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Cocktails & Carnage: Ghosts of Buenos Aires

Uki Goñi has the accent of a person who has grown up in several countries and absorbed a little of every one. He was born in the United States, the son of a diplomat stationed in Washington D.C. who found his newborn’s first name—a Finnish one—in a newspaper. When his father was reassigned to Ireland, Uki, who had just reached his teens, went along. His English is American with an undertone of Irish. But he is Argentine—in fact, one of the most prominent investigative reporters in his country and the author of ground-breaking books about President Juan Peron’s terms of endearment with Nazis in the mid 1940s; about the secret Argentine life of Adolf Eichmann—a mastermind of the Holocaust–after the fall of Hitler; and about a charming but murderous infiltrator sent by Argentina’s military junta into the midst of the protesting Mothers of the Plaza de Mayo in the 1970s. He also worked for TIME magazine as its Buenos Aires stringer through three generations of editors. His age is a secret but he just completed a modeling gig for a local clothing store.

What do you talk about with a man you had worked with for years but never actually met in person? Ghosts, apparently.

Over lots of red meat at a more-elegant-than-usual parilla—a word that means grill that has come to mean steakhouse—called Lo de Jesus (if it was French, it would be called Chez Jesu), Uki and his women friends switched from discussing the Malbec and the steaks (wonderfully flavored, in enormous portions but tougher than I expected) to strange encounters of the revenant kind.

Francesca had several: how her sister had never recovered from seeing a small ghost one night; how a psychic tenant told her that her house in Milan had several other “presences” in it; and how Francesca later discovered that the building had once been home to cloistered nuns who lived and died there. Natalie too had seen spirits, faces in windows and such. To my surprise, Uki—the hard-nosed journalist—said he had seen one too. One night, he saw an elderly colleague standing by him. The next day, he discovered that friend had passed away that very night. Not having ever seen a ghost myself, I asked if there were haunted cities. Natalie, who is Italian but lives in Buenos Aires, said Rome certainly had more ghosts than the Argentine capital. I couldn’t disagree, given the head-start the Eternal City had in unhappy deaths. But Buenos Aires has its luminous spirits too, and the next I set out to find one of the most famous of them all.

It is actually easy to find Eva Peron, who, as the wife of Juan Peron, was Argentina’s charismatic First Lady from the late 1940s to her death in 1952. Today she is in some of the strangest places in Buenos Aires. On a Sunday afternoon, giant line drawings of her were electronically shifting on and off the otherwise white façade of a building at the end of the immensely broad Avenue of the 9th of July (the date of Argentina’s independence from Spain in 1812). You can find her, of course, at the museum dedicated to her memory, with a display of her gowns. She appears on the latest edition of Argentina’s 100-peso bill—which is being boycotted by people (there are plenty) who don’t like her. Fortunately for them, there are still relatively few of the new bills in circulation, not enough to fully replace the existing 100s. Otherwise, the anti-Evita crowd would be highly inconvenienced in an economy where lunch for one at a nice place can cost 100 pesos (even though that’s just a little over US$10.40 or US$16.67, depending on whether you get a good black market exchange rate).

And, of course, you will find Eva Peron in her tomb, behind the locked doors of a black marble mausoleum in the ritzy burial ground of the Argentine elite, the Recoleta Cemetery. As the monuments in the Recoleta go, Evita’s final resting place isn’t very showy. Other crypts are virtual palaces, some soaring almost two stories high, others with angels and Jesus or Mary rising even higher, peaking and peeking into heaven. Nevertheless, while many of the mausoleums were suffering from neglect and cobwebs and rust, the multiple coffins within them indignant with dust, Eva Peron’s was clearly the most popular and perpetually tended. On the day I visited, the flowers from All Saints and All Souls Days (Nov. 1 and 2) still seemed fresh, nearly two weeks on. And on a plaque on the left side of the crypt doors is an inscription that seems to echo that song that has made her a perpetual part of global pop culture, arms stretched skywards:

No me llores perdida ni lejana,
yo soy parte esencial de tu existencia,
todo amor y dolor me fue previsto,
cumplí mi humilde imitación de Cristo,
quien anduvo en mi senda que la siga.
Sus disculpas.

Which essentially translates into, “Don’t cry for me as if I were lost or far away/I am an essential part of your existence/I have foreseen all love and pain/ I have completed my humble imitation of Christ/ who walked in this, my road that I have followed/ His exculpation of sins.” It is rather grand and messianic, even for Evita (unless played by Patti Lupone, not Madonna). A closer look, however, reveals that the plaque was put in place in 1982, four years after Andrew Lloyd-Rice’s musical debuted. Evita never uttered those lines in real life. Death imitates art.

Evita’s tomb

Evita comes up again when I have my next dinner with Uki at what he calls a more authentic parilla called Cantina Los Amigos. Lo De Jesus had the look and feel of a tidied up bistro. Technically, Los Amigos is a bodegón—what a sports bar would look like if it was set in Argentina in the 1950s, which is how long it has been around as a restaurant. The jerseys of several soccer teams hang like flags from lines stretched across the ceiling. The figure of Juan Perón on a horse has a framed place on a wall. A giant blue-and-white Argentine flag is draped over one window. The only contemporary touches are photos and posters of the most recently famous Argentine: Pope Francis (who is a fan of a local football team called San Lorenzo).

Uki convinces me that Eva Perón really isn’t a ghost. Her fervent fans keep her too much alive. But Uki had other stories about haunted Argentina: full of ghosts and those who make them. One story is particularly horrific, the subject of his book El Infiltrado, Alfredo Astiz. The baby-faced Astiz was part of ESMA, the initials in Spanish of the Naval School of Mechanics, the section of the military that carried out some of the most heinous crimes of Argentina’s Dirty War, including getting rid of political prisoners by drugging them, flying them out over the Atlantic Ocean and throwing them into the waters, hoping the bodies would never wash ashore. The Junta would rid itself of perhaps 20,000 enemies in this way and others during its iron rule from 1976 to 1983.

The Blond Angel, as he was nicknamed, proved more an Angel of Death.

Astiz assumed the name Gustavo Niño and charmed himself into the good graces of the Mothers of the Plaza de Mayo, courageous women demanding that the ruling junta tell them what had happened to their children, the desaparecidos—the disappeared. The Blond Angel, as he was nicknamed, proved more an Angel of Death. As a reporter for the courageous Buenos Aires Herald, an English language paper, Uki got to know many of the mothers at the plaza, including at least one that Astiz was accused of abducting and, eventually, killing. He was finally put on trial in 2011 for the deaths of eight women (including two French nuns) and four men, who were “disappeared” in the 1970s. Uki testified against Astiz. His 1996 El Infiltrado was read into evidence.

But before Astiz was put on trial, he had years to wander free in Argentina, mingling and socializing, often treated like a star. He had led the first Argentine troops into the Malvinas Islands—the Falklands to the British—during the Junta’s 1982 invasion to reconquer Argentina’s patrimony. Taken prisoner, he was shipped to Britain before being repatriated to a hero’s welcome. The Junta collapsed after the failure of its Falklands campaign, bringing on years of fits and starts at justice—or closure—for its victims. After the trial of a few top generals, an amnesty was issued for those simply following orders, a move that infuriated many Argentines. But it also allowed Astiz to boast of his deeds during the Dirty War and the attempt to retake the Malvinas. Then, politics led to those amnesties being revoked, beginning a new round of trials, including that of Astiz, who was found guilty of the death of the dozen women, and sentenced to life imprisonment. He faces other charges; and countless other former military officials are on trial. Astiz is in prison, but justice delayed so long is still more bitter than sweet. The proceedings drone on and on, no longer news, a disservice to the dead who have waited decades for justice.

Those unappeased ghosts sit like abandoned tombs at the Recoleta, where dust-caked coffins fill cobwebbed monuments, decrepit and longing for attention from the living, who no longer value their memory. So even though I may have never seen a ghost myself, all of us journalists, particularly those like Uki who investigate murders and eulogize the dead, are traffickers in ghost stories of one kind or another.

Howard Chua-Eoan
Howard Chua-Eoan is the former News Director at Time Magazine. His Cocktails and Carnage column runs every Thursday on Roads and Kingdoms.
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