Dangerous Assignments 20th Anniversary: Jailhouse Memories

Living in an Argentine prison during the Falklands War.

Every time I visit Ushuaia–a bustling little Patagonian town, the stepping-off point for most commercial icebreakers sailing to Antarctica–I always take coffee with an old and very special friend. He is a ramrod tall man of 60 or so with a craggy face and ice-blue eyes that some would call piercing, but others might find chillingly intimidating. He says he is an academic now, but his military bearing, his proud stance, the cut of his jib remain, reminders that he was once a full captain in the Argentine navy.

His name is Juan Carlos Grieco, and 20 years ago, he was my jailer. He is the man who turned the keys and locked me away for each of the 77 days and nights I was hidden away in a tiny prison cell in that most southerly city in the world.

Back in 1982, Ushuaia was a grubby, wind-swept shantytown best known for once having been a military penal settlement. There was a naval base, too–which was what attracted the three of us, all Britons, all working for newspapers, in the immediate aftermath of the invasion of the Falkland Islands. I saw the invasion firsthand, which, I now suspect, was part of the reason I was tossed into prison in the first place.

I had been working in India when the call came from The Sunday Times foreign desk in London. Would I be so kind as to return home immediately, asked the editor: Something had come up. I flew home that night, imagining only that my expenses, the invariable curse of the wandering correspondent, had caused some problems. But it turned out to be something entirely different.

My editor told me of a developing story, one thus far uncovered in the Indian press and so quite new to me: Argentine and British warships were at that moment staring each other down on the high seas a few miles off an icy and British-claimed island called South Georgia. It now seemed possible that the long-simmering argument over who controlled the nearby Falkland Islands, or, as Buenos Aires called them, Las Malvinas, might finally spin out of control.

The islands, home to 1,500 indubitably British citizens, most of them innocent sheep farmers, might be invaded. The paper wanted me to get myself onto the islands in the event that some such drama unfolded. It was, for me, a natural. A small war in an obscure but very British place seemed the perfect story: exciting, quick, and guaranteed to be on the front page. So I flew off that afternoon to Buenos Aires.

Dangerous to know

“Fear nothing! You can go anywhere, ask any questions, see anything you want. This is a free country,” said Gen. Leopoldo Galtieri, head of the Argentine military junta

The only person I knew in town–and this probably contributed to my eventual undoing–just happened to be a spy I had gone to school with. He was attached to the British Embassy undercover. I only had one question for him: Would it be possible for me to get to the Falklands? He looked at me curiously. Get to the islands? Yes. But getting back? “I have my doubts,” he said, “about just how easy it might be for you to get back.”

That was the hint I needed. The Argentines were going to invade, and he knew it. I jotted some notes in my book, including his name and home phone number, and flew down to the Falkland capital of Port Stanley. There, I watched with grim fascination two days later as the Argentine navy stormed ashore. A brief firefight left a small number of Argentina’s finest dead on the beaches, but the invaders captured the islands and raised their blue-and-white bandera high over what, for the previous 150 years, had been Her Britannic Majesty’s most southerly Government House in her farthest-flung major colony.

The new authorities speedily expelled the British governor and the Royal Marines who had briefly defended him. But they let me stay, in part because my firsthand reports were useful public relations. There was no raping or pillaging, and to have relatively civil behavior reported abroad was, the invader-commanders felt, good for their image. But it was a brief and bittersweet relationship. After three days, they ordered me to leave as well.

I returned to Buenos Aires, where I managed to see Gen. Leopoldo Galtieri, the great bear of a soldier who headed the Argentine military junta, and who was the principal architect of the invasion plan.

He was in ebullient mood: “Las Malvinas son Argentinas,” he exclaimed. When I asked him how easy it would be for an English reporter to write about his country while Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher readied a naval force to try and dislodge his men, he lifted me off my feet and shouted wildly, “Fear nothing! You can go anywhere, ask any questions, see anything you want. This is a free country, you know that. You saw how we behaved in the Malvinas. We are an honorable people.”

Looking back, it was probably naive to believe either that particular protestation from a general who would soon be disgraced, overthrown, and tried; or to imagine that it would ever be prudent for an enemy (for, as a Briton, that is how I was officially regarded) to wander around his foe’s homeland. But the siren call of a good story is well-nigh irresistible–to me and, as it turned out, to two others: Ian Mather, a reporter for the London Observer, and his photographer, Tony Prime.

Within hours of my interview with Galtieri, I told my colleagues that we appeared to have blanket permission to wander the country. Since we all worked for Sunday newspapers and could thus take our time researching stories that would not need to be filed for days, we decided to fly the length and breadth of Argentina to examine war preparations. We wanted to look at every military base, every ship, every squadron of aircraft, and every battalion of soldiers to offer our readers a vision of just what Thatcher’s armada would confront.


Two days and nearly 3,000 miles later, we were in Ushuaia. It was late fall, and an early snow dusted the Martial Mountains. A thin, cold rain, whipped into sheets by the ceaseless westerlies, made for a miserable first morning. By afternoon it had cleared, and we went to the naval base. No one there would see us, so we took some pictures. Since we had enough film and information to offer a presentable account of how the nation was readying for battle, we planned to fly back to Buenos Aires.

But it was not to be. While the three of us waited for the northbound plane, a trio of heavily armed sailors approached us. They were gruff, unfriendly. Your tickets, passports, papers, they demanded. Wait here. Come with us. What are you doing here? Your notebooks, please. These sketches, notes, addresses, numbers–what are they for?

We were reporters, we said, here to research and write about Argentina’s plans for war. General Galtieri, I explained, had said it would be all right. The chief of the three sailors snorted with derision and left to make a phone call. More sentries came. The three of us were separated. Film was taken. Bags were searched. The chief returned with more senior officers. Big trouble, we were told. Forget General Galtieri. He is 3,000 miles away and a soldier. This is naval country. You are under arrest.

Thus began three months of tedium and dismay. They first flew us to Port Stanley and housed us in marine barracks by the airport–almost certainly, I thought, to be deported. But no: After three days, we were marched back to a military plane and flown six hours south again to Ushuaia. Large crowds of local journalists had gathered: We were celebrated villains, whispered to be los espias ingleses, the English spies.

We were interrogated, urged (in vain) to confess, charged with espionage, and sentenced to an indefinite period of detention in the city jail. Some investigator had found in my notebook the telephone number of my school friend who truly was a spy; in the heated atmosphere of the moment, that proved conclusively I must be in the same grubby trade. By association, my Observer colleagues were drawn into the same plot. We were introduced to Juan Carlos Grieco, capitan de frigata. He showed us into the cells and locked the double doors firmly behind us.

As Paul Pennyfeather says in Evelyn Waugh’s celebrated novel Decline and Fall, anyone who has endured the miseries of an English boarding school can come to feel comparatively at home in a prison. I certainly did. True, there were depressing moments, and the food (a chicken-feet soup was particularly memorable) was entirely unappetizing. But I really didn’t mind the experience too greatly, guided by the notion that “no experience,” as a correspondent later told me, “is ever wasted.”


All manner of good-hearted souls tried to spring us from jail. The Swiss government, which was the official protecting power for Britons remaining in Argentina, brought some diplomatic pressure to bear, but it proved quite ineffectual. (Though the Swiss Consul brought a Bible and some chocolate. The latter, I regret to say, was of considerably greater comfort). The pope wrote a letter to his fellow Roman Catholics in the Buenos Aires junta, chiding them in the gentle way of the pontificate. United Nations secretary-general Javier Pérez de Cuéllar told General Galtieri that it was “unconscionable” that reporters, who were self-evidently not spies, be detained while pursuing their customary duties. In London, a committee was created to press for our release. And thousands of ordinary individuals wrote, from all over the world, either to us or to the Argentine government, urging the authorities to set us free.

And then came the letter from Walter Cronkite. We all knew who he was, of course; we knew his legendary authority, and we knew of the immense power of moral suasion he had wielded during the Vietnam War. All three of us were delighted to see that he, and a new committee of which he was a leading member, had taken up our case. The Committee to Protect Journalists: It sounded appropriately grand and serious, and its aim seemed most noble, especially at this particular moment. In a letter to my wife and children, I wrote that I was beginning to feel that the end was in sight, because CPJ and Walter Cronkite had expressed their concern.

Eight weeks after we were arrested, British soldiers recaptured Port Stanley. The Argentine banderas came down, and the Union Jack went up. The governor returned, thousands of Argentine soldiers went home, and Margaret Thatcher savored her peculiarly anachronistic moment of triumph.

Two weeks later, the government granted us bond and gave us permission to leave the country. The cell doors clanged open 77 long days and nights after they had slammed shut; Juan Carlos Grieco wished us farewell. “I hope you understand I was only doing my job,” he said. “I hope you think I treated you well.”

But the last few hours in the country were nerve-racking. Some soldiers still in authority were unwilling to free us, and others still wanted us detained in the country while “further inquiries” were made. But then higher authority relented, we boarded the plane, and after an interminable series of exchanges between captain and control tower, the machine finally lifted off. Then the stewardess made the announcement that we all so wanted to hear: “Ladies and gentlemen–and particularly the three gentlemen in row one, A, B, and C–we have crossed the Rio del Plata and are now out of Argentine air space.” The whole plane, so far as I could hear, erupted in applause.


Twelve years later, I received a letter from Juan Carlos Grieco, postmarked Ushuaia. It was by way of an apology, he said. An explanation, and his own life story. He had been stripped of his naval rank a few weeks after his farewell to us, a consequence of Galtieri’s fall. He had spent more than a year in the very jail where he had presided over us. Then he was forced to sell soap door-to-door for years. But he kept his family and dignity together, and he had now returned to Tierra del Fuego because he thought it was the most beautiful place on earth. Please, would I come back and see his country once again, but as a free man?

And so I did, one Christmas five years ago. He met me at the airport, thinner, older, troubled, and still convinced that the Malvinas should, in time, belong to Argentina. But he didn’t want to fight about it anymore. He shook my hand. “I am sorry for what happened. Let us try to be friends.”

The Falklands today are still resolutely British. The flags of both countries, however, fly over the soldiers’ graveyards outside Port Stanley. But the madness of the whole episode–“two bald men fighting over a comb,” Jorge Luis Borges said–has now receded. British prime minister Tony Blair visited Argentina in the summer of 2001. Both sides are trying to be friends, to be civil, and to forgive, although neither is yet able to forget.

Walter Cronkite has long since retired from the American television landscape. But the Committee to Protect Journalists, an organization that he helped to establish and that provided so great a spur to our morale all those years ago, remains and flourishes today.

CPJ cut its teeth in the Falklands dispute; reporters and photographers have suffered many such trials and tribulations since, and given the incivility of humankind, many more will in the years to come. But for the three of us, there is no greater legacy of our brief inconvenience in the world’s most southerly jail than the existence of a body that does nothing, quite frankly, but good, and that stands ready to help all of our colleagues, present and future, wherever and whenever they may find themselves in the kind of trouble that only journalists, saving the grammatical infelicity for last, can get into.

Simon Winchester is the author of many books, including the bestselling The Professor and the Madman, and most recently, The Map That Changed the World: William Smith and the Birth of Modern Geology.