From Argentina’s “Dirty War” to Poisoned Food: The World According to Marie-Monique Robin

Marie-Monique Robin
Marie-Monique Robin

Translation by Alex Cachinero-Gorman

The author of The World According to Monsanto testified in two lawsuits concerning crimes against humanity in Argentina, where her investigation Death Squadrons: The French School helped shed light on the terrorist acts committed by the State. There she agreed to be interviewed and commented on her new book about the pollutants that contaminate the production of food.

Like her more well-known investigations, Notre poison quotidien. Comment l´industrie chimique empoisonne notre assiette (Our Daily Poison: How the Chemical Industry Is Poisoning Our Food) this initially began as a documentary, which was soon afterwards followed by a book. During its first television broadcast on March 15th, Our Daily Poison managed to draw the biggest French audience of the year for a documentary of its type shown on prime time. Thanks to its publication by La Découverte [the French publishing house], the book has had an enormous impact in the French press, generating a necessary debate over the regulation of chemical products. Meanwhile, the French-German channel ARTE is preparing for another broadcast, again a television first, of Torture Made in USA (2009), as well as the re-release of Death Squadrons (2003) on DVD. This would seem to give us the perfect chance, then, to give an overview of Robin’s colorful journalistic career, which has always been intertwined with Argentina. When she planted her feet on Argentinian soil once more, we knew we couldn’t do such an account justice without seeking her comment.

Bad Education

In May 2003, a Robin arrived in Buenos Aires, scheduling meetings with some Argentinian military personnel to talk about counter-insurgency tactics. Despite having been responsible for the biggest genocide committed in the 20th century in Argentina, these military officials were able to freely receive the journalist in their living rooms or in extravagant military institutions. Ramón Díaz Bessone, who was in charge of the torture centers in northeast Argentina, Albano Harguindeguy, ex-minister of the Interior, and Reynaldo Bignone, the last de facto president, had already been pardoned by the laws established after the end of the dictatorship.

The interviewees speak with candor, emboldened by a rise in hawkish warmongering and the revival of obsolete Cold War rhetoric since September 11th. They pontificate about the methods utilized in their sinister plan, without any trace of remorse.

She asks and they confirm the thesis: the Argentinians were taught this methodology—of  systematic torture and ‘disappearing’ people—by the French military, whose skills were based on the experience they had acquired in the wars in Indochina and Algeria. This is the central thematic of Death Squadrons, which is punctuated by documents proving the existence of a permanent mission of French military advisers in Buenos Aires from 1959 to 1981.

After the defeat at Dien Bien Phu in the Indochina war and the growing resistance in Algeria, the French Chief of Staff proved that the classical model of war, in which one could differentiate two distinct groups (which, moreover, would approach each other from opposite sides of the border) with soldiers identifiable by their uniform, was inefficient for counteracting the crisis of liberation movements in the colonies. In this vein, the French developed a new military system that would crush the guerrilla movements which, like the Viet-Minh or the Algerian National Liberation Front [FLN], moved to-and-fro like “fish in the water”, with the support of regular citizens, blending in with the general population. In this “war of counter-insurgency”, the objective was eradicating the internal enemy, who could be anywhere—out of uniform, camouflaged in society itself. Victory was not contingent, then, on the amount or strength of weaponry, but rather an effective intelligence apparatus. For this reason, torture became a primary tactic of the French regime.

The model was put into practice in full during the so-called Battle of Algiers, whose plan included dividing the territory into quadrants in order to effectively organize surveillance and massive arrests, secret detention centers where interrogations could be carried out, and the systematic use of torture.

The experience served as the foundation of a new military doctrine for the French, which had the virtue of being formed in direct confrontation with its target—as such, it attracted experts from all over the Western Hemisphere. In this sense, the Argentinian military wasn’t the only one that valued the French experience highly. In 1960, the US government called for the incorporation of veterans from the Algerian wars into military schools in the United States. This is how the School of the Americas, subsequently recognized as a hotbed for future dictators, spread the blueprint of the French model across the entire continent. In addition, the Death Squadrons signals a double game on behalf of Valéry Giscard d´Estaing’s government, which publicly which publicly gave political asylum to those fleeing Jorge Videla’s and Augusto Pinochet’s dictatorships, but in secret collaborated closely with them in a system of coordinating intelligence gathering with repression known as “Operation Condor”.

Lucas Palero: If you had to give a general characterization of “Operation Condor”, what would the contribution of the United States be compared to the contribution of the French?

Marie-Monique Robin: The United States offered their support within the framework of the National Security Doctrine, which they had already applied to all of the “Southern Cone” [a geographic term comprised primarily of Argentina, Chile, Paraguay, and Uruguay]. That was their role, which we know because many documents have now been declassified; the US embassy and the CIA were also involved. The role of the French, on the other hand, was more in painting the broader strokes of this plan. “Operation Condor” is essentially the Battle of Algiers taken to a continental level. The same methods—manufacturing an internal threat, detaining suspicious persons, torturing them, and then ‘disappearing’ them—are employed, but with the continent itself as the battlefield, and with the help of the intelligence services of each participant country, to boot. This is the conclusion I’ve reached in my documentary. The plan was developed within the bounds of the ‘French School’, with the additional input of the US, which had developed its own techniques, learning from the lessons of the French.

LP: At the end of the 1950s, French military collaboration consisted in exchange programs, courses, and information sharing. When did this preparatory work get implemented practically for the first time?

MR: I contend that the rehearsal—the ‘pilot trial’—was Operation Independence. Here they did directly what they would do one year later on a national level in Argentina. They designated a special zone, Tucumán, and down to a ‘t’ carried out the teachings of the French. They entered houses and removed individuals, took them to a school that served as a secret detention center, tortured and disappeared them—all of this after the first decree announcing the guerrilla annihilation signed by Estela Martínez de Perón. With the 1976 coup, this was taken to a national level. The division of territory had already began in the 1960s; it was divided into quadrants by zones, sub-zones, sectors, etc., so that when the coup finally arrived everything was already in place, with each appointed to monitor their appropriate sector. It was all very rapidly accomplished because everything had been prepared years earlier, as the dictator, Videla, admitted. It wasn’t like Chile: in this case, there were rumors of a coup, but Pinochet didn’t become a part of the story until much later, and he appeared a bit…manic about it, we could say. On the other hand, here it was known in advance where the detention centers would be placed; they’d already made contact with the right people. For example, the French consul in Tucumán was a hardline right-wing type who had collaborated with the Germans. He had a French contact who lent him his hotel for use as a detention center.

The Search for Justice

Since 2003 until today, there has been an epochal shift in Argentina that Marie-Monique Robin, in part, helped bring about. She interviewed Albano Harguindeguy one week before the assumption of Presidential office by Néstor Kirchner, but the ex-general didn’t seem to be worrying about future legal repercussions. However, one of the new President’s first measures was to demand the re-opening of lawsuits on the violation of human rights under the dictatorship, a measure which was complemented by the Supreme Court’s 2007 declaration that all pardons hitherto granted were unconstitutional. Up until the moment that Robin’s documentary began to be disseminated, any admission of torture and ‘disappearing’ by agents of the dictatorship were very rare. The fundamental value of The Death Squadrons is to set out, in its own words, the systematic use of these extreme measures, which by definition constitute crimes against humanity—and consequently  their imprescriptible nature. Currently, there are 746 legal causes under oral and public trial across the country. Marie-Monique Robin has participated in three of them, her declarations under oath augmenting the information presented in the book and the documentary. Díaz Bessone and Harguindeguy are part of a group of 820 being processed for the crime of State terrorism, while Bignone has been sentenced to life in prison..

Fictional Scenarios

The fundamental lessons of the “French doctrine” are brimming throughout the book Modern War (1961) by lieutenant-colonel Roger Trinquier. This manual regarding the use of torture in interrogations was circulated widely among military personnel in the Southern Cone, as well as the United States. In Death Squadrons, general John Johns and colonel Carl Bernard, veterans of Vietnam who today fight against the use of torture, argue that in “Operation Phoenix”, at minimum 20,000 people have been killed, and that the plan was designed with this book as its inspiration. Of course, this kind of war, originally conceived of in Algeria, reached a wider audience with its portrayal in works of fiction. The most paradoxical case is the movie The Battle of Algiers, by Gillo Pontecorvo. Filmed in 1965, it saw a meager circulation in France because it denounced the use of kidnapping, torture, and ‘disappearing’ by the colonial army. These restrictions notwithstanding, it was screened two years later in the Argentine Naval School to show recruits how to reproduce the techniques that the film itself repudiated. On August 27th, 2003, Pontecorvo’s film was screened once more by the Pentagon, this time in order to reconsider U.S. strategy in Iraq. Around 40 people, some civilian and some military, came together in this private gathering to debate the challenges that the French army faced during this particular guerrilla war.

But French advisors always employed fictional works as obligatory material for international courses, giving them the same importance as manuals or treatises on military doctrine. The most widely promulgated were the works of novelist Jean Lartéguy, author of The Mercenaries (1963), The Centurions (1964), and The Praetorians (1964), all very well-known among Argentinian generals. According to Ramón Díaz Besson: “They were a supplement to that experience and made us think about how the revolutionary war was carried out in Algeria, and what we were up against in Argentina.” The Special Forces of the United States incorporated these novels as study materials during the war in Vietnam and today they are still cited in academic analyses of counter-insurgency.  In The Centurions, the analogy of the ‘time-bomb’ appears for the first time, which in the debates on torture reignited by the attacks of September 11th have been used as an argument in favor of the technique. Marie-Monique Robin addressed this theme in her documentary, Torture Made in USA, which has only been publicized on the Internet so far.

LP: How does the “time-bomb” argument, as it was imagined by Jean Lartéguy, manifest itself in the debates which still go on over the use of torture?

MR: It’s an argument that always appears. It originated with the French in Algeria, the Argentine military repeated it during the dictatorship, and still today it is alive and well in the United States, where Rumsfeld used it when he was Minister of Defense. In English they call it the ticking time bomb scenario and it means that you can torture a “terrorist”—in quotation marks—because they are alleged to have information about such-and-such a bomb which one will detonate in such-and-such a place on such-and-such day. To save the lives of the potential victims one must secure the information with all available methods, and thus torture is a legitimate technique in this kind of case. For Torture made in USA I interviewed Larry Wilkerson, who was Collin Powell’s right hand man. He is a colonel who is also a republican, mind you, the furthest from the Left one could imagine, and he told me that it is pure drivel, a scenario that would never occur. And if it does occur in some exceptional case, that is still no reason to throw away all of one’s principles. That is to say, it can exist in movies, or in this TV show 24, which is something of an international plague, but no, it doesn’t exist anywhere. You will never have the right person, in the right moment, that has the right information. It’s a fallacy.

LP: What is the role of 24 in propagating this discourse?

MR: It’s a series that began after the attack on the Twin Towers in New York. Before September 11th, no one talked about torture on television in the United States. Of course, it was done, but usually as a kind of condemnation. But there has been an important shift, and now there are more and more books, shows, and movies coming out about it. And not at two in the morning, but on prime time. 24 is an example of that. I had never seen it before, but then I watched it as part of my work. It’s incredible. In every single episode they torture people! And it’s a show that a lot of young people watch, so that at the end of the day it becomes almost habitual. They are indoctrinating people with the idea that torture is something normal.

The “Seed” of the Problem

Marie-Monique Robin usually speaks of her parents—God-fearing Catholic peasant farmers committed to their community—in her interviews. They influenced Robin considerably, and you don’t have to get into a very philosophical dialogue for her to bring up her familial origins as the motivating force behind her investigations. It is because of them that agricultural issues, questions of belief, of the sins of the Church, and struggles for justice have all been themes broached by her ouvre. It was conversations with her parents that helped her to understand the perspective of Algerian veterans, to address French traditionalist theology and above all, to grasp the dramatic changes in the relationship of man to his environment after the post-war years. She began to flesh out this theme with the film The Pirates of Life (2005), which looks at the patenting of living things—seeds, in particular—as a form of appropriation of the resources of the Third World. She followed this with Wheat: Chronicle of a Foretold Death? (2005), in which she tracks humanity’s domestication of grain and the reduction of genetic variety with the introduction of GMOs. Her preoccupation with biodiversity marked a new orientation towards the South, showing with Argentina, the Soybean of Hunger (2005) how the illusion of ‘green gold’ [industrial soy as a profitable and environmentally friendly crop] gradually vanished. This country, which forfeited half of its fertile land to transgenic monocultural planting, struggled with the environmental consequences of Monsanto’s surprise combo: the herbicide (Roundup) and the seed (Roundup Ready).

Having determined the identikit of the ‘accused’, Marie-Monique Robin pursued her investigation further and looked for more evidence worldwide to build up her case against this multinational leader of genetically modified foods. In this vein, the film version of The World According to Monsanto (2008) was screened in more than 30 countries, with the enthusiastic endorsement of local farmers’ organizations, including one from the author’s hometown. The book has been translated into over 16 languages and was dubbed the “thriller of modern times” by Canadian sociologist Louise Vandelac.

LP: You’ve made two documentaries about the cultivation of transgenic soy in Argentina. What does this problem look like today?

MR: The problem of soy cultivation is very serious. I will say that I am happy because at the very least my investigations were taken into account. When I came in 2009 to present both the book and the film, even Cristina Kirchner’s Minister of Health interviewed me. There was then a sense that ‘soy-ization’ was a catastrophe across the countryside, which I’d said as far back as 2005. On an ecological level, for example, this was due to the collapse of Santiago del Estero [center of soy production]; in terms of public health, environmental pollution with pesticides; in terms of nutritional stability, soy competes against the cultivation of things like rice, lentils, and everything else. Instituting restrictions on this was, in my mind, one way of putting the brakes on this crazed planting of soy everywhere.

LP: Why is it so hard to place a limit on this kind of cultivation?

MR: Well, first of all, it’s not that you need a whole lot of information. My documentary was pirated and spread around for precisely this reason. We must look for a solution everywhere, but in particular we need to think globally, to be able to say at some point that “we don’t want to continue like this”—because otherwise, this country, famous for its cows and milk, will find itself without either. On a positive note, when I was last here I met with the Association of Environmental Lawyers of Argentina, who later initiated a legal action. Now there are judges that have declared that, at the very least, fumigation has to happen at least 1500 kilometers [~932 miles] from residential areas. Before, they would spread pesticides all the way up to school entranceways—I was in one school where the children were sick, they were vomiting. It was mind-boggling. So we had to lay out our case and support those decisions once they were made, in order to slow down this process. But for a lot of people, it’s not an issue, because they don’t understand what’s at stake. Transgenic soy is ending agriculture as we know it; it’s the last era of the “Green Revolution”: it’s a very centralized model, with companies that plant the seeds and companies that spread the pesticides. The capital which supports this system comes from investment funds called seed pools. It has nothing to do with family farming, which for me is the only kind that could possibly guarantee food safety and health.

What do we eat today?

If The World According to Monsanto was an attempt to focus a line of inquiry, zeroed in on a company, Our Daily Poison broadened its objective something to a little more personal: the agro-toxins and their effects on the health of rural peasants. This is something which Marie-Monique Robin knows first-hand, given that four of the five members of her father’s agricultural cooperative have contracted one or another type of cancer. “Pesticides are poison,” the book reminds us, presenting them as the first ingredient in an unsanitary cocktail that we consume in our daily diet.

In addition to taking herbicides as the point of departure in a larger circuit of contamination of industrial-scale food production, the author takes time with other examples as well, like Aspartame and Bisphenol-A. As if with a magnifying glass, she focuses carefully on the internal workings of the exclusive institutions that evaluate the criteria of acceptable exposure to chemical risks, which are susceptible to corporate lobbying. Extraordinary care is taken to unravel the complex system of regulations that control the industrial ingredients incorporated into food. With the intention of guiding the consumer through the fine print of these regulations, Our Daily Poison is a clarion call to take control over what ends up on our plates.

LP: So do you think that Our Daily Poison deepens the line of inquiry which The World According to Monsanto began?

MR: With the documentary, I was trying to figure out if Monsanto was the exception to all of industrial history—that is to say, if there were other chemical corporations that had lied, manipulated, or hid the facts. After World War II, and with the growth of industrial production, it is estimated that about 100,000 chemical molecules have invaded our environment. Most people don’t know how those chemical products are regulated, whether by companies or by the State. According to the World Health Organization, in the “developed” countries, there is a cancer epidemic, reproductive issues like infertility, neurodegenerative diseases like Parkinson’s, and obesity. The question that I asked myself is if there is a connection between these epidemics and the rise of chemical products.

LP: And what was your conclusion?

MR: The answer is yes, we are poisoning ourselves every day. I’ve devoted myself to nothing more than those products that come into contact with the chain of production in the food industry—like pesticides and additives, which are used for the industrial transformation of food products and plastics alike. It’s terrible, and for this reason I am convinced that if we want to escape this model we have to support ‘biological’ agriculture. In Europe there is a big movement to end industrial chemical farming. If we don’t throw our support behind things like this, it is estimated that within ten or fifteen years one out of every two people will have cancer. Right now, we are at one out of three. Currently, in European countries, already about 15% of couples have problems having kids, and the amount increases every year. Then there’s obesity, an international epidemic, and it’s not only about ‘bad food’. We know, for example, that there are fattening molecules that result in obesity if the mother is exposed during pregnancy, when the fetus’s organs are first forming.  There are molecules which they use in plastic or in pesticides that acquire a hormonal function. They’re called “endocrine disruptors” because they mimic hormones. Based on experiments performed on animals, they’ve discovered that if you have an impregnated rat and you expose her to a very low amount of one of these substances, similar to the amount of residuals from pesticides which you would find in your food, the second generation of rats will be obese and have prostate cancer, which, next to breast cancer, was the most protracted.

LP: With such scientific matters, which are so connected to commercial interests, it’s now common to find an entire library ‘for’ and ‘against’ each product in question. How did you go about differentiating all of this information?

MR: Scientific literature abounds with useless studies. When you begin your research, you start to realize that the library ‘in favor’ of the product is comprised of articles paid for by the industry. If you go on PubMed, a database of scientific information, and look up “cancer” plus “pesticides”, thousands of articles show up. And then you have to decide which to read. But if, in the course of your work, you find that one scientist who seems truly rigorous, from such-and-such university or laboratory, who has no apparent conflict of interests, you begin building a network of contacts who help you to recognize the propaganda. One of the industry’s strategies is to pay laboratories to manipulate the facts without falsifying them. When you are testing if a molecule has secondary effects, bad or otherwise, you design the study in such a way as to guarantee that you won’t see any result at all. This is very common with medications, or in additives such as Aspartame, a synthetic sweetener that’s used in Coca-Cola Light. All of the company-funded studies say, “There’s no issue,” while those scientists who are completely disconnected from the industry have found distinct problems—not gravely serious, but problems nonetheless. There have been published studies that consisted in giving five people Aspartame two times a day, and that’s where the investigation ends. It would be as if, in order to verify that cigarettes cause lung cancer, you perform an experiment with ten people, give them a pack of cigarettes for one day, and waited to see what happens. Scientists call this kind of meddling in the results by corporate interests ‘the funding effect.’ Scientific publications like The Lancet, Nature, and Science, have taken this into account, and now they ask that a scientist declare any conflicts of interest when they submit an article. So at the beginning of the article it would say, “I am paid by Monsanto” and then you would keep this in mind as you read. Before, there was no way of knowing, but now eleven scientific journals have introduced this rule. At the very least, it’s something.

Lucas Palero is a journalist living in Mendoza, Argentina.