Bullets in Buenos Aires


It may have been an emotive work of anarchist propaganda about Argentina’s public enemy number one, but as an historical document The Buenos Aires Tragedy is a gem


The Buenos Aires Tragedy
29 January-2 February 1931: The Last Fight of Severino Di Giovanni and Paulo Scarfo

From L’Adunata dei Refrattari, translated by Paul Sharkey
2004, Kate Sharpley Library
33 pages

Reviewed by Jay Kerr

THIS PAMPHLET has been developed from a special commemorative edition of the anarchist periodical L’Adunata dei Refrattari, published in March 1933, and is reputed to be the only account of the then events, making it a historical gem of the Latin American anarchist movement.

The Buenos Aires Tragedy documents the lives and deaths of anarchist militants who conform to a stereotype, with violence being their main instrument of revolutionary action. In particular, it tells the story of the capture and execution of two anarchists that gained public notoriety in Argentine society in the 1920s – the outlawed Severino di Giovanni (pictured above) and the young Paulino Orlando Scarfo.

The use of violence in political movements, especially by anarchists, has always been a hotly debated topic generating strong opinions. Calls for violence as a tactic are often seen in a more favourable light when this is employed in opposition to an oppressive regime. In fact, historically, the need for violence becomes more acute when the repression of a movement is widespread and the only individuals able to make their voice heard are those prepared to go to extremes.

Argentina in the late 1920s had one of the most promising revolutionary workers’ movements of the time in Latin America and within this there were those who saw the use of violence to propagate their ideas as fundamental. In 1930, General José Félix Uriburu staged a miliary coup and, within days, the revolutionary movement had nearly been eradicated. Newspapers, trade unions, political and cultural organisations were banned and shut down in the space of a few hours. Militants of every stripe were rounded up and held on prison ships or taken to island jails. Foreign militants were deported and those who escaped capture were forced into exile. Only small clusters of secret revolutionary cells remained.

Charismatic and adventurous

Severino di Giovanni was part of small group of anarchists who attempted to fight the system with violence in the face of repression. A charismatic and adventurous man, Di Giovanni had engaged in direct action in the cause of anarchism, undertaking what is known as propaganda by the deed: destroying bourgeois property, committing raids and stealing money to raise funds for the revolution.

In 1928, he was accused of being behind the bombing of the Italian consulate in Buenos Aires – even by other elements of the anarchist movement – and was forced into hiding. For three years he remained underground, still active in promoting the anarchist ideal. The press became enthralled by this man, and foisted upon him a criminal legend, attributing to him many acts of political violence such as attacks on the City and Boston banks, the Cathedral and the Ford dealership, the killing of three men, including an anarchist comrade, and even the simultaneous bombing of three railway stations in 1931.

Through media portrayals his legend grew, far beyond concrete evidence of his activities, and he became a cult figure of the day. Soon after the station bombings, Di Giovanni was finally captured outside a clandestine anarchist publishing office. A brief gun fight ensued as the police moved in and he attempted to escape. Finding himself trapped, Di Giovanni turned the gun on himself rather than face imprisonment and torture at the hands of the police, but failed to end his life.

His comrades were rounded up at the communal hideaway in Burzaco and there was another gunfight as the anarchists tried to make their escape. Two were killed and one, Paulo Scarfo, was taken prisoner. In the house, police found weapons, bombs, counterfeit money and a printing press that had been used to produce anarchist literature, as well as Scarfo’s sister, America, and Di Giovanni’s ten-year-old daughter.

What follows in this pamphlet is an emotive description of the military trials of the two men and their subsequent executions. Both are portrayed as martyrs to the anarchist cause, mounting noble defences in the face of certain death.

The Buenos Aires Tragedy is an account not uncommon in the history of anarchism, or any political movement. It is a work of propaganda intended to heighten emotions against the regime and, for this reason, is written in a defiant style with little historical objectivity.

However, although such items often lack objectivity, they cannot be dismissed as irrelevant. The importance of The Buenos Aires Tragedy lies in the fact that it is an original document, an alternative account of events that were only reported in official organs, which were largely biased toward the regime. In the study of history, we rely on these snippets of counter-viewpoints in order to unveil the facts of the past.

In the case of The Buenos Aires Tragedy we are presented with an account of two men, and a movement, whose activities had been represented as banditry shrouded in political rhetoric. In this anarchist interpretation, however, the protagonists are portrayed as passionate individuals firmly committed to an ideal of freedom. Their thefts are portrayed as expropriation to fund the propaganda against a regime that has crushed all dissent; their accumulation of an arsenal to attack the state as a means of defence against the repression they face when caught. Media reports are depicted as smear-campaigns to limit public support for their cause, and their trials and executions are portrayed as miscarriages of justice based on flimsy evidence.

This is a valuable document for historians as a primary source and makes fascinating reading for enthusiasts as a thought-provoking story of a past era, albeit with interesting echoes in the present. Can violence be justified in the face of repression? Is it a sound political tactic? Why do people of intelligence and passion for humanity take the path of brutality to fight brutality. The Buenos Aires Tragedy raises many of these questions.

Jay Kerr is writing a history of anarchism in Latin America

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