Longstanding Impunity Challenges Argentina: 4 Years Without Julio Lopez

Julio Lopez

by Marie Trigona

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 of how the social stigma of the crimes committed during the dictatorship has scarred Argentina and other nations which survived brutal military dictatorships.

Argentines recently commemorated the four-year anniversary of the disappearance of Julio Lopez with a 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 called for an 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 that his perpetrator and former police chief Miguel Etchecolatz was sentenced to life in prison for crimes against humanity and genocide. Lopez was absent from the courtroom and unable to witness the historic moment, having been abducted hours earlier.

Lopez was a key witness in the 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. Lopez was detained from 1976-79 and first met Etchecolatz in one of these torture centers.

Julio Lopez is exactly where the repressors want him, in the abyss of impunity that the military have enjoyed for the past 34 years. “The forced disappearance of Lopez is called impunity,” according to a press release from HIJOS, the human rights group which following the Argentine amnesty laws of 1999 went out into the streets and into former military officers’ neighborhoods to let the community know that they were living among individuals who had carried out abuses such as kidnapping, rape, and torture.

Result of impunity

Justice is now possible in criminal courts, following the abolishment of amnesty laws that protected members of the military government from prosecution for human rights abuses and permitted former members of the armed forces to remain in positions of power, including in the national judicial system and at private security firms. Etchecolatz in particular was put on trial and sentenced in the 1980s for 91 cases of torture, but was later released. The former police chief conspired with local policemen to form right-wing, nationalist groups.

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 it a case of forced disappearance. Authorities have also delayed investigation into communications 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 supposed investigation.

Witness Safety

“Lopez reminds us that the repressive apparatus has not been dismantled and that 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 kept the issue of witness safety out of the 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.

“The 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 it 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 drawn silence from the media and President Cristina Kirchner.

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.”

Marie Trigona is an independent writer and radio producer based in Argentina. She can be reached through her blog www.mujereslibres.blogspot.com. A version of this article first appeared at UpsideDownWorld.

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