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

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 Visit for more information on the human rights trials.