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Where is Julio Lopez?

Argentina's Dirty War saw the country's right wing junta torture and murder 30,000 of its opponents.

Julio Lopez may have counted himself lucky to be released from a secret Argentine detention centre in 1979 suffering only bruises, given an estimated 30,000 of his compatriots would never be seen again. As he later gave evidence in the trial of one of his oppressors, he couldn’t possibly have imagined he might yet suffer a similar fate. He was wrong.

If Lopez’s sudden disappearance during that trial suggested Argentina still had some way to go to finally exorcise the ghosts of its violent past, over two years of botched attempts to find him have confirmed it. Major marches and protests last month brought renewed attention to the cause. However they have failed to spur on the investigation, which if anything is going backwards.

Lopez’s testimony helped ensure the conviction of Miguel Etchecolatz, a retired police chief responsible for illegal detention centres in Buenos Aires province during the dictatorship. In one of the first trials for human rights abuses since amnesty laws were repealed in 2005, Etchecolatz had been charged with involvement in six murders plus two cases of kidnap and torture. One of those two still alive to tell the tale was Julio Lopez.

In court he described the violence meted out daily both to him and other prisoners, but he would never see justice done. The retired bricklayer vanished on 18th September 2006, the day before Etchecolatz was sentenced to life imprisonment. It gives him the dubious distinction of being the first Argentine ‘disappeared’ since the return of democracy.

The official reaction was not initially one of concern. They said he was old, he had probably suffered from traumatic shock and wandered off lost, that he could be in hospital somewhere or that he had gone into hiding for fear of retribution. Human rights organisations were more suspicious.

“For us, we said from the first day he was kidnapped by members of the Buenos Aires provincial police with connections to Etchecolatz,” says Adriana Calvo of the ex-Detainees Association. “Not just them, there are certainly others involved, but they are responsible.”

And while it also acted as a warning to other witnesses, she believes there was a reason why the Etchecolatz trial held a particular importance for Lopez’s kidnappers. In the verdict, the judge recognised for the first time that there was a planned genocide in Argentina. “What they did was to leave a message showing where the limit was – don’t go any further with this idea of genocide – because that put in danger everyone who participated in the repression.”

Despite various theories, anonymous tip-offs and offers of rewards, the investigation has not progressed significantly. Earlier lines of enquiry have been abandoned, including that Lopez crossed the border into Paraguay following his disappearance, or that his body would be found dumped in a local stream. The stream was later dredged to reveal nothing. Most recently the police announced they wanted to investigate Lopez himself, a request which Arnaldo Corazza, the federal judge charged with the case, last week refused. Human rights groups feared using criminal profiling techniques would suggest Lopez was at fault and focusing on him would take the investigation back to square one.

The Centre of Legal and Social Studies (CELS) monitors human rights in Argentina and has largely praised the current government’s record. However they feel in this case much more could and should have been done. “As much the government as the investigating institutions have taken measures,” confirms Gaston Chillier, executive director of CELS. “But as long as there aren’t any results, those measures aren’t sufficient.”

Calvo, who also spent time in one of Etchecolatz’s prisons, is more sceptical about the lack of progress. With serving officers as well as former members of the police potentially implicated, it is a sensitive area for the government. She thinks there was a political arrangement with the security forces that the culprits would never be found.

“Since then, they’ve been putting spokes in the wheel of the investigation,” she says. “They’ve ruined clues and evidence, abandoned some lines of investigation and then followed others that were clearly going nowhere.” Human rights groups are now calling for an independent investigation, free of political intervention.

What happened to Julio Lopez is not an isolated incident. Chillier says the case exposes a major shortcoming of the trials and he highlights a need for better witness protection as one of the major concerns of CELS. Threats are commonplace and two more people have since been kidnapped, although both reappeared within days. The most recent was torture survivor and rights activist, Juan Puthod. He had already received threatening calls at his home before, on 29th April, spending 28 hours as captive of still unknown assailants.

The day after his release he described what happened after he had been bundled into a car at gunpoint. “I feared it would end with a bullet in the head,” he said. Blindfolded, and with wrists bound, he had been warned: “You didn’t understand the telephone messages we left for you. You live or you die as we decide; your life is still in our hands.” After questions and threats, punctuated by silence, they eventually explained he was being released because they didn’t want another Lopez; they didn’t want to make him a martyr.

According to Chillier, the weak reaction of the state has only encouraged such acts of intimidation. “There is probably a group operating that is responsible for the kidnapping of Lopez, as well as other actions such as threats to witnesses, lawyers, prosecutors,” he says. “These groups aren’t very well developed but, most seriously, they are allowed to operate because the state hasn’t given a satisfactory response.”

Two years on from Lopez’s disappearance, protestors marched in the cities of Buenos Aires and La Plata to demand action to find him. “And what about Julio Lopez?” questioned banners bearing his silhouette. He exists in that same void as 30,000 Argentines before him. Not definitively dead or alive, simply ‘disappeared’. Like them, he leaves more questions than answers. Like them, he is not forgotten.

Getty/Julia Rampen
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View from Paisley: How the Conservatives are wooing Labour's Scottish heartlands

Not so long ago, Conservative activists in Paisley could expect doors slammed in their faces. A referendum has changed that.

Tony Lawler, a Labour activist, was recently knocking on doors in the Scottish town of Paisley, when he came across a disgruntled resident. “I’m really disappointed in Douglas Alexander,” the potential voter complained. “I haven’t seen him. He used to be in Morrisons.”

Douglas Alexander, of course, has gone. He was the longstanding Labour MP and onetime International Development secretary who lost his seat in 2015 to a 20-year-old rival, the Scottish National Party’s Mhairi Black. He does not plan to stand again. But when I visit Paisley, a short train ride from Glasgow, I find that memories of him linger on. 

Two years after Alexander’s defeat, I meet Lawler and other local Labour activists in Morrisons, where Alexander used to hold his surgeries. As checkouts beep and trolley wheels roll over linoleum, they point to an empty table in the corner of this hallowed ground: “He used to sit just there.”

In 2015, the SNP’s victory in this former manufacturing town seemed to epitomise the earthquake in Scottish politics. But as the Labour activists know too well, no political fortress is undefeatable. And in Paisley, the home of one of the oldest workers’ festivals in the world, the party with the most to gain is one that previously never dared to canvass in the high street – the Conservative party. 

The town the Brexiteers forgot

In 1988, the historian Sylvia Clarke reflected on Paisley’s lost industries, wondering what was next for the former weaving towns. “Paisley as a tourist centre?” she wondered, in Paisley: A History. “Paisley as a place for visitors to come to, rather than a send-out of goods and emigrants?” 

For all Paisley’s industrial decline, it’s a pretty place. The town is in the running for the 2021 City of Culture, and has the second biggest number of listed buildings after Edinburgh. When I visit in the middle of April, blossom floats on the trees, and a river meanders through a neighbourhood of old, stone houses. It takes a moment to notice weeds tightening their grasp on the window frames. When I try the door of the ancient Paisley Abbey, it’s locked.

Perhaps if Paisley had been located the other side of the border, in Sunderland or Northumbria, it would be voting Leave and flirting with Ukip. But in the most deprived areas here, Labour activists tell me the EU referendum tally was still almost 50-50, and overall the town voted Remain.

There is a view that Brexit is an English concern. “We haven’t picked up anything about the EU referendum,” says Lawler of his doorstep conversations. “What people are talking about is the independence referendum, Jeremy Corbyn and the kids’ ward.” Scotland’s health secretary, Shona Robison, is due to make a decision on whether the specialist ward should be moved to a large hospital in the First Minister’s Glasgow constituency, against the wishes of many Paisley residents. The hospital in question is nicknamed “the Death Star”.  

Another concern, reminiscent of small towns across the UK, is the decline of the high street. When I walk down the historical shopping area Causeyside Street, I find mother and daughter Kate and Linda Hancy packing up what remains of The Pattern Café and Gift Shop. The wallpaper is a glorious Paisley print, but the scented candles are in boxes and a spray soap bottle hangs from a chair. After two years of trying, they are closing down.  

“People just don’t have money to spend,” Kate says. “A lot of people have been on the same wage for more than five years.”

Linda chimes in: “The cost of living going up but wages aren’t the same. I work in a supermarket, and people come in and say ‘How did I spend this much money?’ A lot of people are paying by credit cards.”

The Hancys voted to remain in the UK, and the EU. Although they knew Alexander, they have never met Mhairi Black, and feel devolution, if anything, has made politicians less accountable. “Why are we picking 1,2,3,4,” demands Kate, referring to Holyrood's voting system, which rejected first past the post. “Why can’t we pick one like we used to?”

Without the EU to blame, the most obvious culprits for Paisley town centre’s decline are the out-of-town shopping centres, where cinemas are opening just as historical ones in town close their doors.

Gavin Simpson, owner of Feel the Groove, a new record shop, remembers the 1980s, when a new release would have shoppers queuing round the block. However, he believes the town is over the worst. (As we speak, a customer comes in to reserve such a record and cheerfully warns Gavin that “even if I ask for my money back, don’t give it to me.”)

One thriving business is the longstanding butchers, Wm Phelps. Manager James Peacock tells me it is down to the trustworthy Scottish produce, which is carefully tracked and labelled. But the business has also embraced globalisation.  After noticing a large number of South African customers, Peacock began selling boerewors and biltong.

The other referendum campaign

If Paisley has been spared the divisions of the EU referendum campaign, its “buddies” – as residents are known – are still reeling with the repercussions of an earlier referendum, that on Scotland in the UK. In 2014, the town voted for independence, although the county overall opted to stay in the UK. 

The town is home to a particularly brash strain of indyreffers, including the “Smith Commission burners”, three SNP councillors who gathered in front of the council headquarters to burn a copy of the report setting out new powers for Scotland. One of them, Mags MacLaren, went on to manage Black’s constituency office.

But if the Paisley independence movement has been well covered, less is known about its opposite - the rise of pro-unionism. 

Of the three mainstream parties opposed to independence, it is the Scottish Conservatives, with their unconventional leader Ruth Davidson, who have most effectively capitalised on the pro-union message. In the 2016 Scottish Parliament elections, the Tory Jackson Carlaw captured the West of Scotland constituency of Eastwood, which had been held by Labour since its creation. 

In Holyrood, the Scottish Tories benefit from proportional representation, which allows voters to choose a constituency MSP but also rank parties. 

According to Paul Masterton, the Tory candidate for East Renfrewshire, and the secretary of the Renfrewshire and Inverclyde Scottish Conservative Association, the Conservatives are now getting huge numbers of first preference votes, including in neighbourhoods like the suburb of Ralston, where both Black and Masterton are from. So who are these voters? Masterton describes them as “New Labour voters who were happy with Tony Blair and Gordon Brown but didn’t like Jeremy Corbyn and get tied up into knots by [Scottish Labour leader] Kezia Dugdale flipflopping on the union stance".

The 2016 election saw the Scottish Conservatives surge to second place in Scotland – a superb comeback for a party once ridiculed as being rarer than pandas. The next electoral test is the local council elections. In Paisley, even Labour activists acknowledged the Conservatives were likely to be the most notable winners.

“For a long time we simply didn’t go out in Paisley," says Masterton. "We were written off and we allowed ourselves to be written off.”

But the referendum has changed this. “What I found was that last May, people weren’t shutting the door in your face," he adds. "Once you started the conversation they were far more receptive to that.” 

Like the Labour activists, Masterton argues that the constitutional question matters more than Brexit. “When Theresa May said ‘now is not the time’, I think a lot of people across Paisley did a small quiet fist pump,” he says of a second independence referendum.  

Ironically, after the early election is called, the Scottish Conservatives do everything they can to mention the prospect. “Don't mention the 'i' word,” crows a recent press release about the “SNP indyref ban”. Davidson tweets: “Nicola doesn't want to stand on her record. She knows the country doesn't want her #indyref2.” A Panelbase survey commissioned by The Sunday Times Scotland published shortly after the early election was announced finds support for the Conservatives at Scotland at 33 per cent, 18 percentage points higher than in 2015. 

What you stand for

For now, Paisley remains a Scottish National Party stronghold. George Adams, the MSP with an office off the high street, proves elusive – Labour activists confirm his reputation as a hardworking local. Black’s aide turns down my request for an interview for similar reasons, but I bump into her that evening at a protest against cutting child tax credits in Glasgow’s George Square.

Black, an admirer of the left-wing Labour figure Tony Benn, once said she feels "it is the Labour party that left me". I ask her if she, like her Labour predecessor, holds surgeries in supermarkets. Black says she’d considered it, but given the sensitivity of some of the issues, such as benefit problems, she thought her constituents might appreciate a more private space. “The main thing that crosses the door in my offices is Universal Credit changes,” she explains. She says she has raised her concerns about the children’s ward.

As for the independence debate, she argues that the Scottish government have been “incredibly compromising” since Brexit, but adds: “A lot of folk want another chance at the question.”

Black is standing for re-election. With a majority of more than 5,000, and neither of her previous challengers in the running, she’s likely to keep her seat, even if buddies' discontent over local issues rumbles on. 

Still, as I have discovered, the 2014 referendum continues to reverberate in towns like Paisley. It has divided friends and neighbours on constitutional lines, galvanised new strains of politics, and brought a Labour heavyweight crashing down, with no appetite to return. 

The Tories believe their unionist message is enough to flip seats like East Renfrewshire, once Conservative, then Labour, and now an SNP marginal. As the SNP's shine wears off, could Paisley, with its long tradition of the left, one day follow? It no longer feels implausible. “The one thing about the Scottish Conservatives - and this is true whatever you like us or not,” says Masterton. “You know what we stand for.”

 

Julia Rampen is the digital news editor of the New Statesman (previously editor of The Staggers, The New Statesman's online rolling politics blog). She has also been deputy editor at Mirror Money Online and has worked as a financial journalist for several trade magazines. 

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