“One thing that has struck me as much as the shocking disappearance of López is the shocking disappearance of the story from the newspapers,” said Carlos Gonzalez earlier this month.
Gonzalez, an official from the Human Rights department of the Argentine government, was referring to the disappearance of Jorge Julio López, a former political prisoner last seen on 18th September in La Plata.
López had been a key witness during the trial of Miguel Etchecolatz, a former police chief who stood accused of human rights abuses during the last dictatorship. Just days before the trial concluded, López vanished from his bed during the night and has not been seen or heard from since. Etchecolatz has since been sentenced to life imprisonment.
The disappearance has reawakened memories of the ‘Dirty War’ from 1976-83 in which up to 30,000 people were ‘disappeared’, often tortured by the police or military before being killed.
López’s vanishing is part of a series of incidents of witness intimidation. This is made more worrying by the fact that around 1,000 people nationwide are ready to testify in some 900 trials against security forces and government officials who were working during the 1970s. Human rights groups fear many may now shy away from the witness stand.
President Kirchner has been spurred into action by these recent events and is currently trying to push through a bill, which has been in Congress for two years, to extend the witness protection programme to human rights cases as well.
Under the current system, however, the idea of witness protection is bordering on absurd, as the witnesses will be ‘protected’ by the very people who perpetrated the crimes against them 30 years ago.
In fact Buenos Aires governor Felipe Solá even admitted that several provincial police might be connected to the disappearance of López. After that comment, on 26th September, he went on to retire 60 officers who had operated in clandestine detention centres during the dictatorship, and who were still actively working within the police force.
However some 70 officers remain active according to Buenos Aires security minister, León Carlos Arslanián, although he added ‘they were only 20 years old during the military dictatorship’.
The problem is not only that the officers were still active, (although if they are connected to the intimidation then this clearly is a problem), but that this new wave of terrorising witnesses seems to be occurring nationwide.
Guillermo Díaz Martínez, a lawyer and head of the Human Right’s Commission of the Catamarca Colegio de Abogados, confirmed that many of his clients in the north of Argentina who are due to stand as witnesses in local trials have received death threats.
So why has the government been so slow to take up the cause of witness protection?
Amnesty for officers was lifted more than a year ago, and the first trial began in June this year, so the government would have had more than enough time to push through the bill extending protection of witnesses to human rights trials.
Additionally, a year ago Argentina was one of 11 countries to attend the first UN Central and Latin American Witness Protection Conference, in Mexico.
This was followed by another conference in July this year in Santiago, Chile where witness protection was also a key theme. The first International Association of Prosecutors’ regional conference analysed how the modernisation of the justice systems since the 1980s in many Latin American countries has led to an increase in public trials with an accent on witness testimony. However, there remained a lamentably low level of protection for those individuals called to testify, something which was in increasing need.
All of these moves are very positive, and even talking about such things on an international level would have been unheard of 30 years ago. But it seems like in Argentina, both the government and the press, have been slow to take up the initiative to move things forward.
Why has it taken a witness to disappear for the Kirchner administration to push through a bill which has been kicking around Congress for two years?
And where has the Argentine press’ sense of integrity gone? Human rights organisations shouldn’t be the only ones still talking about the disappearance of López, and when they do their voices should be heard. Even after the press conference hosted by Carlos Gonzalez there was a shocking lack of media coverage for such ‘old news’.