Missing Witness Awakens Dark Past

Groups are sending a clear message that they will not stop their fight for justice and against impunity. (Photo: Juan Mabromata / AFP-Getty Images)

Argentines are searching for a missing 77-year-old witness whose gripping testimony of torture helped convict a former police officer of crimes committed during Argentina's military dictatorship. The trial was one of the first to take place since an amnesty law was overturned in 2005. No one has seen or heard from Julio Jorge Lopez since Sept. 18 when he was last seen in his home in La Plata, 40 kilometers from Buenos Aires.

Lopez, a retired construction worker and former political prisoner, disappeared just hours before he was slated to give his final testimony on the eve of the conviction of the former police investigator, Miguel Etchecolatz. Human rights groups are pointing to provincial police with ties to the 1976-1983 military dictatorship for kidnapping the witness.

Argentina's president and Buenos Aires' governor have both expressed concerns over Lopez's disappearance and the recent wave of threats against torture survivors who are testifying in trials against former members of the dictatorship. Provincial police aided by police dogs are hunting for Lopez. A government-sponsored television ad has aired nightly, offering $64,000 in award money for leads on Lopez's whereabouts. After 22 days of searching, police have hit a dead end in their search for the witness.

Nilda Eloy, a torture survivor who testified with Julio Lopez to convict Etchecolatz, stood in front of thousands during a recent rally to demand to know Lopez's whereabouts. Etchecolatz, a former police chief, was sentenced to life imprisonment for crimes against humanity committed during the 1976-1983 dictatorship.

While choking back tears, Eloy said that the government is responsible for Lopez's disappearance because police officers that served under the dictatorship still form part of security forces.

"Most of the evidence suggests that Julio Lopez was kidnapped by the gangsters from the Greater Buenos Aires police force and rightwing fascists, because Julio was one of the key witnesses that led to Miguel Etchecolatz's sentence to life imprisonment in a regular jail."

Etchecolatz's sentence for crimes against humanity, genocide, and the murder and torture of political dissidents during the dictatorship represents the first time in the nation's history that the courts have sentenced a military officer to life for crimes against humanity. Etchecolatz, now 77, ran clandestine detention centers in the province of Buenos Aires during the military dictatorship.

In his testimony, Lopez said that Etchecolatz tortured him during his detention from 1976-1979. He said that the police chief would personally kick detainees until unconscious and oversee torture sessions. Etchecolatz has appealed the court's decision.

This is the second conviction of a former military officer charged with human rights abuses since 2005 when Argentina's Supreme Court struck down immunity laws for former officers of the military dictatorship as unconstitutional. Etchecolatz was arrested and sentenced to 23 years in 1986, but was later freed when the "full stop" and "due obedience" laws implemented in the early 1990's made successful prosecution of ex-military leaders for human rights abuses virtually impossible.

"The repressive apparatus tried to stop us, and those of us who challenge the impunity granted the military for over 30 years have received anonymous phone calls and threats," said Eloy.

Over 130 witnesses testified during the trial, including former president Raul Alfonsin, who defended his decision to pardon military officers arrested for human rights abuses. Before Etchecolatz's sentencing, two witnesses in the trial were threatened. During the trial, federal police there to guard witnesses had to be removed because they were pressuring witnesses inside the courtroom.

Eloy added, "Even after the sentence, the threats continue because thanks to our never-ending struggle, for the first time a court ruled that the dictatorship had committed crimes against humanity along the lines of planned genocide."

At least 11 judges, the Buenos Aires Human Rights secretariat, and the president of the human rights group "Grandmothers of the Plaza de Mayo" have received threats. Many torture survivors testifying in the ongoing trials against former figures of the military dictatorship have entered witness protection programs. Many others have refused police guards.

At a press conference, Adriana Calvo, who was kidnapped and forced to give birth in a detention center run by Etchecolatz, said that the disappearance of Julio Lopez is an attempt to scare survivors and discourage future trials against torturers.

"We associate Julio Lopez's disappearance with the conviction of Etchecolatz for crimes against humanity. We think that Etchecolatz's gangster allies still in action kidnapped Lopez for revenge," Calvo said.

Calvo added that Lopez's disappearance on the eve of the Sept. 19 conviction could have stopped or delayed the charges against Etchecolatz. The day of Lopez's disappearance, the legal prosecutors had to present the allegations against Etchecolatz. As a key witness, Lopez needed to be present for the allegations. Calvo discounted any possibility that Lopez had suffered a personal crisis caused by reliving his time in the detention center during his testimony.

"Although he recently turned 77, Lopez knew perfectly well the implications that his presence in court had. He was proud of the fact that he had re-activated his activist and human rights defense activities," Calvo said.

For Margarita Cruz, a torture survivor from the northern province of Tucuman, Julio Lopez's disappearance is the result of 30 years of injustice.

"For survivors, Lopez's disappearance brings back memories of our kidnappings and what we lived through during the military dictatorship. Lopez's disappearance is the maximum expression of surviving remnants of the dictatorship and impunity for crimes against humanity," Cruz said.

Dictatorship Still in Action

Calvo, from the Ex-Detainees Association, stated that offering reward money will not resolve the case and it is unlikely that the police will find Lopez. Buenos Aires governor Felipe Solá admitted that provincial police might be connected to Lopez's disappearance.

During a meeting between human rights groups and Buenos Aires government officials, activists asked Buenos Aires Security Minister León Carlos Arslanián whether police officers who served during the dictatorship were still active. He answered, "Yes, about 70 officers, but they were only 20 years old during the military dictatorship."

Calvo, who was present at the meeting, noted bitterly, "You have no idea how the young officers who were only 20 years old tortured us." Solá retired 60 provincial police who operated in clandestine detention centers on Monday, Sept. 26.

According to Eloy, the government needs to do more than open a handful of landmark human rights cases to defend human rights today.

"Minister Arslanián and Governor Solá needed Jorge's disappearance and our demands to fire the 60 police officers who worked at the clandestine detention centers. This is horrendous and only leads to more impunity," Eloy said.

According to Enrique Fukman, an ex-detainee at the E.S.M.A. Navy Mechanics School, the largest clandestine detention center in Buenos Aires, police with ties to the military dictatorship seek to instill fear to stop the trials against military officers who served during the dictatorship. Fukman says that police today have a clear interest in defending amnesty laws that protect military and police who disappeared and tortured 30,000 people.

"The government uses security forces to repress, that's where the state's responsibility in the disappearance of Lopez begins. Because the government is saying that it needs the police to repress and it's clear that these groups are going to repress to defend their impunity," Fukman said.

In the weeks before Lopez's disappearance, evidence of the government's current ties to the 1976-1983 dictatorship surfaced in national newspapers. The national daily Página/12 published documents revealing that former security minister Juan José Alvarez worked as an agent in Argentina's State Intelligence Service from 1981 until the end of the dictatorship. Former dictator Albano Harguindeguy wrote Alvarez a letter of recommendation saying Alvarez was "an excellent candidate that won't betray our trust." Under his nom de guerre, "Javier Alzaga" quickly rose in the ranks of the agency, responsible for the investigations against so called subversives who were tortured during interrogations to gather information, murdered, and their bodies later disappeared. Alvarez served as National Security Minister from 2001-2003 and later in the capital's security secretariat until 2005.

The governor recently signed an agreement to extend criminology courses and police training by F.A.S.T.A. (The Santo Tomás de Aquino Fraternity of Associations), a religious organization that collaborated with military leaders from 1976-83 and currently supports groups fighting against the human rights trials of former military officers. This cult organization, founded in 1962 by the Catholic priest Fray Aníbal Fosbery, trains cadets from 12 years old and up in target-shooting and methods to fight against Marxist-Leninist subversives. Fosbery claims that military and police officers convicted for human rights crimes during the dictatorship are "political prisoners." He regularly holds mass in the F.A.S.T.A. cadet schools throughout the country for the military officers currently under arrest. He recently declared that the federal court that sentenced Etchecolatz to life is "responsible for genocide" in Argentina.

Neo-Nazi groups have also rallied support for Etchecolatz. Twin brothers Jorge and Marcelo Gristelli, are "personal friends of Etchecolatz" and leaders of an ultra-right organization, Agrupación Custodia. The organization owns a bookstore just a few blocks from the national congress, carrying titles like "Conversations with Mussolini" and other texts from the military dictatorship. They were Etchecolatz's personal security guards during the 2001 trial when he was convicted of stealing babies born while their mothers were in prison. The brothers confronted human rights groups outside the courthouse with clubs, breaking one organizer's jaw.

Tactics reminiscent of the dictatorship are resurfacing in the midst of the highly polemic disappearance. Several activists have been attacked during mobilizations for Jorge Lopez's safe return. In La Plata, the boyfriend of an organizer from the human rights group H.I.J.O.S. (Children for Identity Justice and Against Silence and Oblivion) was attacked by three men wearing ski masks. They cut his arms and warned him to distance himself from human rights activities.

In another case, a group of activists were detained as they left their neighborhood in Greater Buenos Aires this week to protest at the Interior Ministry. A police car drove up alongside them and while they were detained, the police told them they knew exactly where they were headed and all about the protest. They were held in a local precinct, where police used light-torture techniques, beating them for four hours.

Human rights organizations are pressing for direct access to information into the provincial police's investigation of the Lopez disappearance. They are demanding that the government release state intelligence documents that could help to point to groups possibly connected with Lopez's disappearance and the wave of threats.

Backlash by Pro-Dictatorship Groups

Over 5,000 people protested against the nation's human rights policies on Oct. 5 and called for amnesty for former military officers who served under the military dictatorship. Pro-dictatorship groups chanted slogans saying that the bloody tactics used by the dictatorship were justified in the fight against subversive groups. With photos of military personnel allegedly killed by guerillas, orators called for amnesty for all military officers accused of human rights abuses during the 1976-1983 dictatorship, including Etchecolatz.

Ana Lucioni, daughter of a lieutenant who was killed in 1976, gave the opening remarks:

"It is a difficult task to remember the victims of subversive terrorism acts. This rally's objective is to keep alive the memory of those who died defending our country. Those who gave their lives to keep their promise to defend their homeland to the end."

Former military leader Reynaldo Bignone sent a message of support to the rally suggesting that young activists finish off the work the military could not. The government continues to pay a monthly $5,000 retirement pension to Bignone who is currently under house arrest for human rights violations.

Leftist political groups staged a counter-protest demanding trial and punishment for genocide. A massive police contingent kept the human rights groups at bay, while racist skinheads holding Argentina's national flag yelled, "Assassins."

With the national anthem in the background, Ruben Saboulard from a neighborhood assembly said that the military supporters are apologists for the disappearance of 30,000 people.

"They are demonstrating to celebrate the impunity that they still enjoy. They should be in jail and not in the plaza, this is not freedom of speech but an excuse for criminal acts, this isn't a demonstration but association to incite violence. There will be no forgiveness for them, reconciliation isn't possible. There aren't two demons or two enemies, there are only state terrorists whom they represent, and we're going to chase them down wherever they go," Saboulard said.

The Catholic Church has criticized the re-opening of human rights trials. Archbishop Jorge Bergoglio sent an open letter to the pro-dictatorship rally, calling for reconciliation and an end to the trials against former military officers. The archbishop has accused President Nestor Kirchner of dividing Argentina and encouraging military death squads.

During a government rally, Kirchner spoke out against the threats received by witnesses and courts. He called the demonstration to support members of the dictatorship as "victims of terrorism" an attack on his government's human rights policies.

"Some say that putting the crimes of the dictatorship on trial is going to divide Argentina. What has divided Argentines is that there's been no justice and impunity continues. This is why we are witnessing confusing acts like the case of our friend Lopez, because if there would have been justice when it was due, all of these actions would be a thing of the past," Kirchner said.

End to Impunity?

The next officer slated for trial, Catholic priest Christian von Wernich, is facing charges for kidnapping 45 people, torture, three murders, and the illegal appropriation of a baby born in captivity. Witnesses scheduled to testify in the trial say they will not be scared off. There are currently 200 former military officers lined up for human rights trials — not even one officer for each of the 375 clandestine detention centers that operated during the dictatorship.

Juan Ramon Nazar was kidnapped in 1977 and held in a clandestine detention center for 14 months. While in a two-by-two cell in the detention center's basement, von Wernich visited Nazar to give him "spiritual aid." Nazar, now 75, has agreed to testify to the torture he received at the hands of von Wernich. He recently stated, "I'm willing to testify before the courts as many times as necessary. I'm not afraid and I'm not going to ask for police protection."

Over 100,000 people rallied for the safe return of Lopez during a march in Buenos Aires on Oct. 6. Groups are sending a clear message that they will not stop their fight for justice and against impunity.

"We are convinced that the police aren't going to find Lopez," said Calvo. "The only ones who can help to find Lopez are his fellow activists and the people."

From the International Relations Center (I.R.C.).