From The Vaults

24 June 2024
Argentina’s 'disappeared' rugbiers

By Andrés H. Reggiani, Universidad Torcuato Di Tella - Buenos Aires

This article is a revised and shortened extract of his book 'El rugby. Historia, rituales y controversias desde sus orígenes hasta hoy.'

On March 27, 1975, scrum-half and medical student, Hernán Rocca, was training alone in the playing field of La Plata Rugby Club (LPRC). Unlike the rest of his first division team, which was touring Europe, he stayed to take his exams, speed up his graduation and get married. His fiancée Adriana and her friend Pola, whose brother was among the touring rugbiers, had accompanied Hernán to the club. As they watched him exercise, they noticed an unmarked car parked on a street adjacent to the field. "They are filming us," Adriana told him afterwards. He dismissed her comment, took his friends home and headed to his parents' flat. He never arrived. His body appeared a few days later washed up and filled with bullet holes at a nearby crook. Hernán had been a member of the Ejército Revolucionario del Pueblo (ERP, People's Revolutionary Army), the military wing of the Marxist-Leninist Partido Revolucionario de los Trabajadores (PRT, Revolutionary Workers' Party). He was murdered by the "Triple A" (Argentine Anti-Communist Alliance) death squads.

Rocca was the first of more than 160 rugbiers and former players 'disappeared' by the paramilitary and security forces between 1975 and 1978.

The 'Disappeared'

In Argentine recent history, the term "disappeared" (desaparecido) refers to the strategy used by the paramilitary groups and state security forces under the dictatorship (mid-1970s thru early 1980s) to annihilate left-wing political opposition and armed resistance. To avoid the public and legal complications resulting from massive violation of human rights, the military rulers refused all knowledge of the whereabouts of illegally detained persons claiming that they had "disappeared", the assumption being that they were either hiding or had gone into exile abroad. The key factor of this strategy was the elimination of the evidence of the crime by the systematic practice of "disappearing" the bodies of the victims, either by burying them secretly in unmarked graves or dropping them into the River Plate in the infamous "death flights" (vuelos de la muerte).

No other sport was so brutally hit by the cycle of political violence that swept Argentina in the 1970s as was rugby. The recollections of relatives and teammates of the players and the testimonies gathered in the trials against members of the security forces involved in their illegal kidnapping, torture, murder and burial in unmarked graves or dropped alive into the River Plate, made it possible to reconstruct a political climate and similar personal trajectories. In all the cases in which it was possible to piece together the brief trajectories of the young men, a few common traits stand out. First, the overwhelming majority grew up in middle and upper-middle class families with strong Catholic convictions. Second, a large majority was educated in state-run schools, and the public university, which became the main locus of political socialization. Many of them showed from an early age a strong inclination towards fighting against injustice, an attitude strengthened during the university years. All of them, without exception, were active in revolutionary organizations, be they left-populist (Peronist) or Marxist. Some joined these groups when they were still in high school; others "proletarianized" themselves, learning trades at evening training schools and becoming factory workers. A few acted as union delegates in hospitals and factories while another minority took up the armed struggle with the guerrillas. Their names are also a sample of the migratory contribution that forged modern Argentina. They had Spanish, Italian, English, German, French, Japanese, Armenian and Jewish backgrounds.

The disappeared rugbiers started playing as children or teenagers at schools or in clubs, most of them giving it up once they started university. A few continued to play until the end, sometimes even as they were in the underground. With twenty disappeared rugbiers, LPRC was the club hardest hit by state terrorism. Its rugbiers formed a compact group. Sixteen of them studied at the National University of La Plata, one of the country's largest and most prestigious institutions of higher learning. They studied law, anthropology, architecture, architecture, journalism, history and medicine. They were all activists in far-left political and military organizations. In the early 1970s the city of La Plata and its university became a sounding board for the revolutionary expectations that had been growing since the previous decade. It was there that the violent response against this climate was most brutal. With one victim every 613 inhabitants, the capital of Buenos Aires province was the city hardest hit by right-wing extremism and state terrorism. La Plata was also the city with the highest number of concentration camps in relation to the number of inhabitants: one every 18,559. The all-out hunting of left-wing student and union activists began in the spring of 1973 and went on unabated until the end of the decade. By the end of the dictatorship in 1983 paramilitary death squads and security forces had murdered eight hundred students, faculty and staff.

What did it mean to be a revolutionary activist and a rugby player, sometimes both at the same time? The issue was raised in many a discussion since everyone, including politicized rugbiers, were well aware of the apparent contradiction between embracing radical ideas and practicing what was considered an "elite" sport. Although since World War Two rugby was in its way to becoming a middle-class sport, the sport's original link with the British expatriate community and the Argentine Rugby Union's (UAR) elitist rhetoric of hard-core amateurism did much to feed and reinforce the popular perception that viewed rugby, in the words of a journalist, "an island within Argentine sport". The most recent proof of that came in early 1973, when the International Rugby Board (IRB) cancelled the Englanad XV tour to Argentina after some of its players and officials received letters with threats from the guerrilla organization Fuerzas Armadas Revolucionarias (FAR, Revolutionary Armed Forces). The purpose of the threats, a member of the organization told a journalist, was to force the English players "to stay at home" because rugby was a sport of "oligarchs" played "mostly by foreigners". The timing of the English tour, which had been planned several years earlier, was not the ideal one, to say the least. Since the late 1960s Argentina underwent a process of political radicalization that led to the collapse of the military government and the election of a left-wing Peronist candidate in May 1973. This regime change took place in a heated climate of anti-imperialist actions that targeted U.S. and British interests. It was in this context that the British Foreign Service and its Embassy in Buenos Aires advised the IRB not to go ahead with the tour. The last-minute announcement of the cancellation of the tour triggered a bitter conflict with the UAR since it jeopardized the highlight of the rugby season and thus wreaked havoc on its finances. To make matters worse, the English team accepted an invitation to play in New Zealand, thus giving credit to the Argentines' belief that their expected guests had been "bought off" by the New Zealanders. Having failed to convince London to reconsider its decision UAR retaliated by forbidding any of its affiliated clubs from playing in England.

The picture, however, was more complex than what it seemed. As Hugo Mackern, rugby columnist for The Buenos Aires Herald argued, Argentine rugby was neither played by foreigners nor oligarchs. As former player Gonzalo Albarracín stated, "we were middle class, from the neighborhood. We played the same sport as those from other traditional elite clubs, but we were different from them". Raúl Barandiarán, another teammate of several of the disappeared players, recalled discussing with them whether they should play. "Some argued that it was incompatible with our political activism; others, instead, thought that we should continue playing because it "could serve as a cover for our underground work", as when in 1975 "we went to play a Seven-A-Side match while we were all clandestine. I was playing with my brother's ID. Some of the club's officials didn't know, others knew and didn't say anything". Their political outlook placed La Plata's activist rugbiers at opposite ends from the clubs of Buenos Aires; at least that is how they perceived it. The relationship was "tense", the rugbiers that played in Buenos Aires "said we did not win championships because we were lefties, they saw our club as a hotbed of extremists". Although at a much smaller scale, "traditional" elite clubs also had their victims.

Since 2013 the public initiatives to commemorate the disappeared rugbiers became a turning point in the history of Argentine rugby. For almost everyone outside the small circle of relatives and former teammates, the story of those 163 young men came as a surprise, a news that many found hard to believe. The reason for this incredulity was the unlikely association of rugby with radical politics. How could it be that rugby became a breeding ground for guerrilleros? The answer lies not in rugby per se, but in who played it and where, all of which goes to proves that, like any other sport, rugby was not an island detached from its social milieu and political context. Likewise, why did the politics of memory selectively choose the fact of having played rugby in the past, as children or adolescents, as something relevant to political activism later in adulthood, when most of the victims had stopped playing before or soon after they entered the university? Part of the answer lies in the general process of coming to terms with the dictatorship through a politics of "memory" (commemoration of the victims), "truth" (disclosure of information regarding the crimes) and "justice" (trying the criminals in the courts). Connected to this, and more specifically, the emergence of what has been called "the new rugby", a term that refers to the various initiatives that seek to break away from older conception of rugby as a sport with exclusive class (bourgeois), gender (masculine) and ethnic (white European) connotations. The coming of professional and global rugby after 1995 and the massive exodus of players after the economic collapse of 2001 triggered a profound and lasting crisis that forced important changes in the structure of Argentine rugby. The introduction of women's rugby and the use of this sport as a tool of social integration among convicts, natives and different-abilities populations have contributed to bring rugby up to date and make it truly "popular" in the sense of a sport that is no longer seen as aloof from the country's social and political realities.