A federal court in Argentina has sentenced a former police chief to life in prison for crimes against humanity and for the murder and torture of political dissidents during the 1976-1983 dictatorship. It is the second sentence since an amnesty law was overturned.
Retired police chief Miguel Etchecolatz, now 77, ran clandestine detention centers in the Buenos Aires province during the military dictatorship. He is the first military officer to be sentenced for crimes against humanity and sentenced to life. In the court room Etchecolatz kissed a crucifix after the sentence was read. Several spectators threw red paint on him and chanted assassin as he was escorted out of the courtroom. Human rights activists and relatives of the disappeared celebrated the verdict and embraced inside and outside the court room in La Plata, 40 kilometers from Buenos Aires.
This is the second sentence of a former military officer charged with human rights abuses, after Argentina ‘s Supreme Court struck down as unconstitutional legal immunity for former officers who served during the era of military dictatorship. Etchecolatz was arrested and sentenced to 23 years in 1986, but was later freed under the “full stop” and “due obedience” laws implemented in the early 90’s. Those regulations severely limited prosecution of ex-military leaders for human right crimes. On September 16, Argentina marked 30 years since the military operation known as the Night of the Pencils, when the military kidnapped and disappeared 20 La Plata high school students as part of a plan to snuff out political dissent during the 1976-1983 military dictatorship.
Witnesses say that some of the students were taken to a secret detention facility known as Pozo de Banfield, in a southern Buenos Aires suburb 30 kilometers from the capital. The Pozo de Banfield is one of the 375 clandestine detention centers that functioned during the dictatorship to implement unimaginable methods of terror. Miguel Etchecolatz supervised activities the Pozo de Banfield, according to testimony. Until this year, police used Pozo de Banfield as a police precinct for homicide cases. Human rights groups have fought to evict police from the building for nearly decade.
Ex-detainees hoped that no one would be detained again in the Pozo de Banfield’s windowless cement 4 square foot cells in the two story building. Human rights groups say the army simply handed over the building to the provincial police to continue with state-supported repression against the poor. This year, they were successful in their demands to close Pozo de Banfield. Police were ordered to move on August 17.
Torture survivors re-entered the Pozo de Banfield for the first time in 20 years to commemorate the disappeared and continue the legacy that Argentina’s some 30,000 have left behind for future generations. Torture survivors dressed the cells with 30 red roses, representing the 30 years of injustice and impunity since the military dictatorship and state-supported terror.
Adriana Calvo, ex-detainee at the Pozo de Banfield and torture survivor says police were removed from the detention center thanks to the work of human rights activists. She was detained in 1977 and gave birth to her daughter, Teresa, inside the facility. During six years of detention, she witnessed numerous cases of tortures of prisoners, including many pregnant women.
"The Pozo de Banfield had a special characteristic: it was also used as kind of hospital. There the military took pregnant women to have birth and injured to recover, to later continue torturing them." The military abducted at least eight babies born while their mothers were in illegal captivity at the Pozo de Banfield. Jorge Bergez, the infamous doctor who abducted many babies, is currently under house arrest.
Hundreds of high school students and local activists listened to Calvo’s powerful testimony of how she was brought to the Pozo de Banfield to give birth and how guards tried to take her daughter away.
"The military brought me to this exact spot in a car, where I had my daughter Teresa. They took me to the sinister doctor Jorge Bergez, who cut the umbilical cord. He took out the placenta with guards standing around me who laughed at me. Right away they made me clean the floor with a hose."
Not shortly after Calvo gave birth the guards came to abduct her 13 day-old baby. "The guards told me they were going to take her because the medicine they gave us for lice would harm Teresa. With Teresa in my arms I backed against the wall of the cell. The doors to the cells were open, so my 20 fellow cellmates created a human barricade to defend Teresa. They screamed like crazy at the guards. The only way they were going to take her away was to kill every one of us. We prevented the military from abducting my daughter."
Many of Calvo’s cell mates were disappeared. At least 200 of Argentina’s 30,000 disappeared were murdered at the Pozo de Banfield detention center between 1976-1983. Courts have documented that in the 90’s police from the Greater Buenos Aires district of Lomas de Zamora used excessive force and torture techniques against prisoners at the former detention center. According to Sergio Smietniansky, lawyer with the human rights group COREPPI, police continued to commit human rights abuses inside the former center after the military dictatorship ended.
"The Pozo de Banfield is the synthesis of state terrorism, during the military dictatorship it was used for kidnapping, torturing and disappearing people. During the return to democracy after 1983, it was used to apply the state’s repressive policies with easy trigger police and torture. We are proposing the expropriation of the Pozo de Banfield.
“We want human rights organizations and activist groups to administer the former detention center, the same people who fought for years to close it down. Clearly, the administration of Buenos Aires governor Felipe Solá is using the Night of the Pencils to gain some legitimacy in human rights."
Groups want to turn the Pozo de Banfield into a space to maintain historic memory, but they are fighting government plants to turn it into a state-run museum. Human rights groups have said that Etchecolatz’s sentence was made possible thanks to activists, not government officials.