Where have all the South American Indians gone? The question should haunt any traveller to Argentina, the second largest (and third most populous) country on the South American continent.
You could enter from next-door Paraguay, for instance, where Spanish settlers intermarried with the native Guarani inhabitants to produce a thoroughly mixed-race nation whose second language is Guarani. Or you could arrive from Bolivia, where some 60 per cent of the population are indigenous, millions of them pretty much full-blooded, and whose president is himself of Aymara Indian stock. In Peru, too, a huge indigenous population plays a central part in the country's rural and urban economy, and cultural life.
But there's something ghostly about Argentina. The overwhelming majority of the population are white, or almost white. Ghostly in another sense too, because sometimes in the street you'll spot a distinctively bridged nose, unusual cheekbones or the impenetrably dark eyes that betray a dash of native blood. Perhaps this is a migrant from Bolivia, or a Mapuche Indian from Chile; or perhaps - like a ghost walking among his assassins, like a race within a race - this is a death's-head reminder, a throwback: the hint of a descent from a people who have been wiped from history.
Because "wiped from history" is the only phrase for it. The European settlers who now populate Argentina - Italian, Spanish, German, Welsh - are the relatively recent inheritors of colonisers who quite simply exterminated the peoples whose land this was.
And take note, anyone tempted to mutter "Ah, but the 16th and 17th centuries were a more brutal age": the Argentine campaign to erase the indigenous population was Argentine, not Spanish, for it was substantially a 19th-century crime against humanity in a country whose war of independence began in 1810.
It makes the blood boil to hear the current President of Argentina, in her recent letter to David Cameron, describe a pantomime skirmish involving a handful of people (most of whom stayed put anyway and kept their property) on some windswept islands far out into the ocean as having "forcibly stripped" her countrymen of their rightful land; and as being "a blatant exercise of 19th-century colonialism". The hypocrisy!
Colonialism? And this from a country that was the Rhodesia of the New World. Forcibly stripped? If Britain forcibly stripped Argentina of the Falkland Islands, what does Cristina Fernández de Kirchner think the nation she leads did on the mainland? What words would she find for the cold-blooded and systematic destruction and total dispossession of Argentina's original population by the European invaders whose descendants' votes she now seeks? The present population of Argentina are the beneficiaries not just of occupation by force of arms, but of an odious, merciless, calculated genocide stretching over centuries.
In no way is Argentina solely responsible for this genocide. The Spanish Empire made a pretty vigorous start. And in no way is the former Spanish Empire the only imperial power to have stolen land, nor its modern successors the only former colonials to have persecuted those they stole it from. Britain, France, the Netherlands and Portugal must feature, too, on that list. But Argentina, especially because the new country actually intensified the genocide after the expulsion of the imperial power, has been among the most cruelly clinical "cleansers" of its original inhabitants in all of Latin America.
There's more here (£) for those who can get to it.