On May 19, after a month of hearing testimonies in Chaco and Buenos Aires, Federal Judge Zunilda Niremperger read her judgment—translated simultaneously into the Qom and Moqoit languages—on the Napalpí Massacre. “The state attacked the communities in a previously organized plan,” she said, explaining why the court had determined that what happened at Napalpí was a crime against humanity. “It was an organized extermination.”
This trial was an unusual one: it took place 97 years and 10 months after the Napalpí massacre, but finally, the Argentine state recognized the brutal attack against the Qom and Moqoit Indigenous communities in 1924.
The massacre that occurred on July 19, 1924 was framed in what experts consider a systemic plan to eliminate and suppress Indigenous communities during the building of the modern nation of Argentina. Not much is known about the events of the massacre because, until recently, the state did not investigate or acknowledge the event.
The Napalpí was one of the four Indigenous “reductions" created by the state to discipline and control the communities that were defeated during the military invasion of the Chaco region. The term “reduction,” as these spaces were called, indicates their purpose: reducir means to narrow, to diminish. These lands were essentially concentration camps, similar to those created by the Spanish during the Cuban War of Independence. The Napalpí community lived under a strict regime created in 1911, in which they were forced to work in cotton fields. Children did not go to school, and families could not leave the area.
Fernando Centeno, who was the Governor of the Chaco Region at the time, forbade Napalpí inhabitants from using their earnings outside the reducción and forced them to pay for the transportation of their harvests and even their work clothes. A few days before the massacre, the community organized to protest their unfair work conditions and demand better wages. In response, the government ordered the attacks that were carried out by the local police and the military, launching a vicious ambush by air and land and killing approximately 500 hundred Moqoit and Qom.
Recent investigations of the government archives from those years showed that the massacre was thoroughly coordinated and planned, with weeks of intelligence and coordination leading up to the events of July 19.
Reconstructing the story for the trial was difficult, given that no investigation was opened directly after the massacre and survivors’ testimonies went unheard for almost a century. But, thanks to the efforts of their descendants, historians, and sociologists, and with the support of the current Chaco government, a truth trial was opened in April this year. The goal of the trial was not to condemn, since those directly responsible for the massacre are already dead, but to validate the voices of the Napalpí communities and advocates and to recognize the crimes against humanity that were inflicted on their ancestors. In Argentina, a country that prides itself on being a pioneer in trials acknowledging its violent history—especially related to the junta dictatorship—the state owed the Indigenous communities the gesture of acknowledging their history.
Reconstructing the Massacre through Testimony
In her testimony, Rosa Grillo recalls how, on July 19, 1924, hundreds of men, women, and children were surrounded by land, attacked by air, and viciously murdered. Airplanes approached the area, throwing candy and food onto the land as a lure. Once people went out to pick up the food, the shooting started.
Grillo, a 114-year-old woman, is one of the very few living Napalpí survivors. Her testimony that was shown in the trial was from a video shot in 2018 by Qom researcher Juan Chico during his investigation of the massacre. Her story was key in helping the Napalpí case reach trial.
“No one ever spoke about what happened until now,” she said. “[That day] was very sad, because they killed my father. My mother and grandfather ran into the woods, shouting for us to run, too.”
During the trial, historian Nicolás Iñigo Carrera explained the massacre in the context of the emergence of Argentina as a nation-state and its entry into the global market in 1880. The goal of forcing the Chaco communities into the reductions was to create a cheap workforce that would encourage businesses to settle in the region. The Centeno government, explained Carrera, viewed the Indigenous people as militant opponents. During the trials, he shared evidence from the archives, highlighting how authorities back then called the Indigenous communities “subversives,” the same classification that the military would use against militants in the 1970s.
Other testimonies used archival materials to argue that the attack had been thoroughly planned, showing how police and military forces had been sent nearby two days before. Proving this helped sustain the claim of the event as a crime against humanity, as later decreed by Judge Niremperger’s judgement. In her decision, she recognizes the responsibility of the Argentine state in the massacre and obliges the state to acknowledge it publicly. The ruling also demands that the state implement a series of public policy reparations, including training the military regarding rights pertaining to Indigenous communities, creating a museum and a memory site in Napalpí, incorporating the events in the national history curriculum, and returning the remains used for investigation to their descendants. As part of recognizing the events and upholding a memory policy, the truth trials were broadcast on national TV.
Though the verdict is a significant win, experts think true justice will require a more radical change in public policy. According to sociologist and researcher Marcelo Musante, many government institutions in Argentina were created during the end of the 19th century and still replicate racism and violence against Indigenous communities.
“The Argentine state was founded in the Indigenous genocide: it’s in the public discourse, it’s in the school education,” he said. In contemporary Argentina, the relationship between the state and Indigenous communities continues to be tense and violent. Land ownership and the right to access their ancestral territories are one of the key conflicts, like in Patagonia where private businesses occupy the land and displace the remaining communities of the area.
“When Indigenous communities organize themselves in Patagonia, they are repressed by five different armed forces, and their demands are never acknowledged,” Musante said. In the north, other Indigenous communities live in extreme poverty, and the state violates their rights by failing to help meet their basic needs.
Argentina has laws to protect its Indigenous communities, like the law on the territorial survey of Indigenous communities. The law requires the state to respond to the territorial emergency under which Indigenous communities are living by preventing evictions and carrying out an in-depth census of the populations inhabiting these lands. However, the law, passed in 2016, still has not been implemented.
As communities from Chaco celebrate the victory of the Napalpí sentence after decades of invisibility, many hope that this will be the turning point in the way that authorities address the claims of those communities that have resisted its violence for centuries.
“I hope that this trial isn’t the end, but the beginning of a period of more reflection by the state,” said Musante. “I hope it opens a debate on what is happening with the displacements and that it encourages authorities to implement the existing laws.”
Lucia Cholakian Herrera is a freelance reporter based in Buenos Aires. She covers human rights, politics, and gender in Latin America.
Editor's note: this article was updated on July 27 correcting that Federal Judge Zunilda Niremperger read her judgment, rather than sentence.