Abducted in Argentina

Memorial to the “Disappeared” at the Naval Mechanics Institute, Buenos Aires. Source: Wikimedia Commons

Kidnapped by the Junta: Inside Argentina’s Wars with Britain and Itself

Julian Manyon, Icon Books, 336 pages, 2022, £20

KEN BELL is gripped by a ripping yarn of kidnap and high politics

Julian Manyon’s book is not a history of the Falklands War, but a gut-wrenching, highly personal account of one journalist who found himself being kidnapped by an Argentinean death squad against that background. Years later, the Americans released their CIA and diplomatic reports from the Argentina of the time, and Manyon synthesises these with his own experiences to analyse the Argentinean mindset that led to the war and their subsequent defeat.

Mexicans tell jokes about the Argies, with one of them going that the quickest way to get rich in Mexico is to buy an Argentinean at his true value and then sell him for the price he thinks that he is worth. When Mexicans regard a country as an international joke there is something clearly wrong with that country, but the Argentineans never seem to learn.

The kidnapping of Manyon shows just how surreal Argentina is, with an added dose of incompetence that makes the rest of Latin America look like a model of efficiency. Manyon and his friends were seized by a state kidnapping, torture and murder gang head by a certain Aníbal Gordon, an Argentine of Scottish descent who when he wasn’t pulling people’s fingernails out with pliers was a collector of fine art. The kidnapping began in the usual way when the boys in the Ford Falcons drew up and threw the group into the nice, four-door saloons with the ample boots that were ideal for driving the dead away to be dumped out of sight and out of mind.

An Argentine-built Ford Falcon, popular with death squads. Wikimedia Commons

Manyon offered a $800 bribe to Gordon, which should have been more than enough to ensure a speedy release, but Gordon just stole the money and continued with the kidnapping. Towards the end of his book, Manyon described his attempt to buy of Gordon as ‘pathetic’, but it was nothing of the sort: it was the normal way to sort out any problem with anyone wearing a uniform in Latin America. I was shocked when I read that Gordon had stolen the money, because how can you trust anyone you have bribed not to stay bought off? Unless everyone keeps to their side of the bargain, then the whole system would collapse. I was once pulled over in Mexico City on some spurious charge or other and as soon as the cops heard my accent they became rather uncertain as to how to deal with me. I had visions of being taken to the town hall under arrest and spending hours there sorting out the situation, so I hastened to assure them that I lived in the country and understood the rules very well. Their relief was palpable, because, as one of them explained it, you can never be too careful with dammed foreigners who don’t understand things, can you? Anyway, I paid my bribe and was given la clave del dia, or day’s code, which is a few numbers on a piece of paper. Thus if another patrol had pulled me over I could show them the code and they would not try to shake me down for more money.

Manyon’s group was taken to Gordon’s torture centre, and then thrown into yet another set of Ford Falcons and driven out into the countryside. There they were dumped almost naked at the side of the road as the cars roared off. They made their way to a small town police station where nobody was particularly interested in them, until one senior policeman was prevailed up to call Buenos Aires for information. According to Manyon, when the policeman heard the voice of the very senior figure on the other end of the line he jumped to attention and saluted the telephone. The group was then hastily returned to Buenos Aires and ended up having drinks with the Argentinean Foreign Minister. Luis Buñuel, who was still alive at this time, really should have made a film about that day in Manyon’s life.

Argentina’s President, General Leopold Galtieri (left), in 1982. Wikimedia Commons

The Americans had a good understanding of what was going on in Argentina during this period, and were fully aware of the death squads, but ignored them so long as the ruling junta remained onside in Reagan’s Cold War adventures. But puppets occasionally cut their strings, as the Argentinean ones did in 1982. Reagan tried to call Leopold Galtieri, Argentina’s president, but could not get him on the telephone. The Americans assumed that Galtieri was probably too drunk to pick up the handset, but when he finally did so it was on an old Bakelite phone both he and his interpreter had to use at the same time. Someone had connected the telephone to a tape recorder, and when Galtieri heard Reagan’s translated words he insisted that the recording be played back to him after the call had ended. Unfortunately, the tape recorder had not been properly connected to the telephone and all they heard was static.

Luckily for the Falkland Islanders, Argentina is as madly incompetent today as it was then, so they can live their lives in peace. Mexico and the rest of Latin America have a country they can crack jokes about, and Julian Manyon has a story that he can dine out on for the rest of his life. We are lucky he has chosen to share it with us.