Key human rights witness Julio Lopez is still missing after three years. But Lopez is not just a new name inscribed on the doleful roll call of Argentina’s disappeared; he is also a reminder of the crimes against humanity still taking place in the region.
Julio Lopez went missing three years ago on September 18, 2006 in his hometown of La Plata, Argentina. However, September 18, 2006, was the second time the father, construction worker, activist and torture survivor was disappeared. Julio Lopez went missing for the first time during Argentina’s 1976-1983 military dictatorship, when he was kidnapped from his home during the night by a commando group, taken to a secret detention center and tortured in several different police barracks that served as clandestine network for disappearing thousands. During his 1976 kidnapping and torture sessions, during which he was tortured with the Picana [electric prod], he met Miguel Etchecolatz, the police chief who coordinated kidnappings and torture in the network of clandestine detention centers in La Plata, 30 miles from Buenos Aires.
Lopez’s testimony during a historic human rights trial in 2006 led to Etchecolatz’s conviction. The police chief was sentenced to life in prison for crimes against humanity and genocide during the dictatorship. Absent from the courtroom following his forced abduction, Julio Lopez missed seeing the face of his torturer, Etchecolatz, dressed in police clothing and a bullet proof vest, kissing a rosary as he was sentenced to life in prison.
Three years after the key witness’s disappearance, thousands marched in Buenos Aires, La Plata and other cities to demand an end to impunity and that Julio Lopez reappear alive. Protestors marched in cold rain and under gray skies, which further clouded remaining hope that Lopez will be found alive. Investigations have led to no answer as to where Lopez could be located, alive or dead. “Three years after the disappearance of Julio Lopez, the investigation into his whereabouts is practically paralyzed,” said Myriam Bergman, attorney who represented Lopez during the trial against Etchecolatz. “We feel as if there’s been an absolute negation of justice.”
Human rights groups presented a formal letter to the Supreme Court accusing authorities of delaying the investigation into Lopez’s forced disappearance. These groups suspect police and court authorities with ties to officials who participated in rights abuses have disrupted the investigation into Lopez’s disappearance. “Three years after the second disappearance of Julio, we have denounced that the investigation has been tied up by corrupt judges and authorities with affinity to impunity for the military,” said Margarita Cruz, torture survivor and human rights activist. “Today, September 18, marking 3 years since Lopez’s disappearance, is a very painful day because once again we are condemned to live with impunity.”
A Legacy of Impunity
Impunity is an all too long living legacy for Argentines. And justice for the crimes committed during the bloody dictatorship has been slow. Immediately following the dictatorship’s end in 1983, several junta leaders were tried and sentenced. However, former President Carlos Menem passed an amnesty law in 1990 that released jailed leaders of the former junta and other military and police jailed for rights abuses. Following the Due Obedience and Full Stop laws, all doors to justice were closed, providing blanket amnesty for officers until 2003 when the Supreme Court cancelled junta pardons. Miguel Etchecolatz was one officer who was formerly pardoned. He had been sentenced to 23 years in prison for 91 cases of torture, but was released when the Due Obedience law went into effect. In the years since the Supreme Court revoked amnesty, ruling that immunity for former officers was unconstitutional, several high profile human rights cases have begun.
The trials were made possible by the work of human rights activists who have endlessly demanded justice for the crimes committed against their loved ones. One such group is HIJOS, ‘Children for Identity and Justice,’ which developed the escrache or “exposure” protest held at the home or workplace of an unpunished criminal, as a method to deliver justice. Eduardo Nachman is a part of HIJOS. “Justice is not only slow, but the courts have organized the trials to take years,” says Nachman. “This favors impunity: the suspects who are not held in jails while awaiting trials can enjoy freedom and the witnesses who must wait to testify are dying before they have information as to the whereabouts of their loved ones and seeing the murderers go to jail.”
CONADEP (The National Commission on the Disappearance of Persons) held an investigation into human rights abuses in 1984. The government gave the commission only 9 months to complete its report about fate of thousands who were forcefully disappeared. CONADEP put together a 50,000 page document, published as an official document Nunca Mas (Never Again). From the testimony of survivors, the document details crimes committed in a network of over 370 clandestine detention centers. Logically, thousands must have been involved in the illegal detention and disappearance of tens of thousands of activists, students and union organizers. “The reports from 25 years ago documents 1,600 repressors involved in crimes. If there were more than 400 clandestine detention centers, each center would have needed many people to operate, so it’s logical to conclude that several thousands were involved,” says Nachman.
Despite concrete evidence concluding that thousands of officers were involved, only 280 are facing trial, and many of those charged with crimes are under house arrest rather than waiting for trial in jail. Only 58 people have been sentenced, most are under house arrest. Three have been pardoned and Hector Febres, who worked at the infamous ESMA Navy Mechanics School, died in his jail cell from cyanide poisoning just days before he was to be sentenced. Rights groups believe that he was murdered so the former officer wouldn’t break a pact of silence and release information as to the whereabouts of children born in captivity and appropriated by military and raised with a false identity. In another case of impunity, Juan Miguel Wolk, who ran the Pozo de Banfield detention center where hundreds perished, lives in a beach home in Mar del Plata. He was sentenced to 25 years in prison but was later pardoned. When judges ordered him to appear in court, following the Supreme Court’s decision, they were informed that he had died. But Wolk, alias “the Nazi” lives pretty well for a dead man in his home, just blocks from his neighbor, Etchocolatz , who recently moved to a jail following his 2006 life sentence according to journalist Roberto Garron from Miradas del Sur newspaper.
The disappearance of Lopez has reopened painful wounds of impunity and fears about the possibility of violent repercussions against survivors and witnesses participating in human rights trials. “Julio Lopez had the courage to identify Etchecolatz as a torturer,” said Nachman. “His disappearance isn’t a coincidence. He was disappeared to scare off and threaten many people who must testify.” Evidence that has surfaced leads to Etchecolatz and his connections with the Buenos Aires provincial police. “When the investigation made progress, all clues led to the provincial police,” says Bergman. At the time of Lopez’s disappearance more than 70 police officers in the ranks of the provincial police served during the dictatorship, many have been “forcefully retired” following pressures from human rights groups. Bergman adds, “There is a lack of political commitment to investigate the police. The investigation was interrupted right after they investigated a doctor with ties to Etchecolatz and detectives found out that Lopez was in his car.” Investigators have gathered evidence from Etchecolatz’s cell in Marcos Paz, where another 100 officers from the dictatorship are under arrest, including notebooks with information about witnesses testifying against him and telephone numbers of members of the police force.
Jose Shulman, a survivor from the Brusa detention center in Santa Fe, said that despite the threats and disappearance of Lopez, none of the 2,500 witnesses have withdrawn their testimony or refused to testify in the human rights trials. He interpreted the threats as a “sign that those dictatorship supporters feel weak from the judicial defeat that they are now facing.”
The slogan “Never Again” was adopted with the hope that Argentina and other countries in the region, including Brazil, Chile and Uruguay, ruled by violent military dictatorships would never repeat that dark chapter in history. Military dictatorships ruled the region in the 70’s under the direction of Operation Condor, a shared regional plan to suppress political activism with support from the US government. Much of the files and top-secret information has yet to be released about the crimes the military coups committed. And, without justice and with outstanding impunity, history is likely to repeat itself. “Without Lopez there can’t be a ‘Never Again,'” writes Ana Maria Careaga, executive director of the Institute for the Space for Memory. For ‘Never Again’ to become a reality, justice must be delivered.
But Julio Lopez is not just a new name inscribed on the doleful roll call of Argentina’s disappeared; he is also a reminder of the crimes against humanity still taking place in the region. Today, Lopez’s disappearance, threats and persecution against activists, an active coup in Honduras, and US military bases in Latin America are chilling reminders that “democracy” in the region has only advanced minimally since the era of bloody military dictatorships.
Marie Trigona is a journalist, radio producer and filmmaker based in Argentina. She can be reach through her blog at http://mujereslibres.blogspot.com/