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Argentina trial opens 98 years after indigenous massacre

Almost 100 years after Argentine police and settlers mowed down hundreds of indigenous people protesting living and working conditions on cotton plantations

[FILES] A picture shows the Argentinian flag. (Photo by DANIEL LEAL-OLIVAS / AFP)

Almost 100 years after Argentine police and settlers mowed down hundreds of indigenous people protesting living and working conditions on cotton plantations, a landmark trial opened Tuesday to finally secure some form of accountability.

With all the killers long dead, guilt has never been officially assigned for the 1924 massacre of members of the Qom and Moqoit communities on land settled by immigrant farmers from Europe, mainly Italy.

Now, finally, “we will demonstrate… who participated and who was responsible for this genocide,” federal prosecutor Federico Garniel said as the trial opened in the city of Resistencia in Argentina’s northeast.

It is the first court case to delve into the persecution of indigenous peoples in Argentina.

On July 19, 1924, some 130 police and ranchers with guns descended on protesting residents of the so-called Napalpi indigenous reservation where Qom and Moqoit people lived in conditions of semi-slavery, forced to work on the cotton fields.

Between 300 and 500 were killed, including children and old people, their bodies mutilated and buried in mass graves, according to survivor accounts.

The event has been ruled a crime against humanity by a federal judge, but no classical trial has been held given the lack of defendants.

Instead, victims are now getting a “truth trial,” the government said, in a process that may also lead to reparations being paid.

‘They killed my dad’
Due to run until May 19, the trial does not seek to apportion criminal liability, said presiding judge Zunilda Niremperger.

Rather, its purpose is “knowing the truth… to heal wounds” but also to “generate an awareness so that these violations of human rights are never repeated,” she said.

Jorge Capitanich, governor of the Chaco province acting as the plaintiff in the case, said that even though they are no longer alive, the perpetrators “must and deserve to be convicted in the collective memory of the original peoples.”

In 2008, Capitanich apologized on behalf of the government to the Napalpi victims.

Some 40 people will testify at the trial, according to the Napalpi Foundation, including survivors Rosa Grilo, 114, and Pedro Valquinta, 110.

In evidence provided in 2018, Grilo told prosecutors: “For me it’s sad, they killed my dad. I almost don’t want to remember. Sad things. Many people were killed.”

Only about a million of Argentina’s 45 million inhabitants today are members or descendants of the original 39 indigenous groups, according to census data.

Historians say the settlement of Argentina by immigrants left its indigenous peoples on the verge of extermination.

One of the most brutal episodes, known as The Desert Campaign, saw at least 14,000 indigenous people killed between 1878 and 1885 in the effort to incorporate Patagonia into the rest of Argentina.