Last Tango In Buenos Aires (The Aftermath Of The Di Giovanni Affair)

After Severino Di Giovanni and Paulino Scarfó faced the firing squad, the activities of the expropriator anarchists in Argentina were inevitably curtailed. There followed a flurry of arrests and trials with very heavy sentences handed down, whilst the few who managed to escape the repression fled to Uruguay or tried to get out to Europe. Without doubt, the two executions - which failed to inspire the campaign such as Sacco and Vanzetti had inspired three years before - signalled the end of an era for the anarchist movement. The fate of all who were caught up, in whatever capacity, in this tragedy was marked by it and, for good or for ill, tellingly influenced by it.

Even in death, Severino knew no peace. He was hurriedly , angrily and secretly buried in an unmarked grave in the vast Chacarita cemetery, so huge that it was known as the "city of the dead", but, the very next day, police found red flowers placed on his grave. The Interior Minister ordered that the body be exhumed and dumped in a common grave, yet even that was mysteriously decorated with red roses day after day. Then, with the passage of time, his memory faded. even though it has been said that Severino was cremated and his ashes scattered in the River Plate. This may well be one of the many legends that have grown up around his name.

The police had the same fate in mind for Paulino Scarfó too, but his family resolutely opposed this and his mother finally ensured that her son (killed at just 20 years of age) rested in peace. The Scarfó family, of course, was the hardest hit. They severed their connections with Fina (Josefina), so much so that her grandfather never spoke to her again and never forgave her for the loss of his beloved grandson. The entire family promptly relocated to a district on the far side of Buenos Aires. Fina's eldest brother, dismissed out of hand by the English firm for which he was working, was forced to learn a new trade. With the passage of time, Fina's mother forgave her daughter but continued to curse the name of the fair-haired devil who had robbed her of three of her children. There is a story - related in poetic fashion by Maria Luisa Magnanoli in her splendid novel, A Very Sweet Coffee, that on the night when Paulino was tried, Mrs Scarfó left the house and wandered through the half-deserted streets as far as the centrally located and renowned Plaza de Mayo. She arrived outside the Casa Rosada, the presidential residence and on impulse resolved to play one last card. She crossed the entire square on her knees, just the same way that she had seen her Calabrian elders (she had been born in Tropea, Italy) suing the Madonna for a favour, and to the amazement of the sentries climbed the steps to the presidential residence, still on her knees. But unfortunately for her the President was away on a visit to Rosario and Santa Fe and never heard the pleas of a mother whose 20 year old son, led astray by "an anarchist in black", was scheduled for execution. Paulino would definitely have rejected any pardon, just as he had refused to receive any visitors. He refused even to see his mother before he was shot. America Josefina (Fina), cut off by her family, and having abandoned her husband Silvio Astolfi, her husband of convenience, whom she had married just to be with Severino, completed her education and graduated in literature, specialising, as her "blond lover" had wished, in Italian Literature. She remarried a libertarian intellectual and found work initially with a publishing house before turning to teaching. In 1951, twenty years on from the tragedy, she visited Italy and the land of her forebears: she also visited Chieti, Severino's native town, but failed to trace any of his relations. These days she is an elegant, refined 83 year old lady living in Buenos Aires, withdrawn and reserved: she has always angrily rejected lucrative offers from Hollywood producers eager to turn her life into a movie. Alejandro Scarfó was released from prison sometime in 1934-35. A deep-seated bitterness was a feature of his life: abandoned by his relations and indeed by his fiancee, he vanished into the grey existence of day to day life.

After serving his lengthy term, Silvio Astolfi returned to Europe and carried on with his antifascist activity: he was killed during the civil war in Spain. Teresina Masculli, Severino's wife married again to an Italian who went on to become a journalist. Nothing is known of their children: perhaps, unable to carry the burden of such a heavy inheritance, and as their mother wished, they changed their names.

Lieutenant Juan Carlos Franco, the defence counsel assigned to Severino during the trial in which he did his best to do his duty, was stripped of his rank, expelled from the army and committed to a military prison. In March 1931 the then Minister of War, General Francisco Medina, ordered that he be released and expelled from Argentina. Franco moved to Asunción in Paraguay where he turned to journalism. In October 1932, thanks to a pardon from the incoming president, he returned to his homeland, was accepted back into the army and had his rank restored but was posted to an obscure provincial garrison. He died in February 1934 at the age of 35, possibly of malarial fever.

Diego Abad de Santillán made his way back to Spain where he occupied high offices in the CNT, even acting as its general secretary: he then held ministerial office under the republican government during the civil war. After the war was lost he went into exile, initially in Mexico and then returned to Argentina. He wrote several books on his political experiences and about the anarchist expropriators. He died in 1970.

Aldo Aguzzi, the Italian anarchist director of La Antorcha and Crítica, who always defended Di Giovanni, fought in the Spanish civil war and fled back to Argentina after defeat. He committed suicide in 1941.

Nicola Recchi, represented by some as the "theoretician", the inspiration behind the activities of the anarchist expropriators, was arrested in January 1930 and, during police interrogation, subjected to extreme torture. His tormentors made such a mess of his hands that his right hand, reduced to a lump of bloodied flesh, had to be amputated. They say that he never uttered a single name and that he stubbornly denied every one of the fifty charges preferred against him. After a ghastly time in prison, he slipped into the shadows after he was released and was forgotten by everyone by the time of his death in Buenos Aires in 1987.

Jorge Tamayo Gavilán, the Chilean who only came alive when he was dicing with death, the man destined to be Di Giovanni's successor, was killed in as yet obscure circumstances when police raided the hotel where he was staying in July 1931. After the death of his leader he had carried out two risky hold-ups: in the course of the second of them he killed three police officers. In order to avenge Severino, Gavilán orchestrated and may well have carried out in person the killing of Major Rosasco, the Buenos Aires police chief. On 12 June 1931, having rallied what was left of Severino's gang, Gavilán entered the restaurant where Rosasco was having dinner along with some other bigwigs and politicians. The four-man gang ordered a meal, sat down to it and coolly waited until the target had finished his meal. Just as Major Rosasco was about to begin his dessert, one gang member, possibly Gavilán himself, went over to his table and with exasperating sluggishness, as witnesses were to recall, drew a .45 Colt and fired two well-aimed shots into the major. One final, horrific act of homage to Severino.

Miguel Arcángel Roscigna, Severino's bosom buddy from Uruguay, the man whom the historian Oswaldo Bayer reckons was the cleverest, best-equipped, bravest and, as we would say these days "most political" of all the anarchist expropriators, vanished mysteriously in early January 1936. Roscigna's political programme was the most ambitious and also the most sophisticated programme ever devised by armed anarchism. His aim was to link up all the South American anarchist groups and establish ongoing ties with the European anarchists, with the Spaniards in particular. It was no accident that Buenaventura Durruti and Paco Ascaso, the two renowned Catalan anarchist leaders, felt, so to speak "at home" in Argentina. Roscigna argued that armed actions were but one of many illegal fighting methods and, in his idealistic naivete, was confident , for example, that capitalism could be brought down by passing counterfeit money, since this struck at its very heart. Tracked down by the police who considered him their number one enemy, he fled to Montevideo, where he was arrested in 1933. Together with Andrés Vázquez Paredes, someone by the name of Paz and the Italian Fernando Malvicini, he served nearly four years of penal servitude. The Argentinean courts sued for his extradition, which was, however, not granted. However, in complete secrecy, a couple of police officers agreed to deal of these dangerous anarchists once and for all. The arrangement was that the four anarchists would be expelled from Uruguay as undesirables. They would, of course, be herded in the direction of the Argentinean border where delivery would be taken of them by Dr Fernández Bazán, the new chief of police in Buenos Aires. On 31 December 1935, all four left prison and were ferried to the border in a Black Maria. At which point, all trace of them vanishes. A reliable reconstruction has them loaded on to an Argentinean military aircraft and dumped, still living, into the River Plate. Thereby inaugurating a method of disposing of political opponents that in more recent times the goons of General Videla would proceed to implement on a systematic and massive scale.

The tragic epic of anarchist expropriation was laid to rest with Roscigna. "We cannot defend them", Diego Abad de Santillán stated, but nor can we ignore them and of necessity mentioning them these days does not meaning praising their criminal acts any more than it exorcises them as if they were devils incarnate.

Antonio Orlando (1996) [adapted]

Translated by: Paul Sharkey.