Five years ago, on 18th September 2006, a bricklayer named Jorge Julio López, aged 76, left his home on his way to the tribunal courts of La Plata, where Miguel Etchecolatz, ex-director general of police investigations for Buenos Aires province during the last military dictatorship (1976-83), was due to be tried. López greeted a neighbour and continued walking as friends were waiting for him at the courthouse. He never arrived.
His disappearance on any other day might have been chalked up to his age, to his health, to delinquency, or the quirks of fate. But López was not just any bricklayer; he was a key witness for the prosecution against Etchecolatz, having been tortured by him personally and seen him execute at least five people from 1976 to 1979, at which time he was released. Despite the unexpected absence of López during the trial, his filed declarations were heard and Etchecolatz was condemned to life in prison for the murders of six people (those which López could identify and for which there was evidence) as well as eight counts of kidnapping and torture, including that of López himself.
López, however, remains missing to this day. His disappearance can only be interpreted as a political move, an expression of power by the military-police state that terrorisedArgentinaduring most of the 1970s and 80s, and which, evidently, is still alive and kicking. How was such a disappearance possible more than 20 years after the restoration of democracy?
According to an article in national daily Clarín at the time, during the week following López’ disappearance, the governor of Buenos Aires province, Felipe Solá, had not discarded the possibility that the ‘Bonaerenses’ (the provincial police force) were involved. Days later, the same newspaper reported that the provincial minister for security, León Arslanián, had either retired or suspended 36 officers linked to black-ops task forces in clandestine centres during the last dictatorship, including six that worked in Commissary 5, where López was illegally held in 1976.
Finally, in 2010, charges were levied against officers for López’ disappearance, including Oscar Raul Quijano for illegal arms possession and trafficking. Quijano had been identified in a photo standing close to López near Chicha Mariani’s home in 2006. Mariani is one of the founding members of the Abuelas de Plaza de Mayo, and one of the main witnesses against certain members of the military and police force, including Etchecolatz, and hence, an important rallying figure for those who opposed the de facto government.
In addition, former police doctor, Carlos Osvaldo Falcone, was indicted upon testimony of an unidentified witness who claimed that Falcone’s automobile was the one used to kidnap López. Falcone had visited Etchecolatz twice in his cell prior to López’ disappearance, at Etchecolatz’ express wish, and his name figures prominently on Etchecolatz’ agenda for the days before, during, and after López vanished.
It comes as no surprise that the police force of Buenos Aires province, famous for its bloodthirsty cruelty and indifference under Etchecolatz’ leadership, should be incriminated for the disappearance of López. Possible motives for the crime include: loyalty to their captain, a lingering hope that the failing military de facto regime would return to power, a cultivated or natural taste for violence, and their status as accomplices to genocide.
As Néstor Kirchner’s fledgling government struggled to repeal the gag laws that were passed immediately following the collapse of the military junta, those elements of society that were being repudiated and condemned desperately tried to reassert their strength. Although subsequent witness protection programmes were installed after the López incident, witnesses were hesitant to accept police protection, and it is easy to see why: according to Amerigo Incalcaterra, UN High Commissioner for Human Rights, South America: “When the State employs the same structures and agents that committed or allowed human rights violations, [witness protection programmes] don’t work.”
Until recently, it was common to see police vehicles in Buenos Aires province with an image of López stuck to one of the rear windows with a reward notice posted over the photo. Far from consoling the general public and instilling a sense of purpose and activity in the investigation, this particular image has been interpreted as a challenge from the police, a reminder to all of the power they wield and the impunity they enjoy.
The trio of so called ‘impunity laws’ passed between 1986 and 1990 under ex-presidents Raul Alfonsín (Final Point and Due Obedience) and Carlos Menem (presidential reprieves), legally pardoned the military and police repressors, setting the criminals back on the streets and surprising international human rights groups by effectively repealing the antecedents established by the Nuremberg trials after World War II.
The impact these gag laws had on Argentine society cannot be underestimated; suddenly it was alright for renowned war criminals to go about their lives freely, unpunished for the horrific emotional and economic damage done to this society and nation.
Neither were the military repressors willing to repent. Alfredo Astiz, member of the Armed Forces who infiltrated the Mothers of the Plaza de Mayo and made declarations that led to the deaths of several harmless women searching for their missing children, boasted to the magazine Trespuntos in 1998: “I’m the best man in the country, technically speaking, for killing a politician or a journalist…because journalists now say that there weren’t any subversives.
“They have to watch out for themselves; it’s going to go ill for them. Don’t push us, because I don’t know how we’re going to react. They’re playing with fire…There are 500,000 men in the Armed Forces technically prepared to kill, and I’m the best out of all of them. They always come to me and I always tell them the same thing: Relax, we have to wait, this has happened in every country. But I don’t know how long I can keep them back.”
Astiz, nicknamed ‘the blonde angel of death’, was one of the first to be formally accused for crimes against humanity in 2005. He was put in prison to prevent him fleeing the country and in 2007 was finally convicted for murdering an unarmed adolescent girl and assisting in the disappearance of two French nuns.
The same Miguel Etchecolatz during the years of impunity published a book entitled, ‘La otra campaña de Nunca Mas’ (The Other Campaign of Never Again), appearing on national television and newspaper interviews to promote his ideas. He assured that the only thing he did was “combat the Marxist subversion, the diabolical enemy…when they ordered me to assume responsibility against the terrorist organisations, I confess that I felt honoured to have been chosen. The position allowed me to do something for my country, for the millions of Argentines that don’t want to live with those assassins.”
His misplaced sense of duty led him to believe that these attacks on civilians—men, women and children, many times breaking into homes at night and dragging the ‘suspects’ to clandestine areas to be tortured, raped, and often murdered —qualify as ‘combat’. In his book he boasts: “I never had what I could call a guilty conscience…for having killed? I executed a law written by men. I was a guardian of divine principles. For both reasons, I would do it all again, giving it all I’ve got.”
During a televised interview in a programme called ‘Hora clave’ (Crucial Hour), he summoned one of his previous victims, politician Alfredo Bravo, and suggested that Bravo’s account of having suffered torture at his hands was false. Then contradicting himself he eerily went on to say that what he did to Bravo would have been beneficial to him: “He had flat feet and warts from childhood; the treatment that we gave him would have cured him.”
Bravo sued Etchecolatz for libel, and won his case. In the judges’ summing up, they affirmed that Etchecolatz’ book “damaged the public peace [by] trying to provoke fear through public praise for genocide”. The judges claimed that on repudiating the movement Nunca Mas, Etchecolatz was declaring that the Armed Forces should not be criticised, judged, nor punished for their excesses. That is, “he proudly presumes that such behaviour is justified and this constitutes an apologetic, because it defends, approves, and exalts criminal deeds.”
For this incident, Etchecolatz was given a suspended sentence of three years in prison, and obligatory attendance at a class on human rights; he was also urged to stop drinking alcohol and to seek psychiatric treatment. He faced the courts another time, this time for brandishing a gun and threatening to kill four female students who had heckled him on the street.
On 14th June 2005, a full 20 years after the junta’s fall, the Supreme Court declared the impunity laws to be unconstitutional due to the genocidal nature of the crimes committed by the State during the dictatorship. The trial against Etchecolatz was only the second to be brought against former repressors after the Court’s declaration, and after López’ disappearance, it became clear that the former power mongers were not going to go down without a struggle, especially after so many years running the show. Nonetheless since this time, a total of 1,763 individuals have been implicated or tried for crimes against humanity, of which 198 have been condemned, and 426 are being held in prison during proceedings, according to the Centre for Social and Legal Studies (CELS).
Although a great number of these criminals (282) have died before or since being accused, and many are too old, too ill, or unfit to stand trial (18), it would appear that the long arm of the law is finally catching up to them. The latest of these trials, presently being held in La Plata, where Lopez was due to testify five years ago, involves over 500 witnesses on behalf of 281 victims (among which can be numbered minors and pregnant women), against 26 defendants, among which is the same Etchecolatz. López, in spite of his long absence, will be present again as his filmed testimony will be viewed during the public trial.
30,000 Missing + 1
Human rights organizations estimate that 30,000 people were ‘disappeared’ during the de facto military government from 1976-83. Nonetheless, CELS in its 2007 Report on Human Rights affirms that “there is an enormous difference between the forced disappearances of persons during the dictatorship” while “López’ disappearance is linked to the advances of justice.”
Leon Rozitchner, former professor of Social Sciences at the University of Buenos Aires (UBA), believed that López’ kidnapping is an incentive “to make justice more profound.” However, in an article published in Puentes in 2006, Rozitchner states that those who “erased López’ existence” have changed their way of committing genocide. During their time in power, their faces and names were known; now they are invisible and the effects of their unnamed presence has become something much more insidious.
Rozitchner goes on: “They want to tell us…that they are present even though no one knows who they are, nor how they survive…the threat they represent is placed with greater slyness in the underground and margins of the State…They want us to know that now, even though they have no face, they have not disappeared…they survive in a different form than we knew before, but the effects of their threats and their power are waiting in ambush again…this is their objective: renew in each citizen, as it was before during the dictatorship, the immobility of death.”
Nonetheless, as CELS points out: “López’ disappearance made evident the lack of governmental foresight with regards to the possible consequences of re-opening the trials. It also underlined the lack of precaution and absence of intelligence gathering in order to prevent criminal groups capable of putting the trials at risk… The circumstances would be very different if the Armed Forces, the police, and the intelligence community connected to human rights violations during the dictatorship or after had been separated.”
In effect, the search for López has been ‘paralysed’ for more than two years. The reward for information has increased from $200,000 to $1million over these past five years, and still there is no news. In 2008, it was reported that he had been allegedly sighted passing into Paraguay days after his initial disappearance. Later the information was attributed to a technological glitch. Earlier this year, a witness, loathe to declare before a judge, was able to go on television and declare that López’ body was buried somewhere in Pereyra Iraola train station. After a huge media follow-up, it was determined that the ‘witness’ was unreliable.
Barring the aforementioned ‘tip’, there has been no new information regarding the location of López or his (presumed) remains. The weekly lampoon, Barcelona, has published in every edition since 2006 a list of everything that has been done that week to find him. The list is comical because it underlines the lack of action and/or information regarding this coldest of cases. Sadly, it does not exaggerate, converting what could be comic fiction into truthful tragedy. Not only López is missing; those responsible for his disappearance are too.
CELS recommends that to guarantee continuity for the judicial processes of the nation, it is imperative that the authorities “investigate and punish those responsible for Jorge Julio López’ disappearance.” Or as Mariana Paz de Marco, daughter of Patricia dell’Orto and Ambrosio de Marco, a couple executed in front of López in 1976, expresses: “I can’t help but feel in debt to him. I wish I could run out and look under every stone until I found Jorge Julio López.”