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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 In one of the first trials for human rights abuses since amnesty laws were repealed in 2005, Etchecolatz had been charged with involvement in six murders plus two cases of kidnap and torture.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.

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The New Times: Brexit, globalisation, the crisis in Labour and the future of the left

With essays by David Miliband, Paul Mason, John Harris, Lisa Nandy, Vince Cable and more.

Once again the “new times” are associated with the ascendancy of the right. The financial crash of 2007-2008 – and the Great Recession and sovereign debt crises that were a consequence of it – were meant to have marked the end of an era of runaway “turbocapitalism”. It never came close to happening. The crash was a crisis of capitalism but not the crisis of capitalism. As Lenin observed, there is “no such thing as an absolutely hopeless situation” for capitalism, and so we discovered again. Instead, the greatest burden of the period of fiscal retrenchment that followed the crash was carried by the poorest in society, those most directly affected by austerity, and this in turn has contributed to a deepening distrust of elites and a wider crisis of governance.

Where are we now and in which direction are we heading?

Some of the contributors to this special issue believe that we have reached the end of the “neoliberal” era. I am more sceptical. In any event, the end of neoliberalism, however you define it, will not lead to a social-democratic revival: it looks as if, in many Western countries, we are entering an age in which centre-left parties cannot form ruling majorities, having leaked support to nationalists, populists and more radical alternatives.

Certainly the British Labour Party, riven by a war between its parliamentary representatives and much of its membership, is in a critical condition. At the same time, Jeremy Corbyn’s leadership has inspired a remarkable re-engagement with left-wing politics, even as his party slumps in the polls. His own views may seem frozen in time, but hundreds of thousands of people, many of them young graduates, have responded to his anti-austerity rhetoric, his candour and his shambolic, unspun style.

The EU referendum, in which as much as one-third of Labour supporters voted for Brexit, exposed another chasm in Labour – this time between educated metropolitan liberals and the more socially conservative white working class on whose loyalty the party has long depended. This no longer looks like a viable election-winning coalition, especially after the collapse of Labour in Scotland and the concomitant rise of nationalism in England.

In Marxism Today’s “New Times” issue of October 1988, Stuart Hall wrote: “The left seems not just displaced by Thatcherism, but disabled, flattened, becalmed by the very prospect of change; afraid of rooting itself in ‘the new’ and unable to make the leap of imagination required to engage the future.” Something similar could be said of the left today as it confronts Brexit, the disunities within the United Kingdom, and, in Theresa May, a prime minister who has indicated that she might be prepared to break with the orthodoxies of the past three decades.

The Labour leadership contest between Corbyn and Owen Smith was largely an exercise in nostalgia, both candidates seeking to revive policies that defined an era of mass production and working-class solidarity when Labour was strong. On matters such as immigration, digital disruption, the new gig economy or the power of networks, they had little to say. They proposed a politics of opposition – against austerity, against grammar schools. But what were they for? Neither man seemed capable of embracing the “leading edge of change” or of making the imaginative leap necessary to engage the future.

So is there a politics of the left that will allow us to ride with the currents of these turbulent “new times” and thus shape rather than be flattened by them? Over the next 34 pages 18 writers, offering many perspectives, attempt to answer this and related questions as they analyse the forces shaping a world in which power is shifting to the East, wars rage unchecked in the Middle East, refugees drown en masse in the Mediterranean, technology is outstripping our capacity to understand it, and globalisation begins to fragment.

— Jason Cowley, Editor 

Tom Kibasi on what the left fails to see

Philip Collins on why it's time for Labour to end its crisis

John Harris on why Labour is losing its heartland

Lisa Nandy on how Labour has been halted and hollowed out

David Runciman on networks and the digital revolution

John Gray on why the right, not the left, has grasped the new times

Mariana Mazzucato on why it's time for progressives to rethink capitalism

Robert Ford on why the left must reckon with the anger of those left behind

Ros Wynne-Jones on the people who need a Labour government most

Gary Gerstle on Corbyn, Sanders and the populist surge

Nick Pearce on why the left is haunted by the ghosts of the 1930s

Paul Mason on why the left must be ready to cause a commotion

Neal Lawson on what the new, 21st-century left needs now

Charles Leadbeater explains why we are all existentialists now

John Bew mourns the lost left

Marc Stears on why democracy is a long, hard, slow business

Vince Cable on how a financial crisis empowered the right

David Miliband on why the left needs to move forward, not back

This article first appeared in the 22 September 2016 issue of the New Statesman, The New Times