The 20-year odyssey of Eva Peron's body

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Eva Peron's body in 1952

Three years after Eva Peron's death 60 years ago, her embalmed corpse disappeared, removed by the Argentinian military in the wake of a coup that deposed her husband, President Juan Peron. It then went on a global odyssey for nearly two decades.

Tall, silvery-haired and precise, Domingo Tellechea has a worldwide reputation for the restoration of art, antiquities - and human remains.

In 1974 he was the expert chosen to make the body of Eva Peron presentable for public display.

These were violent times in Argentina - government death squads targeted radicals, and guerrilla groups attacked so-called "agents of the state". So when he was approached in a bar, alarm bells rang.

"I was talking to a young man who worked there when two guys all dressed in black came in," he recalls.

"They flung the doors open and looked over at us. This was dangerous, because in those days people were being carried off and 'disappeared' and never seen again."

Image caption,
Eva Peron received great support from Argentina's working class whom she called descamisados - shirtless ones

It was a relief when he realised the two men were official drivers, and he remembers how he was driven to the office of someone he knew, Oscar Ivanissevich, formerly Eva Peron's personal physician when she was alive.

"He said to me 'we've got a job for you; you've got to restore the body of Eva Peron'."

If he accepted, Domingo Tellechea knew there could be dangerous consequences.

"To do the work was to put myself in opposition to the people who made the body disappear and a lot of people really wished Evita had never turned up again at all. I knew it could bring me problems," says Domingo.

The people who made the body disappear in 1955 were military officers who took part in the coup that forced Juan Peron into exile.

It was taken in the middle of the night from the Buenos Aires headquarters of the CGT - the largest Peronist trade union in Argentina - where it had remained since the embalming process was finished.

Those who supported Juan Peron believed its removal was part of a systematic attempt to erase Peronism from Argentina, and Evita was the movement's most powerful symbol.

When she was alive she had generated huge popularity for Peron's government, primarily through her work for the poor.

But while she had been adored by millions, she was loathed and despised in equal measure by anti-Peronists. Some of them maintained Evita's embalmed remains had to be removed for their own safety.

Once the corpse was taken, its improbable odyssey began.

It probably spent time in a van parked on the streets of the capital, behind a cinema screen in Buenos Aires and inside the city's waterworks.

Image caption,
Crowds at a huge rally called on her to become vice-president

Almost certainly, it was stored in the offices of Military Intelligence. But wherever it went, it is said that flowers and lighted candles appeared. Clearly a secure, long-term solution was needed.

In 1957, with the covert assistance of the Vatican, the remains of Eva Peron were taken to Italy and buried in a Milan cemetery under a false name.

Evita was far from Argentina, but she was not forgotten.

"Where is the body of Eva Peron?" asked graffiti that appeared in Buenos Aires. Her power as a symbol of resistance grew.

In 1970, the Montoneros - a Peronist guerrilla group - kidnapped and killed the former president, General Pedro Eugenio Aramburu. They targeted him partly because he had overseen the initial disappearance of Evita's corpse.

By 1971, the military had been in and out of government for over 15 years. But Argentina was economically depressed and far from peaceful.

An attempt was made to try and "normalise" politics. The Peronist Party was legalised, and it was decided the body of Eva Peron would be returned to her widower who lived in exile in Spain.

She was disinterred, driven across Europe, and delivered to Juan Peron at the home he shared with his third wife, Isabel, in Madrid.

Carlos Spadone is a well-known businessman in Argentina. In 1971 he was a confidant of Juan Peron, and was one of the first to see the body in the Spanish capital.

"General Peron, the gardener and I took the body out of the coffin," he remembers. "We lay it on a marble-topped table. Our hands got dirty from all the earth, so the body had to be cleaned.

"Isabel took care of that very carefully with a cotton cloth and water. She combed the hair, and cleaned it bit by bit, and then blow-dried it. It took several days."

The end of one of Evita's fingers was missing. It is believed this was removed after the coup of 1955 because the military wanted to verify these were actually the remains of Eva Peron. Carlos Spadone also thought the body had been repeatedly hit.

"There was a large dent in the nose, and there were blows to the face and chest, and marks on the back," he explains.

"There had also been a serious blow to one knee; but I don't think she had been strung up or whipped, as some people say - I don't believe that."

Image caption,
The body was displayed a final time after Domingo's restoration work

In 1973, Juan Peron and Isabel returned to Argentina. Juan Peron was elected president with his wife as vice-president.

When he died suddenly the following year, Isabel took over as president and she oversaw the repatriation of Evita's body from Madrid to Argentina.

Image caption,
Domingo Tellechea had to leave Argentina when the military returned

Domingo Tellechea began the restoration of Eva Peron's corpse in a crypt in the presidential residence of Los Olivos on the outskirts of Buenos Aires. The closed coffin of Juan Peron lay close by. He remembers this was a complicated job.

"The feet were in a very bad way - because the corpse was hidden in a standing position. She had one part where there was a wound - I couldn't say if it was made by a weapon, but it was caused by something. That part of the body looked pretty ugly."

Domingo thought the remains might have been squeezed into a coffin that was not big enough.

"If you have a body that's preserved for some reason, even if it's a political or ideological enemy, it's still a preserved body," he says.

"If you crush it into a too-small coffin, or squash its nose, what is that? It's an offence against the corpse. But it wasn't my job to say what caused the damage, although it definitely had no bullet wounds."

But essentially, the original embalming work had stood the test of time.

"There were a lot of marks on the outside of the body, but what you noticed was the internal conservation of the body, because it was very well done," he says.

While he worked on the restoration of Evita's remains, the government of Isabel Peron began to plan the building of a national monument - an Altar of the Fatherland - that would contain both her and the closed coffin of Juan Peron. It was never to be.

Image caption,
Millions attended Eva Peron's funeral

When the restoration was complete, the corpse was once again briefly displayed to the public next to her husband's coffin. Photos from the time show a queue outside Los Olivos, but nothing like the two million people who had filed past her coffin when she died in 1952.

Domingo Tellechea left Eva Peron looking unmarked and serene - as if she was resting peacefully. But he would not sleep so easily.

"There were threats… cowardly threats on the phone," he says. "The work I did on the body of Eva Peron was never mentioned directly, but it was the only thing it could have been."

Domingo says he did not feel safe at home without a weapon to guard his children.

In 1976, another military coup deposed the government of Isabel Peron and Argentina would descend into its darkest and bloodiest days - thousands of people would disappear.

Like so many other Argentines, Domingo Tellechea went into exile. He has built a hugely successful international career in art restoration, and still works 10 hours a day.

As for Eva Peron's body, in October 1976 it was finally taken from Los Olivos and placed in her family's mausoleum in Recoleta Cemetery in Buenos Aires. The operation was overseen by the dictatorship.

She lies five metres underground, in a crypt fortified like a nuclear bunker, so that no one should ever again be able to disturb the remains of Argentina's most controversial First Lady.

Evita's Odyssey was broadcast on BBC Radio 4 on Mon 23 July. Listen online at the above link. A download will also be made available as Radio 4's Documentary of the Week.