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Conquista Del Desierto Part II: What Happened

By | [email protected] | July 22, 2016 4:03pm


During the military expeditions known as the “Conquista Del Desierto” in Southern Argentina (1879-1884) thousands of indigenous people who lived in the region were killed by Argentine troops. Thousands more were captured and taken into slavery and between 10,000 and 15,000 people were made refugees by the violence and forced to flee their ancestral homes. Many historians now refer to what happened as an act of genocide.

Between 1879 and the previous major military campaigns against indigenous groups on the Argentine frontier, like the one led by the dictator Juan Manuel de Rosas in 1833-4, infrastructure arrived in La Pampa and Patagonia.

Civil wars between the Federalists, like Rosas, and Unitarians drew military and political attention away from the frontier in the middle decades of the century, but entrepreneurs from Britain and elsewhere helped to “open” the lands south of Buenos Aires province with their squads of laborers through pioneer engineering projects — the rapid expansion of railway and telegraph lines from Buenos Aires outwards. Both the railways and telegraph system were used to speed up military operations during the campaign. The development of infrastructure greased the wheels of the genocide.

By 1878, Julio Argentino Roca (as Minister for War) had persuaded the Argentine government and President Nicolás Avellaneda to fund another military campaign on the frontier, with the help of a report drafted for the president by a political ally, Estanislao Zeballos.

Law No. 947 was passed on October 4, 1878. It set aside 1,700,000 pesos for the campaign against the indigenous peoples of the frontier. The so-called Avellaneda Law was underwritten by bonds from the wealthy landowners of the Argentine Rural Society. By funding the campaign they made a deal with the state and their bonds bought the vast tracts of land soon to be “cleansed” of indigenous groups. According to Osvaldo Bayer and filmmakers Mariano Aiello and Kristina Hille, about 600 landowners owned (on paper at least) a combined area roughly the size of modern day Pakistan, around 78 million hectares.

To secure the funds, Roca made assurances. The military campaign would not lead to the violent skirmishes and inevitable withdrawal after protracted guerrilla campaigns waged by indigenous groups like before. It would put an end to the indigenous presence in “the most fertile lands of the Republic” once and for all.

Roca got together around 6,200 thousand men — disciplined cavalry units armed with cold steel and the Remington rifle, a cruel breach-loading weapon imported from the United States and one of the WMDs of its day.

The general structure of the campaign was simple. Units of Roca’s army established military bases and camps at selected locations on the frontier, often close to the Neuquén and Río Negro rivers that were integral to the region’s pioneer settlers and the indigenous inhabitants alike.

From these bases, which evolved into forts in some cases, the soldiers would march or ride out in numbers and strike at known indigenous locations, villages or hideouts in the area. They targeted the warlike Mapuche indigenous groups among others with the aim of rescuing any white pioneer captives taken during previous skirmishes on the frontier and capturing or “subduing” the “savages” piecemeal.

Sometimes Roca’s men worked in tandem with non-Mapuche indigenous groups in the area, who were none-too-friendly with their warlike neighbors either and who helped army units track down known Mapuche locations. This invariably did not end well for the other indigenous groups, despite the soldiers’ promises (see below).

If the military encountered any resistance during their operations, they killed the resistance.

Because indigenous people in the region lived by farming and herding and a direct connection with the land, this gradual stranglehold was an effective way to demoralize and suffocate their continued presence in the area. With mobile mounted units, Roca’s army could police vast areas of territory in the “wilderness” and cut off the dispersed indigenous communities’ lifeblood.

Mapuche on the frontier, 1897. Image:

How do we know all of this? How do we know about the horrors the campaign gave birth to?

The Campaña was also a giant propaganda exercise for the Avellaneda government, just as it was for Roca’s own ego.

Roca was propelled to the presidency during the campaign (it extended either side of his election in 1882) and immortalized on countless landmarks and banknotes afterwards thanks in part to the well-publicised successes of the mission to wipe out the “savages” and establish the South as a productive part of the state and the economy once and for all.

Scores of writers, artists, correspondents and other intellectuals journeyed with the army on trains to the frontier. Some of their testimonies are quoted below, and give us a window onto the type and levels of violence and repression committed against the indigenous peoples from 1879 onward.


Dubbed the “Indian War” by some Argentine scholars after it ended, the Campaña more closely resembled an extermination campaign.

There was fighting, there was resistance. But more often than not, the fights were fantastically one-sided in favor of the side that had repeating rifles and a mechanized infrastructure. One example of such a “battle” happened at Apeleg, Chubut, in 1883, when accounts say that over 80 Tehuelche were killed and hundreds taken prisoner while there were just 11 casualties among the Argentine troops.

Any confrontations tended to amount to butchery. Some massacres happened following the conclusion of any fighting, sometimes even after the indigenous people had been given guarantees for their own safety.

Take one example known as “Pozo del Cuadril” that occurred in an exchange between a group of indigenous Ranquel people and a local army commander, even as Roca’s forces were manoeuvring at the edge of La Pampa ahead of driving south into Patagonia.

This group approached to collect their ‘rations,’ the outcome of a peace treaty signed with the federal government three months earlier. These ‘rations’ were the compensation negotiated with the state for the reduction in sheep-herding, hunting, and agricultural land for the tribes. Nonetheless, Colonel Rudecindo Roca, military commander of Rio Cuarto (near Villa Mercedes), betrayed and attacked them, taking many of them prisoner. At least sixty male prisoners were shot dead in a barnyard; the women and children were sent to Tucumán as forced laborers.

La Nación was tasked with reporting the successes of the campaign for the public. It covered this event soon after it happened and, in a rare example of resistance to the unfolding genocide, broke ranks, labelling it “a crime against humanity” and revealing that similar massacres had occurred.

Like the killings described above, groups of captives who couldn’t flee Roca’s forces were often executed in cold blood, in scenes more reminiscent of the Einsatzgruppen in Soviet Belerussia than they were the jovial Spaghetti Western depicted on Roca’s 100-peso bill.

Another first-hand recollection was penned by French Engineer Alfred Ébélot, who had been drafted into the earlier failed campaigns that attempted to dig a trench to keep the indigenous people out of northern Argentina and remained with Roca’s forces during the campaign.

The final memory that remains with me from that day is one of the execution of two Indians who had been taken prisoners. I can still see them, short and squat, impassable, in the clumsy attitude of the Indian on foot, standing in front of the General Command and replying invariably: ‘I don’t know’ to all the questions the interpreter asked them about their chiefs, their forces and details of the invasion. Enough! the commander said simply. […] The two men, their hands bound on their backs, ran, stumbled, and screamed at every blow: Señor! Señor! It was all the Spanish they knew. One of them, on spotting in front of him a pit without a parapet, plunged himself into it with his head first and disappeared. His agony was short at least, but the spectacle nonetheless repulsive; while his deprived executioners registered the water with their spears, multitudes of scared frogs assembled in dirty garlands on the walls of this open pit. I turned in horror and my gaze fell on the other Indian lying on the ground in agony. An official had mercy with him at last and had his throat cut, but as this was not enough, and as the horror of his death rattles became worse every instant, they drove a dagger into his heart.

Roca’s five divisions of soldiers ostensibly targeted the aggressive Mapuche and other indigenous groups that had often raided encroaching pioneer settlements on the frontier.

The army even enlisted the help of other indigenous peoples against the principle targets, as we have seen. For example, before the arrival of the mounted units to Patagonia and La Pampa, Roca actually guaranteed the Tehuelche in Chubut and Arauco and Manzanero peoples of Neuquén that their lands would not be touched in a formal treaty.

He lied. Or, at least, his sub-commanders such as Napoleón Jerónimo Uriburu ignored any previous directives and killed (or enslaved) indigenous people where they found them — over 1,000 in Nequén alone according to historian C. A. Brebbia, who noted that in responding to his sub-commander re: this off-piste slaughter, Roca congratulated Uriburu for his initiative.

Episodes like this were repeated throughout the Wilderness Campaign. Distinctions between culturally different groups were erased by simple racism and a polarized language between “us” on the one side and the “Indians” on the other.


The military aspects of the Campaña were planned in advance, often in minute detail. What to do with the indigenous captives after the fighting was over was not.

Estimates vary regarding how many indigenous men, women and children were captured and taken as slaves by Roca’s forces during the campaign, though they tend towards the thousands.

Roca’s Informe Oficial: Expedicion Al Rio Negro report provided one figure:

We set out to occupy an area of 15,000 square leagues occupied by at least 15,000 souls. The number of the dead and captured reported by the campaign exceeds 14,000.

Regardless of the precise figure, we might compare these crimes to Roca’s own rhetoric trumpeting progress, liberty and enlightenment ahead of the mission for a window onto the warped world view that many late 19th century elites in Argentina subscribed to.

They reflected prevailing attitudes of European colonists whom Roca so admired and who were themselves busy empire-building in Africa and Asia at the time in the name of civilization and the “white man’s burden.”

On the frontier, many prisoners captured during the expeditions deemed fit to work were taken as slaves and shipped north. Some were press-ganged into forced labor, for example on sugar cane plantations in Tucumán province.

While the men not taken as laborers were often executed on the field, indigenous women and children were segregated by the soldiers. Rape, forced marriages and the separation of families are all mentioned in the sources. Captured indigenous people were “treated as the spoils of war” as one Senator — Aristóbulo Del Valle — who would later help to found the Radical Civic Union, recalled.

Many who were taken prisoner were transported en masse to become servants in Buenos Aires City. Others were taken to proto-concentration camps like the one on Martín García Island on the River Plate.

According to contemporary accounts from the island, the influx of indigenous women and children began soon after the campaign started during 1879. Before the year was out, hundreds had died within months of their arrival on Martín García. There was inadequate shelter, little sanitation and a rapid spread of diseases like smallpox.

After the expeditions had wound down, in 1884, Senator Del Valle made a speech to Congress about the slavery (now President) Roca’s moment of glory had entailed.

We have taken families from the savages, we have brought them to this center of civilization, where every right seems to be guaranteed, and yet we have not respected for these families any of the rights that belong, not only to civilized men, but to humanity: we have enslaved the men, prostituted the women, we have torn the children away from their mothers, we have sent old men to work as slaves anywhere. In a word, we have turned our backs and broken all the laws that govern the moral actions of men.


Most estimates seem to place the number of indigenous refugees created by the Campaña between 10,000 and 15,000 people. Like in today’s news headlines, these massive numbers can fail to convey the intimate personal tragedies associated with the many of the people behind the statistics — forced to flee their ancestral homes in the face of annihilation or slavery.

My grandmother had escaped. She told me about when they took the boys and men, when they took the men who were carrying her things as they fled. She says she only managed to escape because her mother hid her under some clothes … They wanted her mother. And when they took her mother, she told [my grandmother] to just stay there and sit. She was little, and says that her mother had saved her. Everyone else had been taken … I do not know how many … the names of the families from where they took the children are lost. The soldiers drew all the boys and men and took them all.

The choices facing the indigenous people who were able to escape the genocide were bleak. They could flee further south, to less fertile land and an even harsher climate, or flee over the perilous mountain passes of the Andes, covered in snow year-round and the only connection between Argentina and neighbouring Chile.

For many of the Mapuche, one of the principle targets of the campaign, the latter seemed like the better option. The Mapuche had lived on both sides of the Andes including in Chile for centuries. Indeed, as a direct result of this refugee crisis Mapuche numbers swelled in Chile, a place where the state had conducted its own repressive campaigns against them before Roca’s, and who by the 1880s developed an unequal but often non-violent trading relationship with those that remained in the wilder southern regions of the skinny Andean nation. Much later, the image of an anonymous Mapuche person would be stamped onto Chilean currency (the 100-peso coin).


It’s worth remembering at this point that the mass-movement of people created by the expeditions was likely an integral part of Roca’s plan. Ethnic cleansing, one of the central goals of the Campaña del Desierto, comes in many forms. One is the forced displacement of populations or “population transfer” in newspeak, which is today considered a crime against humanity under international law. Just ask a Palestinian or Bosnian or Kurd.

The threat and prolific examples of violence meted out by the Argentine troopers against indigenous people succeeded in forcing many of those that survived and escaped capture away in fear. This in turn paved the way for white “European” colonists and the intensive arable farming that was desired by the land-owning beneficiaries of the campaign. More on that and the rest of the fallout in the forthcoming part III.


The aftermath of the protracted Wilderness Campaign terminated once and for all by Roca’s final series of expeditions shaped Argentine society and left a painful, divisive residue that blights the country more than a hundred years later.

The instances of genocide, some of which are described above, happened and were allowed to happen with impunity, thanks in part to a wide-ranging consensus in Argentina among those who were aware that the campaign was happening at all. The final repression of indigenous peoples in the south was understood by many in society as a good thing. The consensus helped Roca get elected even as the violence on the frontier continued, in 1882.

In fact, almost every single powerful Argentine and national institution — the military, industrial and political elites and the society they influenced — supported the campaign at its outset and accepted the racist premises on which it was built more or less in their entirety, as historian Andrés Bonatti described in conversation with Clarín.

We believe that the Wilderness Campaign was a process of genocide and ethnic cleansing against indigenous communities, which had an almost absolute consensus among the sectors of power of the era: military, political, church, Rural Society, scientists, media communication, and others. There were almost no dissenting voices. This caused the invisibility of indigenous peoples in society for a long time.

For most people who knew something about what was happening beyond their immediate spheres of influence, the extermination campaign did not prompt any major physical or even vocal protests, even after reports of the horrors occurring on the far-flung Patagonian frontier began to surface.


Alongside the physical remoteness of the events, it seems probable that one reason behind the apparent consensus or lack of opposition to the genocide had to do with the dehumanization of its victims.

Scientific and cultural racism were built into the fabric of 19th century Argentine society. They soaked in through decades of a discourse whereby men of influence referred to indigenous people, if they did so at all, as subhuman, alien, pestilential, yet at the same time as potent, dangerous, and even existentially threatening to white Argentina’s “European” modes of life that the nation’s political leaders were so obsessed with emulating.

In this way, elites in Argentina manipulated what historian Thomas Asbridge called “society’s inclination to define itself in contrast to an alien ‘other’.” They did so for ulterior motives, for power. It is far easier to get away with atrocities if one believes that those on the receiving end are not fundamentally the same as or equal to you, or that they constitute a direct threat to your way of life.

This self-fulfilling prophecy has been the catalyst for countless horrors great and small throughout human history, and is apparently resurgent in today’s 21st-century perma-crisis world. Wherever it goes unchallenged, xenophobia, violence and barbarism follow.