Argentina’s largest mass grave is still revealing the dictatorship’s secrets

The final remains from the Pozo de Vargas were sent for analysis last year — and forensicists are still identifying new victims

Forensics experts work in the Pozo de Vargas, Tucumán, Argentina. Left: Provided by CAMIT. Right: Télam

María Angélica Racedo was sleeping in her bedroom, with 10 of her siblings. Next door, her two younger siblings were sleeping with their parents.

Suddenly, at 2 a.m. she heard a loud thud. A swarm of soldiers had broken into the house. One officer blocked the door, trapping the children in their room, but María Angélica saw what happened next. The men hauled her parents out of bed, even trying to grab her baby brother. Her mother Alcira screamed for them to leave him behind. The officers bundled the couple into the trunk of a car and left. María Angélica never saw her parents again.

It was May 1976, two months after a brutal military junta overthrew the government and seized power in Argentina. 

Forty years later, María Angélica’s parents, Alcira Ochoa and José Inocencio Racedo, were identified as two of the 149 victims who were found in the Pozo de Vargas (Vargas Pit), the largest mass grave in Argentina. 

They are just two of the 119 victims who have been identified, the most recent just last month. One was sugar industry worker Carlos Santillán. The other was one of three brothers from the Arévalo family — forensic scientists couldn’t determine which. It’s believed all three were thrown into the pit, but because they didn’t have children, investigators couldn’t get a close enough DNA match for a more accurate identification. 

The Vargas pit is located in Tafí Viejo in the outskirts of San Miguel de Tucumán, the province’s capital. It is three meters wide and 40 meters deep. Built in the nineteenth century, it originally supplied water for steam trains, before falling into disuse.

Decades later, in 1975, the military launched the Independence Operation, to eliminate guerrilla groups who had reportedly settled in rural areas of Tucumán. They repurposed the pit as a mass grave. Some of their victims were dead, but others were thrown in alive and then shot. After the 1976 coup, they continued using it to dispose of bodies — this time, the victims of state terrorism. A year later, it was filled and covered with dirt.

Hidden under a lemon grove

For nearly three decades, the pit remained hidden. The military planted a grove of lemon trees on the land, to hide the spot. But in April 2002, after years of meticulous research, a group of archeologists currently called Archeology, Memory and Identity Collective from Tucumán (CAMIT by its Spanish initials) discovered the pit’s location. What they found inside was chilling. 

“Between 28 and 33.5 meters deep there were around 38,000 bone remnants,” archeologist Ruy Zurita, CAMIT co-founder, told the Herald.

CAMIT has been working closely for the past 20 years with the Argentine Team of Forensic Anthropology (EAAF in Spanish), the organization famed for identifying victims of human rights violations all over the world, to bring closure to the victims’ families.

CAMIT dug up the pit, painstakingly uncovering bones, shreds of clothing, and anything else that was inside. They sent the bones in batches to EAAF’s offices in Buenos Aires, so they could take DNA samples and later run tests in their laboratory in Córdoba. The last package was dispatched in September.

“Those remains come to us all mixed up, fragmented, in huge quantities. We don’t receive articulated individuals,” said Gabriela Ghidini, who works in the EAAF’s anthropology lab. “It wasn’t possible to analyze it all at the same time.” That’s why, over 20 years later, they occasionally identify new victims.

Union reps, activists, politicians

Who was in the Vargas Pit? “The people who ended up in there are those who were fearless,” Zurita said. “They targeted those who fought for their rights.” 

The victims were from Tucumán and the surrounding provinces. They included sugar union representatives, political activists, and even politicians, such as former Tucumán vice Governor Dardo Molina. As in the rest of the country, many were not politically active.

The Racedo family lived in Caspinchango, a tiny settlement of scattered huts slotted between large farms. José Inocencio worked in the fields of a nearby sugar cane plantation. Alcira, the Racedo family would later learn, was pregnant when she was kidnapped. 

In a 2010 trial, witnesses said they had seen them in two clandestine detention centers in Tucumán. Their captors tortured them, they said. María Angélica was told her mother had given birth, but the family never found the baby.

CAMIT and EAAF seek out the victim’s closest relatives, to get the closest-possible DNA match. The families often come to them, hoping to find their loved ones. But the passage of time is making this harder. 

“It has been so long that it’s sometimes very difficult to find their parents,” Ghidini said.

In the long path towards memory, truth and justice, identifying the victims is just one step. The consequences of state terrorism are not just evident in the deaths. “In Tucumán, the fear remains until today,” Zurita said. “The social structure was damaged. What they did in Tucumán is horrendous.”

The remains of the Racedo Ochoa couple were returned to their family in 2022, 46 years after they disappeared. “When you identify [a victim] and tell the family, it’s painful for them, but it’s also a relief,” Ghidini said. 

“Now, they have a grave they can bring flowers to. It puts an end to uncertainty.”


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