Saturday, 3 February 2018

"Hate is a factor in the struggle; unyielding hatred for the enemy which pushes a human being beyond his natural limitations, turning him into an effective, violent, selective, cold killing machine."
Ernesto Che Guevara, 1967

It was the bloodiest political divorce in Argentina’s history.
Outside a nondescript house, thirteen men milled around a red sedan. Some paced the sidewalk, wary and watchful, eyes darting left and right. Others sniffed the air and rapidly scanned the buildings for what danger might lurk. The small battalion, whose boss shifted quarters with careful irregularity, was the most practiced in the country.
Standing by the front door of the house, a bodyguard checked his watch and nodded. Instantly, a young man slid into the driver’s seat and the red Torino’s powerful engine roared to life.
Hidden inside the house next door, three youths watched without blinking as the driver slammed the door.
Sierra, twenty, aimed a Bataan rifle. “I got the driver.” 
            “I’ll deal with the gorillas,” growled Víctor, twenty, aiming an Ithaca rifle at the bodyguards.
            “The Fat Cat is mine.” Twenty-two-year-old Oscar trained his FAL rifle on the front door of the target’s home.
            The Fat Cat was labor boss José Rucci, a vital player in Juan Perón’s stunning political comeback. After more than two decades in exile, Perón returned to Argentina, won the general election with a notable majority and became the first constitutional president in fifteen years. The military dictators were forced out, and two million jubilant Argentines flooded the airport to welcome him home.
            At twelve noon, the bells of the San José de Flores basilica began to toll. Upstairs on the terrace, Rucci finished editing a speech for national television. Ten minutes later he kissed his wife goodbye, opened the door of his house, nodded at his men, and walked towards the idling Torino. 
            In the house next door, Oscar squeezed the trigger.
            The bullet shattered Rucci’s neck; his body hit a wall and crumpled on the sidewalk. The bodyguards were cut down by a deluge of bullets from the marksmen next door. While the men bled out in the street, Oscar’s relentless fire turned Rucci´s body into pulp.
            The driver slid out of the Torino, his face covered in blood and glass. Using the heavy chassis as a shield, he crawled along the pavement. Near a school, he drew a final breath and screamed at the metal gates.
“Open up, my brother! I’m dying.”
            Minutes earlier, having heard the first shots, the school caretaker raced to the gates and locked them. At the sight of the dying man, he could not contain his grief.
            I can’t!” He sobbed.
On the upper level, in a thrill of fear and horror, children pressed their noses to the windows while the teachers scrambled to prevent them from seeing the carnage.
            On the street, the driver gasped once and lay still.
Oscar, Sierra and Víctor, confident as tomcats, scampered over the neighbors’ roofs and vanished.
Operación Traviata was over.

A triumphant José Rucci holds an umbrella for the towering Perón. June 20, 1973

Oscar slipped into the passenger seat of a compact car. His driver, Gaby de Agostino, code name Bravo, peered at him with a glint of mischief in the eye.
“I have been wondering—” Bravo had little knowledge of the guts of the operation.
Why we called it Traviata?” Oscar frowned.
            Bravo whizzed around a corner and jammed the brakes. An ambulance screamed past them.
Oscar watched the ambulance for a beat. “Our deal with Perón was that Montoneros would help him win the election in return for posts in his cabinet. While he languished in Spain, Perón hailed us as his marvelous youth but as soon as he got back on the throne, he kicked us in the ass.”
            And the boot belonged to Rucci.”
            Oscar chuckled. “You know the Traviata cookies advertised as having twenty-three holes punched through them?” 
            My children love them.”
            Rucci´s body is a treat for our great leader, courtesy of his marvelous youth.”
Early next morning, while the authorities scoured the city for Rucci’s assassins, Oscar slung a satchel over his shoulder and drove to a bungalow tucked in a suburban cul-de-sac.
Huddling in the foliage of centenary trees, two sentinels watched the man with the satchel saunter towards the bungalow. 
            Carlos Hastings, code name Charlie, a lanky youth in his early twenties peered through the branches.
            Looks like him.”
            Operación Traviata sniper, Sierra craned his neck and had a look. “A man to remember.”
            Charlie watched the light, economical gait of the muscular youth bouncing up the path.
            He’s not that impressive.”
            Sierra smiled and lay back against a tree trunk. Till you get in his crosshairs.”

Montonero commander Marcelo Daniel Kurlat, aka OSCAR
            Inside the bungalow, the windows were blacked out. Two chairs and a table stacked with U.S. dollar bills were its only decor. Seated at the table, a young man counted the money. At the rapping on the door he tip-toed to a side window built incongruously close to the ground. You can always tell by their shoes, he mused, acknowledging his visitor’s scruffy sneakers. The supreme commander of Montoneros opened the door wide enough for Oscar to slip through.
Pumped with a deep sense of accomplishment, Oscar entered the navel of Montonero covert operations. He prowled around the table, peering at the stacks of crumpled bills. Finally, he sat down and fixed a respectful gaze upon the bag man.
            Over a scant four years, the twenty-six-year-old Mario Russovich, code name Alpha, a devout Catholic and brilliant student, transformed a group of reckless, mutinous Marxist youths into Montoneros, a cold and efficient killing machine; just as Che Guevara ordered in 1967, the year of his death.
            Without preamble, Alpha asked, “What is your greatest fear?” His dark eyes glittered while he gathered the money with rubber bands.
            Oscar fired back, “Being caged. Some years back, my father and I drove to the Formosa wild animal reserve. The locals had caught a puma which had been ravaging their livestock, and there it was, wounded, and pacing around in a cage. They called him Oscar.
“The cat stopped pacing and stared at me. I saw a light extinguished in those amber eyes.”
            Oscar leaped from his chair and paced the floor. “Despite the heat, I shivered. My father thought I was ill and wanted to take me to a doctor. But I wasn’t ill. What I needed was the key to the cage.”
            Alpha motioned for Oscar to return to his chair. “With more operations like Traviata, we shall destroy Perón and his oligarchs, the armed forces and the police. When we take control of the government; when we set up a democracy with rights and freedoms and justice for all, the anguish of captivity will end.”
            Alpha stacked several bundles of bills and with a glint of approval, he handed Oscar the money.
            Oscar stuffed the bills in the satchel. 
            Alpha stood up and shook hands. “Congratulations, Commander. I trust these funds will keep you operational.” He saluted, military style.
            Oscar saluted his comrade with Che Guevara´s slogan: “Hasta la victoria siempre.” Until victory always.

Plaza de Mayo, Casa Rosada. Demonstrations took place every day.
There was chaos in Flores after the killing of its revered resident, José Rucci. Television, radio and print reporters flooded the streets, hungry for information. Tape recorders whirred, cameras clicked; witnesses lied. No one saw anything. Those who could speak with authority were dead.
             Fear and rage whipped through the ornate offices of the presidential palace, Casa Rosada. Gossip proliferated about the operation that ended Rucci’s life and speculation grew about who the perpetrators might be.
            Perón knew. Earlier that day, when an aide delivered the news of the killing, he screamed, “Rucci was like a son to me. Those terrorists have cut me off at the knees!” Minutes later he summoned his cabinet and ordered them to deploy the paramilitary force, Triple A, and eliminate Montoneros.
            Argentina’s Dirty War had begun.

Perón was fed up with the belligerent Montoneros and kicked them out of
Plaza de Mayo. May Day, 1971
            Oscar sauntered out of the bungalow, slinging the satchel over his shoulder. He stole a glance at the sentinels in the trees, and glided to his car, an old Valiant his father used to drive. He shoved the satchel under the passenger seat and drove away.
Are you proud, Marcus? Oscar felt his father’s spirit in the squeak of the leather seat, in the purr of the engine as he revved from second to third gear. It wasn’t a fast car, but it contained the spirit of the man he loved most, and the memories of a time lost forever.
While he drove, Oscar’s eyes roamed the buildings, the street and sidewalks, watching for police. And his thoughts wandered.  It should be you driving this old bucket, Marcus.
I miss you every day.

One Year Ago

“Back in ten, Mama.” A husky youth in his early twenties and a well-groomed Schnauzer ran out of a large brick home.
“Race you to the store, Karl.” David Kurak zipped down the cobbled street, the dog running alongside.
            David and Karl stopped at Donato’s store, the most fragrant spot in the quaint suburban neighborhood. Gazing at the hams and sausages, Karl licked his chops.
“Guard the door, Karl.” The dog stood watch outside while his owner skipped into the store.
            Buenos días, Donato.” David paused and peered at the grocer’s gloomy expression.
“What, no Rigoletto today?”
 Donato’s rich baritone attracted many a passer-by into the store, as he belted out harmonies by Puccini and Verdi. The neighbors often sang along as they swept the sidewalks.
Donato wiped his hands on a well-worn apron and smiled wanly. 
            Not so good, David. You want the usual?”
            David nodded and watched the grocer cut prosciutto ham into thin slices. Looking around the store, he zeroed in on a row of empty shelves.
            My father’s favorite—It’s not there.”
            Donato shook his head. “Things are going up. Brie is a luxury item.”
            Marcus will be disappointed.”
            The grocer gazed mournfully at the dwindling stock and waved his arms.
“Where does it end?”
            Don’t worry yourself, Donato. Give me some of that criollo over there. It will do.”
            Donato sliced the farmer’s cheese. “Maybe your father can explain why my costs shoot up from one week to the next, because I can’t.”
He wrapped the ham and cheese in butcher paper.
“Inflation empties the wallet and corrodes the spirit, my friend. But I am a psychology student; I will let my father explain it.” David handed over a stack of bills.
The grocer took the money and shook his head. “David, listen to me. This is serious.”
David frowned. “You look worried.”
“Everyone in the neighborhood is worried. The way things are going, soon you will need a suitcase full of money to pay for a few grams of ham and cheese.”
            David thanked him and left the store. Master and dog ran off together.
Mama?” David wiped his feet on the mat by the door.
            In the kitchen.” Alma Kurak, a thin woman in her forties, wiped the tears from her eyes and continued chopping onions.
            No brie. Donato was all doom and gloom.” David unwrapped the ham and cheese. “Kept mumbling about prices going up.”
He opened the fridge, removed some olives and arranged them with bread and cold cuts on a platter. He turned and saw his mother’s teary face.
“I hope it’s the onions and not the brie­, Mama.”
            Alma wiped her face with a dishcloth and forced a little smile.
“Your father has locked himself in the study.”
            David showed her the platter. “This will cheer him up.”
            Alma sniffled. “Your father is angry. No. He is frightened.”
            Frightened? That is not like him.”
            I have not seen him like this since—” Alma Kurak sobbed into the dishcloth.
            David hugged his mother and gently rocked her.Since when, Mama?”
            “Old story.” She whirled around and continued chopping.
            “Mama, please.” David held her by the shoulders.
            “He is so anxious.” She chopped fast, scattering onions on the counter top.
            “Don’t you worry, Mama. I am here for you and Marcus.”  
            Alma smiled. “All right then. Talk to him.”
            David picked up the platter; the dog wagged its tail. “And for you too, Karl.” 
In the cluttered study overlooking a little park, Marcus Kurak puffed on his pipe and scratched his beard.
            Son, you are a paragon of good taste.”
            What’s wrong?” David moved books and papers to the side and placed the platter on his father’s desk.
            Marcus Kurak took a slice of prosciutto. “It’s about to happen again.”
David waited. He knew his father preferred to formulate a thought before letting it out.
Marcus inspected the cheese. “Criollo, eh? I am not surprised. An imported cheese would cut Donato’s profit considerably.”
“He wasn’t singing.”
“Donato is right to be upset. Perón and his so-called democracy are on their last legs. The generals are coming back.”
David sat up. “We don’t want the generals back.”
“My business is failing. And I expect Donato’s is as well—today there’s no cheese, tomorrow there will be no toilet paper.”
            David chuckled. “We can do without the cheese.”
            “Perón’s populist priorities are ruining the merchants.”
            “The generals were no better.”
“The government is corrupt; it frightens investors. Our currency is as worthless as our word.”
Oscar frowned. “The generals are not coming back.”
“How do you expect to curb the tide, son?”
“I will let you know when I figure it out.”
“You better make it quick. Perón is old, his advisers are a bunch of clowns and the economy is tanking.”
“Eat your cheese, Marcus.”
“The armed forces will take over—"
“And don’t upset my Mama.” David took a slice of ham and walked out.
In the kitchen, David hugged his mother. “He will be alright, Mama.”
“Back to your books. I’ll call you for lunch.”
“Yes, Mama.”
David looked at the dog.
“Come on, Karl, we have some studying to do.”
David Kurak’s freshman year in Filosofía y Letras, the social sciences school of Buenos Aires University, was uneventful. His grades were good; he made no friends.
            Instead, he ran.           
            He ran to every riot, protest and demonstration. He attended every meeting of the student council. He absorbed issues; he assimilated the fear and the anger of his fellow students.
            Every day, students in the hundreds assembled in Plaza de Mayo, the seat of government, clamoring for better governance. They chanted by the doors of Casa Rosada until the police ploughed through and gagged them with tear gas. The students hurled stones, sticks and Molotov cocktails.
David cringed as he watched the violence. Dozens of students were arrested and tossed into police vans.
At a singularly brutal collision between students and police, David braved the tear gas and saved a young woman from being trampled. Exhausted, angry and frightened, he ran home. Riots make no sense, he thought. The police are organized, armed, trained. The students cannot win. Our so-called constitutional government has forgotten whom it serves.
            That night David was invited to a meeting of a small but intense radical group. The speaker was a pudgy, unassuming man who seemed to grow and become multi-dimensional with every idea he offered, with each experience he described.
David watched and listened with the intensity of a hungry cat. Rafael. Not his real name. Something is wrong with his arm, he thought, while Rafael revealed the intricacies of money-laundering, fundraising techniques, the importance of an organized team.
“With small, well-financed, highly trained fighters, organized in tight cells and striking with autonomy, we can beat a frightful enemy.” Rafael concluded his presentation and mingled with the crowd.
David stood in the periphery, digesting the innovative views posited by the modest speaker. He watched the crowd depart. 
Someone tapped him on the shoulder. David whirled around.
            You took a big risk at the demonstration. We are grateful.” Rafael shook hands.
            A rush of adrenaline helped to overcome any qualms David had about the man.
“It is not enough. We need to do more.”
            “Your courage saved a comrade’s life. I lost the use of my arm in a similar battle some time ago.”
David nodded, waited.
Rafael continued. “Street fighting is not effective. The resistance must come together into a cohesive whole.”
            David ran home that night, feeling as though Rafael had given him a green light to do what he wanted to.
            In the weeks that followed, David discussed political and social issues with fellow students. They listened. At first, he was surprised to find he had their ear, then he relaxed and began to bond. When the students questioned him, he encouraged; when they wavered, he held firm.
            Within a few months, with Gaby de Agostino and a gaggle of bright, committed friends, David Kurak became president of the student council.
            He ran home that night, aware that for the first time he was steering his life. He had found his calling.
Thank you, Rafael, he thought. I shall inspire.

      Joe Baxter aka RAFAEL. Godfather to Montoneros.
Weeks later, on a night resplendent with stars, David shared a rare moment of companionship with his father.
            Marcus Kurak looked tired, moody. Father and son walked Karl to the park.
            “Your mother and I have missed you, son.” 
            “I have become a bit of a gypsy. Forgive my long absences.”
            “We do not understand, but we accept that you are doing what you think is right.”
            How much do they know? David wondered. He was careful to disclose as little as possible about his political activities, but the elder Kuraks—like thousands of parents with militant children—chose to respect whatever secrets their offspring might hold.
            David placed an arm around his father’s shoulders. “I can´t stay long. The police are out in force combing the barrios for bombers and assassins. The government has no mercy for those who oppose them. I must protect myself.”       
            Marcus shook his head gloomily. “Remember your Euripides, David. A state has no worse foe than a tyrant—” He stumbled as the tantalizing scents of the park assaulted the dog’s nose, prompting it to jerk forward.
            “Give me that.” David tugged at the lead. “Come on Karl, slow down; we´re talking here.”
At the opposite end of the park a car idled quietly, its lights off. Bravo checked the rearview mirror for police.
David and Marcus strolled along the park, talking quietly. Something crackled nearby.
The dog sniffed the air and growled. David tightened his hold on the leash.
            Marcus gazed at his son. “I understand your disappointment, David, but extremes are dangerous. What is good, real and true will be found somewhere near the center.”
            David snorted. “Our center has vanished with our prospects. We are saddled with an astronomical foreign debt, jobs are hard to get, people are going hungry. Ours is a rich country; we cannot allow ourselves to live like this.” 
            “And armed struggle will salvage your future?”
            “I grew up in a cage, with my intellect in a vise. I was timid. I was submissive, my confidence eroding with every edict, with every proclamation, with every abuse of my freedom.”
            As if on cue, the dog growled.
“Perón and his government have rotted from the inside, but letting the generals run the country again is not an option.”
David sighed and tugged at the lead. “Take it easy, Karl.” Father and son strolled in silence.
“Armed struggle is all we have. I am never returning to the cage.” David handed over the lead.
            Marcus gazed at his son with profound sadness. “I sense a long goodbye.”
            “Use the contact I gave you. And don´t worry, I will be safe. Plant a great kiss on Mama´s cheek and tell her I love her with all my heart.”
            While the dog snuffled and snooped, David hugged his father. “Are you watching the game tonight?”
            “Your Mama, Karl and I will watch the game, and nothing would please me more than discussing it with you over a few beers. Soon.”
            David patted the dog and tore himself away. He sprinted to the end of the park.
            David slipped into the idling car.
“Any threats, comrade?”
            Bravo sighed with relief. “Oscar! You are late, but we are in the clear.”
That night, the Copa Libertadores soccer finals blared out of every television, and the neighborhood bars in Buenos Aires overflowed with raving fans. In the racket, no one heard the cries of the lone merchant in the park, or the roar of the executioners as they pummeled him to the ground.
            But Karl knew what to do. The dog raced to his favorite store and barked insanely at the door until Donato rose from his bed above the store. Moments later, an ambulance roared to the scene, police combed the park for the assailants, and Alma Kurak sobbed by her dying husband.

            Argentina won the soccer tournament that night, and David raced into the hospital to clutch his father´s hand and whisper in despair:
           “Perón’s thugs were looking for me. They wanted me.