in their programs. The trial needs to be broadcast on national television. The ruling urged Congress to set a date for national commemoration, implement a policy plan for “historical reparations” for the victims and reinforce the protection of indigenous communities.

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