Monday, April 02, 2007

Argentina: Thirty-One Years After Coup, Disappearances and Terror Back on the Streets

Toward Freedom
Written by Marie Trigona
Thursday, 29 March 2007
ImageArgentina marked the 31st anniversary of the nation's 1976 military coup on March 24 with a series of marches to commemorate 30,000 disappeared during the so-called dirty war. As the perpetrators face trial 31 years on, key witnesses are disappearing and terror is back on the streets. In the face of threats and attacks, demonstrators demanded an end to impunity for military personnel who served in the 1976-1983 dictatorship.

Rights representatives have expressed immediate concerns over Julio Lopez; a new name that has been inscribed on the doleful roll call of Argentina's disappeared. Human rights groups in Argentina report that the trials to convict former members of the military dictatorship for human rights abuses have been put on hold and that the wave of threats against witnesses continues.

Legacy of fighting for human rights

The Mothers of Plaza de Mayo held their weekly Thursday vigil in the plaza where they have met for 30 years to demand information on the whereabouts of their children who were kidnapped and later murdered, but whose bodies have never been found.

Mercedes Meroño, whose daughter was disappeared in 1978 said that the Mothers of Plaza de Mayo have gathered the strength to fight from their children. "After 30 years of struggle in the plaza and 31 after the dictatorship, we defeated the dictators with a struggle that we never abandoned, because we support the revolutionary struggle of our children. We continue to say that we were born out of our children’s fight, because before we didn’t know anything about this. For love we went out into the streets."

ImageDuring the Mothers’ 29 years of struggle they have endured physical attacks and endless threats. Three of the founding members were disappeared and murdered following the infiltration by Adolfo Astiz, a military officer, in 1977. Astiz, like many other former military leaders have been charged with human rights abuses, but has never been sentenced for his crimes. Astiz is facing trial for the 1977 disappearances of French nuns Alice Domon and Léonie Duque and a dozen other people, including Azucena Villaflor, the founder of Mothers of Plaza de Mayo.

Meroño, now 82 years old, says that the Mothers will continue to fight until ex-military leaders are convicted and put behind bars for human rights crimes "At 31 years since Argentina's worst military coup, what we want is peace, love and solidarity. And those of us who fight for those words are triumphant. The evil people, the murderers, those who threw young people alive into the sea, tortured and raped: all of them are hidden in their homes like cowards. We want for them to be put in jail just like any other murderer and to be placed in common jails."

Today’s terror and impunity

Right across from the Plaza de Mayo on March 22, a delegation from the group called Space for Memory, Truth and Justice presented a report of over 200 cases of recent attacks and threats against human rights activists. Police barricades blocked the delegation two blocks from the Interior Ministry.

Carlos Leiva is an activist from an unemployed workers organization Frente Dario Santillan. Speaking at the Interior Ministry, Leiva describes his kidnapping that occurred earlier this month. "On Friday, March 2, I was on my way to a movement meeting. A car stopped in front of me and two people who came from behind forced me into the car. They took me to an abandoned warehouse. I was held there for 6 or 7 hours while they threatened me a lot and asked personal questions and questions about our movement. The moment came when they had orders from a superior and they simulated shooting me."

ImageLeiva has identified his perpetrators as civil police who harassed him at a previous protest and says that authorities haven’t carried out an investigation since his kidnapping. "Every year the point is to go out and say we don't forget. During the dictatorship they disappeared an entire generation that thought, that could speak out. Today we are trying to fight for a better future in our organizations and the police are trying to fill organizations with fear. The clearest case is they disappeared Julio Lopez and he hasn’t turned up."

Human rights trials paralyzed

Argentina’s federal courts have virtually paralyzed upcoming human rights trials six months after the disappearance of Julio Lopez — a key witness who helped convict a former police officer for life. Lopez went missing September 18, the eve of the landmark conviction of Miguel Etchecolatz, the first military officer to be tried for crimes against humanity and genocide.

ImageIn his testimony, Lopez said that Etchecolatz tortured him during his detention from 1976-1979. Testifying before a court in La Plata, Lopez described the prolonged bouts of interrogation under Etchecolatz’s supervision. "I even thought that one day I find Etchecolatz, I am going to kill him. And then I thought, well, if I kill him I’ll just be killing a piece of garbage, a serial killer who didn’t have compassion." He said that the police chief would personally kick detainees until they were unconscious and oversee torture sessions.

Etchecolatz's sentence for crimes against humanity, genocide, and the murder and torture of political dissidents during the dictatorship represents the first time in the nation's history that the courts have sentenced a military officer to life for crimes against humanity.

This is only the second conviction of a former military officer charged with human rights abuses since 2005 when Argentina's Supreme Court struck down immunity laws for former officers of the military dictatorship as unconstitutional. Etchecolatz was arrested and sentenced to 23 years in 1986, but was later freed when the "full stop" and "due obedience" laws implemented in the early '90s made successful prosecution of ex-military leaders for human rights abuses virtually impossible.

In total, 256 former military personnel and members of the military government have been accused of human rights crimes and are now awaiting trial. However, this adds up to less than one ex-military officer for each of the country’s 375 clandestine detention centers that were used to torture and forcefully disappear 30,000 people. Aside from numbers, human rights representatives report that the trials are advancing at a snails pace, if advancing at all. Victims blame an inefficient court system filled with structural bureaucratic roadblocks and uncooperative judges.

Some trials have been delayed more than three years. President Nestor Kirchner, under pressure from human rights groups, addressed the issue publicly at the government’s official rally to commemorate March 24. He pleaded with the judicial system to speed up the trials but did not sanction any order or take any other action. Recently, 61 plaintiffs (mostly torture survivors) publicly accused four Magistrate Council members for deliberately obstructing the cases to try ex-military leaders for state supported terrorism. The council president, Alfredo Bisordi, has been investigated by the Magistrates Association for openly supporting the dictatorship and amnesty for human rights abusers. Human rights groups want Bisordi and the other three council members to be removed from their positions.

ImageGroups worry that judicial roadblocks and an atmosphere of fear may provide former members of the military dictatorship a window to escape conviction. Patricia Isasa, a former political prisoner and torture survivor is leading a case against 9 of her perpetrators in the province of Santa Fe. Currently, she is in a witness protection program after receiving threatening phone calls.

She says that many of the witnesses have dropped out of the trials since the wave of threats began: "The cases are clearly paralyzed. Before the kidnapping of Lopez I had a set date for the trial. The trial has been moved forward to no less than a year from now." Several judges have been threatened and are in police protection programs. In other cases, victims have reported that judges have ties to the military dictatorship. Isasa has made public complaints that her court case is being held up by a court with ties to one of her perpetrators, Victor Brusa, an interrogator in the concentration camps that later became a federal judge. Brusa served as a judge until he was put under house arrest thanks to Isasa’s efforts.

For Isasa, survivors deserve a quota of justice after 31 years of injustice and impunity. "The court delay means a year of impunity, a year of shame, a year of being a witness whose life is in danger. When can I have a sense of peace? When these people have a firm sentence in jail and deactivated as much as possible. Now, please don't put them in the same place!"

In recent months Human rights organizations have faced unrelenting threats in phone calls and emails defending crimes committed during the dictatorship. HIJOS, - an organization of children of the disappeared is one of those groups. Ramiro Gonzalez, son of a woman who was disappeared and member of HIJOS, was forced into an unmarked car by four men on October 4, who beat him while showing him pictures of activists and asking for their names.

ImageAccording to Gonzalez, many of the phone calls have been tracked to the federal prison where Etchecolatz and another 100 military officers are imprisoned. "We are continuing to receive phone calls from the federal penitentiary," says Gonzalez. "Everything is on hold, now that there are trials being held nationwide. Many of the witnesses don't want to take part in the prosecution out of fear, because the threats continue."

He adds that although HIJOS is on alert, they are continuing to fight for justice for their parent’s deaths during the military dictatorship. "We at HIJOS are particularly worried because we feel that we are an easy target. Many of our comrades are getting psychological help for the threats and some of us are truly afraid. But we are clear that we aren't going to abandon the struggle!"

With Julio Lopez missing for more than six months, it is almost certain that he is dead. His capturers are using his body as a negotiating tool to protect military personnel from any further criminal charges or trials. The political implications of Lopez’s disappearance has led to a virtual paralysis in the upcoming trials that human rights groups were promised when the Supreme Court overturned the amnesty laws that protected former military officers who served during the dictatorship.

Marie Trigona is a journalist and radio producer based in Buenos Aires. She can be reached at mtrigona@msn.com Visit http://mujereslibres.blogspot.com/ for more information on the human rights trials.

12 comments:

sonia said...

The Argentinian junta dictatorship in 1976-82 was the closest Latin America ever came in replicating Nazi ideology and methods.

And this dictatorship only fell because one remarkable woman decided to stand up to it and fight against it.

But she fought alone. Most of Western democracies stayed neutral. And all Communist countries actively supported the Argentinian junta, both morally and financially. Ironically, Pinochet's Chile was the only country in Latin America to denounce Argentina and to side with Britain in that war.

Aaron A. said...

Great Article,

I learned a lot, which is often hard living in the United States of Ignorance.

Renegade Eye said...

Sonia: You forgot to mention Reagen's reluctance to support overthrowing the junta.
"I sent a message to President Reagan urging the US to take effective economic measures but they were not prepared to do this. They had stopped arms sales. But they would not 'tilt' too heavily against Argentina. To do so would deprive them of influence in Buenos Aires. They did not want Galtieri to fall and so wanted a solution that would save his face." (Margaret Thatcher, The Times, March 11, 2002)

There was not one single Falkland Islander who was Argentinian. Self determination is about people, not nations. If Argentina won the war, the Falklands would have been under the dictatorship.

Thatcher did not become involved in the war to overthrow the junta for democracy. The junta miscalculated the response of the UK.

The left was wrong on that issue except for Trotskyist Ted Grant. See Ted Grant.

The Falkland crisis was started by the junta, to divert from struggle against the junta that was going on within Argentina. I'm sure Marie can say more.

Graeme said...

just to make clear, Pinochet was in a conflict with Chile over the Beagle Channel. He backed the Brits because of self-interest. Of course, him and Thacther were remarkably like-minded, so he may have backed the Brits anyway.

Marie Trigona said...

Pinochet's Chile aided and actively participated with Argentina to coordinate Operation Condor, a shared plan by regional dictators in Uruguay, Chile, Paraguay, Brazil and Argentina to kill opponents in the 1970s and 80s. Chile helped to disappear Argentines, Uruguayans, Brazilians and Uruguayans. And Argentines helped to disappear Chileans, Paraguayans, Brazilians and Uruguayans. The CIA also supported this plan.

The military coup took power at exactly 3:20 a.m. on March 24, 1976. The military dictatorship immediately released an ultimatum warning that if military or civil police witnessed any suspicious subversive activity they would administer the “shoot to kill” policy. In the days leading up to the coup, representatives from the Catholic Church met with leaders of Argentina's armed forced and witnesses report they left each of these meetings smiling. Two days after the coup then-U.S. Secretary Henry Kissinger ordered his subordinates to “encourage” the new regime by providing financial support, according to newly declassified U.S. cables and transcripts relating to the coup. Washington approved $50 million in military aid to the junta the following month. During Jorge Rafael Videla's official visit to Washington in 1977 President Jimmy Carter expressed his hope for Argentina's military government. Kissinger said in a television interview “Videla is an intelligent man doing the best for his nation.”


I doubt that Pinochet sided with Britain out of a moral commitment, but out of economic interests. The Malvinas war for Argentine soliders was brutal. It was a propoganda plan set up by Galtieri, Argentina's dictator at the time. Argentine soldiers were sent to parish. They did not have sufficient equipment, what equipment they did have didn't work. Lietenants and Chiefs would literally steal soldiers' food, making them starve nearly to death.

The Argentine dictatorship fell apart on its own. But they had to disappear 30,000 people to sustain the military dictatorship. However, thousands risked their lives to speak out against the military dictatorship and state terrorism put into practice during the regime.

Pseudo-Independence? said...

I am nonplussed and dismayed. Nonplussed that the government and the people should have proved so effective in preventing this development. Dismayed that steps should have been taken to prevent this situation from occurring.

Argentina is a complex country and I think this development is a matter of self-determination for its people.

This post warrants some serious reading.

adarna said...

here in the philippines, forced disappearances (desaparacidos) are still rampant and unsolved. two of my former colleagues in the university, karen and she (remember them, ren?) remain missing to this day.

worse, some desaparacidos are gradually surfacing now -- either as military elements or as skeletons in alleged New People's Army mass graves, both being used to falsely accuse leaders of the legitimate opposition of multiple murder, subversion, 'terrorist acts'.

ella said...

just wanted to say thanks for always reading my blog! I will catch up with yours over the Summer when I am in Alaska--

Best,
ELLA

troutsky said...

I am reading a book called Horizontalism by another Marie but it is about Argentina in the present. I keep thinking, what a divergent society, some people so right-wing, others so ready for change! What class of people sends their children to the military? How are such repressive forces able to gain support? It is obviously a society affected by many different forces.

adarna said...

hi again ren,

left you a message in my comment page. my reply to your inquiry :-)

Larry Gambone said...

I find it terrible that the terror is still going on. Good article and blog, by the way

VUONG said...

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