Long Standing Impunity Challenges Argentina: 4 Years Without Julio Lopez

Julio Lopez

Julio Lopez, Luciano Arruga, Silvia Suppo – three names recently listed the doleful roll call of Argentina’s victims of state repression, a legacy left over from the bloody 1976-1983 military dictatorship.

Julio Lopez, Luciano Arruga, Silvia Suppo – three names recently listed the doleful roll call of Argentina’s victims of state repression, a legacy left over from the bloody 1976-1983 military dictatorship. These three names have left painful reminders of the paradigm of disappearances and how the social stigma of the crimes committed during the dictatorship has scarred Argentina and other nations which survived brutal military dictatorships.

Argentina recently commemorated the four year anniversary of the disappearance of Julio Lopez, to demand that the torture survivor and human rights activist be found alive. After four years of searching, marches, and impunity, the cries for justice and punishment seem to have found no response from an indifferent government which claims to defend human rights. Activists also demanded information on the whereabouts of Luciano Arruga, a 16-year-old who was forcefully disappeared in January, 2009 and investigation into the 2010 murder of Silvia Suppo, a human rights activist and torture survivor testifying in a landmark human rights trial.

4 years without Julio Lopez

Julio Lopez has been titled as the man disappeared twice. He last went missing four years ago on September 18, 2006 in his hometown of La Plata. He was disappeared on the day the that his perpetrator and former police chief Miguel Etchecolatz was sentenced to life in prison for crimes against humanity and genocide. Julio Lopez was absent from the courtroom, to witness the historic moment in the landmark trial having been abducted hours earlier.

Lopez was a key witness in the 2006 human rights trial in which Etchecolatz was found guilty of kidnapping, torture and murder of activists during the military dictatorship. Etchecolatz coordinated kidnappings and torture sessions in a network of clandestine detention centers in La Plata, 30 miles from Buenos Aires. In one of these torture centers, Lopez first met Etchecolatz during his detention from 1976-1979.

Julio Lopez is exactly where the repressors want him, in the abyss of impunity that the military have enjoyed for the past 34 years. Julio Lopez was never able to listen to the sentence of his repressors. He was kidnapped the day before his perpetrator Miguel Etchecolatz was sentenced to life in prison and Lopez became another disappeared.

“The forced disappearance of Lopez is called impunity,” wrote the human rights group HIJOS in a press release on the fourth anniversary of Lopez’s disappearance. Impunity for human rights abuses has been Argentina’s dark legacy. Since 1999, when the human rights trials were closed due to amnesty laws, the human rights group HIJOS went out into the streets and into former military officers’ neighborhoods to let the community know that they were living next to an individual who carried out abuses such as kidnapping, rape, torture and forced disappearances. On the fourth anniversary of Lopez’s disappearance HIJOS reminded the government of the results of letting the military go about their normal lives for more than a decade following the passage of amnesty protecting the military from criminal prosecution.  “It is the consequence of nasty leftovers from the dictatorship which endured in democracy, added to the government’s lack of response to the seriousness of what occurred.”

Result of impunity

Now justice is possible in criminal courts, following the 2003 abolishment of amnesty laws that protected members of the military government from prosecution of human rights abuses. Many members under arrest were released in the 80’s when the amnesty law was passed. This amnesty allowed former armed forces members to maintain power and hold powerful positions such as judges and executives at private security firms. Etchecolatz was one such repressor who was put on trial and sentenced in the 80´s for abuses, specifically for 91 cases of torture, but later released. The former police chief conspired with local policemen to form right-wing, nationalist groups. “It was foreseeable that the repressors would not stand still when their time came to sit on the court room bench and answer to the courts and the Argentine people,” said the group HIJOS.

According to the human rights group CELS, more than 1,500 former members of the armed and security forces are facing charges of human rights abuses during the dictatorship. However, only 81 people have received sentences.

Meanwhile, the investigation into the disappearance of Julio Lopez has reached  a deadlock. The government waited 19 months to consider Julio Lopez a case of forced disappearance. Authorities have also delayed investigation into communication to and from the Marcos Paz jail, where more than 40 repressors are currently under arrest and held under the same roof with the liberty to communicate with one another.

“It’s a combination of lack of response, complicity and covering up,” said Adriana Calvo at the march for Julio Lopez. No one has been investigated much less detained in the police investigation of the disappearance of Julio Lopez.

Witness Safety

“Lopez reminds us that the repressive apparatus has not been dismantled and the trials progress but witnesses and survivors testifying are in danger,” said Adriana Meyer, a journalist for the national newspaper Página/12. However, the government and the media have left the issue of witness safety from public spotlight.

The recent murder of Silvia Suppo, a key witness in a human rights trial on crimes committed during the Argentine dictatorship, has sparked fears for the safety of witnesses who testify publicly in the cases. Suppo, a torture survivor, was stabbed to death on March 29 at her crafts shop in the province of Santa Fe in an alleged robbery. In 2009, Suppo testified in a human rights trial against a former judge for his role in abuses during the dictatorship. Human Rights groups suspect that Suppo was killed to send a message to those still willing to testify as human rights trials progress.

For survivors there is a way to guarantee witnesses safety, for the trials to progress and for all of the repressors. “witness protection program is a mess. Witnesses in a human rights trial in La Plata have received isolated threats.,” said Carlos Zaidman, a torture survivor.  “We believe that the only way to protect witnesses is for all of the repressors to be jailed. This has made is doubly important to testify. They haven’t stopped the struggle by disappearing 30,000 compañeros or by disappearing Lopez.”

Silence is impunity

For a democracy to flourish, impunity must end. While Argentina’s government has taken the lead in supporting efforts to try former military and police for rights abuses carried out during the junta years, justice has been slow. And the issue of Julio Lopez has entered an abyss of silence from the media and president.

Lopez’s family sent a letter to the president asking her to push for the investigation into the disappearance of Lopez so that the man who disappeared without a trace twice in his life doesn’t “become the first disappeared in democracy.”

This request has come too late as Argentina has a number of disappeared and thousands of victims of a state repressive apparatus still in tact. Julio Lopez, Miguel Bru and Luciano Arruga are just three of these disappeared in democracy. For democracy to avoid being disappeared, state repression must be abolished.

Julio Lopez presente!

Marie Trigona is an independent writer and radio producer based in Argentina. She can be reached through her blog www.mujereslibres.blogspot.com