An Overdue Reckoning: The Napalpí Ruling And Indigenous Repression In Argentina

In May, Voice of America reported that a court in Resistencia held the Argentinian state responsible for committing “crimes against humanity” in July 1924, when police and settlers massacred around 400-500 indigenous Qom and Moqoit peoples for protesting slave-like working conditions in the Napalpí reservation. Judge Zunilda Niremperger ordered the state to pay “historic reparations”, although these will not include financial compensation.

On July 19th 1924, a group of 130 men, armed to the teeth with Winchester rifles, surrounded indigenous encampments and opened fire indiscriminately, killing countless men, women, and children. The assailants then hacked anyone left standing to death with machetes and hunted down witnesses for weeks.

Testimonies make for grim reading. Survivors like Melitona Enrique, who died at the age of 107 in 2008, said that the “crows went a week without flying because they kept eating the corpses.” Historian Delia del Pilar Otero says murderers collected the testicles, penises, scalps, and ears of slain indigenous victims and proudly exhibited them like war trophies.

Journalist Mario Vidal added none of the men who carried out these heinous crimes ever spent a day in court. Chief of Police Diego Ulibarrie, upon learning that the federal government planned to send a commission of inquiry to investigate the massacre, colluded with local clergy and settlers to cover up incriminating evidence.

The Argentine state interpreted virtually all manifestations of indigenous autonomy or resistance, no matter how ephemeral or peaceful, as intolerable threats to national unity. The genocidal Conquest of the Desert in the late 1800s, which ended in the extermination, deportation, enslavement, and expropriation of thousands of indigenous peoples and their lands in Patagonia, Pampas, and Chaco regions, presented a stark choice to vanquished tribes: assimilate or perish.

Walter Delrio and many others argue Argentinian politicians and employers, keen to exploit powerless indigenous peoples confined in concentration camps, decreed that the path towards “civilizsation” involved backbreaking and humiliating labor. The military, in accordance with demands from provincial elites and high-society members, separated indigenous families and redistributed the women and children to distinguished households so they could work as servants.

Meanwhile, indigenous men either served in the military for years or ended up toiling in the sugarcane, cotton, or grape harvesting industries. The totalitarian discipline inherent to these professions did not, however, fully extinguish indigenous cultures or languages as intended. Occasional outbreaks of discontent in reservations like Napalpí demonstrated that indigenous peoples hoped to restore their dignity —only to be faced with extreme violence and prejudice.

The Napalpí massacre occurred at a time when Argentina witnessed unprecedented social unrest. The Russian Revolution of 1917 inspired workers and colonial subjects across the globe to challenge the wealthy and powerful like never before. Sandra Deutsch says that massive labor mobilisation in early 1920s, which often culminated in murderous clashes between strikers and police, utterly petrified Argentinian elites.

Army officers, large landowners, and intellectuals, desperate to restore order and stability, turned to right-wing paramilitaries or volunteers like the Argentine Patriotic League (APL) to brutally suppress labor agitation. Anti-democratic, anti-feminist, and anti-Semitic sentiments rapidly proliferated, especially following the Tragic Week of January 1919, when APL members laid siege to Russian Jewish neighbourhoods in Buenos Aires.

Historian Osvaldo Bayer noted that disruptive strikes, especially in isolated rural regions like Patagonia, gave the Argentinian police and military the perfect cover to wage total war on fellow citizens. For example, Colonel Hector Varela, also known as the “Butcher of Patagonia”, suppressed anarchist-led uprisings between 1920 and 1922 with extraordinary violence and oversaw the slaughter of approximately 1,500 people. His troops forced workers and trade union leaders to dig their own graves and strip naked before executing them. Those who survived were either tortured in jail or fled the country.

The Napalpí massacre, therefore, marked another tragic episode in a wide-ranging conflict that pitted indigenous and immigrant labourers, fighting for better working conditions or higher wages, against an increasingly intransigent, reactionary, and white supremacist elite determined to preserve the status quo at all costs.

Yet the shock and outrage the Napalpí incident aroused prompted Argentinian authorities to devise more cunning ploys to control and subdue uncooperative indigenous peoples. In an interview with anthropologist Christopher Golias, an elderly Qom claimed the government poisoned rivers and “gifts” like bread supplies to kill-off the Qom: “The ancient ones learned to give the water to their dogs first to see if it would do any harm…This happened until 1945”.

Another lesser-known massacre took place under the reign of populist president Juan Perón in 1947, when thousands of indigenous Pilagá people gathered round charismatic shamans and traditional chiefs in the province of Formosa. Walter Delrio and Diana Lenton argue that terrified criollos (Argentines of Spanish or European descent) mistook this mostly uneventful demonstration, which condemned layoffs in sugar refineries and famine-like conditions in the countryside, for an incipient rebellion.

The federal government sent police to bombard the meeting and pursue survivors into the jungle, resulting in the deaths of around 800 to 2,000 Pilagás. After decades of state-sanctioned silence and denial, Buenos Aires finally admitted this atrocity amounted to genocide in 2019.

The Qom had no choice but to work as seasonal labor in sugar plantations between the early 20th century and the late 1960s to make a living as well. Gastón Gordillo says that stories involving appalling working conditions, high mortality rates, and horrifying encounters with the Argentinian military permeate memories about the plantation economy.

Qom labourers often ranked at the very bottom of the factory hierarchy and ended up doing the most dangerous, unrewarding, and arduous tasks, like clearing forests and shovelling ditches, in return for the lowest pay, virtually no medical coverage, and woeful accommodation.

Worst of all, rampant diseases claimed the lives of hundreds of Qom children who stayed with their mothers and fathers in plantations. Missionary reports even described a sugarcane field as “the graveyard of babies”. A man named Diego remembered that coughing fevers and smallpox, among many other illnesses, caused the most damage. The fact that plantation hospitals often did not provide treatment to the Qom added further insult to injury.

The Argentinian military kept a watchful eye on indigenous dissent in plantations during the 1920s and 1930s, especially following the events at Napalpí. Elderly Qom recalled how tyrannical administrations and private policemen promised “to kill all the Toba (Qom)” if they dared step out of line. Newcomers who lashed out at abusive foremen risked being “disappeared” or worse.

The climate of intense fear that the Qom experienced in northwestern plantations prefigured what the military Junta unleashed throughout Argentina in the late seventies and early eighties. This fascistic regime, intermittently backed by the US before the Falklands War, ordered death squads to kidnap, torture, kill, and “disappear” around 30,000 left-leaning “subversives”, activists, and students for seven years.

Indigenous people, as the original internal enemies, had already suffered the savagery of counterinsurgency campaigns for decades before the Junta broadened its antisubversivo doctrine. The military used plantations as laboratories of terror and surveillance—and eagerly applied their findings on the rest of Argentinian society to eradicate “communism.”

Yet the gradual mechanisation of the sugar and cotton industries eventually pushed the Qom to find employment in the capital and other regional cities. Many ended up living in squalid shantytowns, the ironically named villas, on the outskirts of Buenos Aires.

Ana Pasqua says the Qom found life unbearable in the villas. They felt trapped in the city’s outskirts and quickly fell victim to racist stereotypes. Upper and middle class residents called them negros villeros (the blacks from the villas) and considered the Qom a menace to the wellbeing of the population.

Today, poverty and marginalization continue to haunt indigenous peoples in Argentina. Most Qom rely on the state for shelter, food, or sanitation and reside in segregated neighbourhoods.

Moreover, alcohol abuse is causing immeasurable harm in Qom communities. Christopher Golias observed that public binge drinking is endemic among the Qom living in Lot 84, a district in Formosa. Nurses and teachers also say that alcoholism is largely responsible for exacerbating already high rates of domestic violence, rape, prostitution, unwanted pregnancies, parental neglect, and child abandonments.

The court’s decision to recognize the Napalpí massacre as an egregious crime against humanity is an important milestone. Yet this ruling will make no difference for indigenous communities ravaged by chronic unemployment and despair.

Furthermore, it is doubtful that a government that still wages war against militant Mapuches in southern Argentina, according to Open Democracy, will ever fulfil its obligation to pay historic reparations. As one Qom ruefully noted, Buenos Aires is more than willing to pay lip service to indigenous rights and international law without doing anything to improve the lot of the Qom on the ground.

What the Qom need above all else, as Golias mentioned previously, are vocational schools and internship programs that would help them build the skillsets required to thrive in the modern economy.

Additionally, to combat alcohol abuse, the state must establish partnerships with various religious institutions embedded in indigenous communities. Clergy and congregations affiliated with Pentecostal churches have proven very effective at preventing and even treating destructive alcohol use. The Qom also prefer communally owned and informal peer counselling groups over state-sponsored psychiatrists.

Argentinian officials must listen carefully to indigenous demands in the present. Only then will hefty historical debts be repaid.


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