The denied genocide, the dispossession of land and the struggle of the indigenous communities are the central themes of “Argentina Originaria: genocides, looting and resistance”, a book that traces the continuities of state violence and also gives an account of the defence of territory by the native peoples.

Concentration camps.
Disappeared people.
Mass murders.
Theft of children.

The five actions were systematically carried out by the Ottoman Empire, Nazism and the last civil-military dictatorship in Argentina. All three, despite belonging to different historical moments, were recognised as genocides. There is no doubt about these crimes against humanity.

At the end of the 19th century, the Argentine state also created concentration camps, disappeared people, tortured, murdered and stole children. The indigenous peoples were, as never before in their history, close to extermination. However, even today, a large sector of Argentine society denies that it was genocide. Modern Argentina is built on this denial, the mother of all repressions.

At the end of the Second World War, those most responsible for Nazism were tried (the Nuremberg trials). In Argentina, in 1985, the former commanders of the first three military juntas of the last dictatorship were tried.

For the last decade, after resisting and annulling the so-called impunity laws, military and civilian perpetrators of crimes committed during the dictatorship have been tried and sentenced in different cities around the country.

There was no political intention to do anything similar for crimes against humanity committed against indigenous peoples. “The regime that implemented the military campaigns of the late 19th and early 20th centuries that defeated indigenous autonomy, by force of massacres, in order to consolidate the national state, never spilled out. There is continuity right up to the present day,” explains historian Walter Delrío, author of Memorias de expropiación, sometimiento e incorporación indígena en la Patagonia (1872-1943) (Memories of expropriation, subjugation and indigenous incorporation in Patagonia (1872-1943)).

Delrío is co-director of the Red de Investigadores en Genocidio y Política Indígena Argentina and professor at the Universidad Nacional de Río Negro. In his academic work, he provides evidence of how, after the military conquest, the state constructed a discourse of denial of the country’s indigenous reality, where “the melting pot” denied the original. He explains that invisibilisation was a strategy of domination, which allowed the development of different genocidal practices, such as the mass transfer of people, the separation of families and the suppression of the identity of minors, the use of prisoners as slave labour and the reduction in concentration camps.

Diana Lenton – a doctor in anthropology, specialist in indigenous politics and co-director of the same Network – calls Argentina’s birth on a legal system that denied the rights of indigenous peoples and, moreover, executed the death and disappearance of the original population “original sin”. The formation of the national state at the end of the 19th century coincided with a type of authoritarian discourse that struggled to hegemonise the body of discourse on the population.

The military campaign to the South was followed by the advance into the North, also known as the “Conquest of the Green Desert”. The indigenous populations were subjugated, forced into slave labour on the sugar cane plantations and cotton plantations. They were also forced to join the army. Children and women were distributed for housework.

Martín García Island, located at the confluence of the Uruguay and De la Plata rivers, was transformed into a large concentration camp. In just one year, 1879, 825 indigenous people were imprisoned (and later baptised), according to a work in progress by University of Buenos Aires (UBA) researchers Alexis Papazian and Mariano Nagy, who analysed archives of the Navy and the Archbishopric.

Registers show 363 men, 132 women and 330 children.

The researchers explain that the population was larger, mainly because many prisoners do not appear in Martin Garcia’s clerical registers, either because they had been baptised earlier or because they died before receiving the priest’s blessing.

Papazian analysed the official archives that testify to what happened in Martín García. He has no doubt that it was a concentration camp that functioned before, during and afterwards the Desert Campaign (from 1872 to 1886), where a rigid coercion of indigenous bodies was practised.

There are no official figures on the size of the concentration camp. Papazian and Nagy are very cautious about numbers, mainly because registers are messy and inaccurate, as children and women were often not counted. However, based on documentary evidence, the researchers claim that at least 3,000 people passed through Martín García Island, deprived of their liberty, without the right to any defence and denied any rights.

The island not only received native inhabitants; it also functioned as a distribution point to all the cardinal points of the country.

The fate of the prisoners varied. They could remain as detainees, be sent to quarries, to ranches or to join the ranks of the same army that had attacked them. Official documents show that wealthy families in Buenos Aires asked for women and children to work in the home and even in the fields. “It was clearly a mechanism of social control as part of a much larger process: genocide,” says Papazian, who is also a member of the Genocide Researchers Network. He explains that in 1890 there were no indigenous people left in Martín García. Destiny did not offer many options: Army or Navy, slave labour for employers, domestic work in family homes or death.

The province of Mendoza also experienced concentration camps and slave labour.

Diego Escolar investigated what happened to the Huarpe people and the prisoners of the military campaigns. A Conicet researcher in Mendoza and professor at the National University of Cuyo, he confirms that large contingents of people were concentrated in the province and were distributed among the estancias, the properties of the military high command and the wealthy families of the region. They almost always became slave labourers, a condition they suffered until at least the 1890s.

Based on newspapers of the time, baptismal certificates, oral memoirs and interviews from the early 20th century, it is established that between 1879 and 1886, at least 3,000 indigenous people were distributed in Mendoza. Escolar and his research team – Leticia Sald and Carla Rigió – estimate that the number is higher. At least six places of detention have been identified, located in the departments of Maipú, Malargüe, Santa Rosa, San Rafael, Rivadavia and the provincial capital.

Junín de los Andes (Neuquén), Chinchinales and Valcheta (Río Negro), Carmen de Patagones (Buenos Aires) and the Retiro neighbourhood (Buenos Aires) also had concentration camps, as did the six in Mendoza and the one on Martín García Island. Entire families were confined there, regardless of sex or age. Their greatest crime was to be indigenous and to inhabit a precious territory.

Conicet researcher and director of the Genetic Fingerprinting Service of the UBA’s Faculty of Pharmacy and Biochemistry, Daniel Corach, states that, based on army reports, the military advance of the 19th century left an estimated number of victims: “30,000 disappeared.

Twenty-eight years after the 1976 coup d’état, the national government decided that the Escuela de Mecánica de la Armada (ESMA), one of the largest clandestine detention centres, should pass into the hands of human rights organisations, which have set up a space for remembrance there.

130 years after the beginning of the Desert Campaign, the indigenous peoples have no similar space. On the contrary, the main emblem of that military advance, Julio Argentino Roca, has streets, schools and monuments. One of them reaches its peak: in the centre of Bariloche, in the middle of Mapuche territory, a statue of Roca stands defiantly. It is impossible to imagine a statue of Jorge Rafael Videla in Plaza de Mayo.

In 1994, Law 24.411 was condemned, obliging the state to pay compensation to the families of the murdered and disappeared for each victim of state terrorism. No economic reparation was ever discussed in institutional ambits for the victims of the indigenous genocide.

Nor, as in all matters relating to indigenous peoples, are there any official data on those killed and disappeared during the Desert Campaign, but some research gives an idea of its magnitude: Diana Lenton points out that in 1883, only five years after the military advance began, 20,000 prisoners had been taken to Buenos Aires. They would later be killed, disappeared or enslaved.

Mariano Nagy, a professor at the University of Buenos Aires, based on the research “Estado y cuestión indígena” by Enrique Mases, states that Patagonia was inhabited by 25,000 indigenous people. In the first year of the Desert Campaign, 1,300 indigenous people were killed “in combat” and 13,000 prisoners were taken into state custody.

Today, the systematic violation of the human rights of indigenous peoples does not shock public opinion. It is even denied by a sector of intellectuals, communicators and opinion leaders.

The victims of the genocide were neither urban nor middle class. The denial has ethnic and class roots. And, undoubtedly, economic: the different production models of the last century and a half -agro-export, oil, forestry, mining- have had and continue to have as their backdrop a large part of the ancestral indigenous territories.