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 In one of the first trials for human rights abuses since amnesty laws were repealed in 2005, Etchecolatz had been charged with involvement in six murders plus two cases of kidnap and torture.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

Profound changes in technology, work and community are transforming our ultrasocial species into a population of loners.

Our dominant ideology is based on a lie. A series of lies, in fact, but I’ll focus on just one. This is the claim that we are, above all else, self-interested – that we seek to enhance our own wealth and power with little regard for the impact on others.

Some economists use a term to describe this presumed state of being – Homo economicus, or self-maximising man. The concept was formulated, by J S Mill and others, as a thought experiment. Soon it became a modelling tool. Then it became an ideal. Then it evolved into a description of who we really are.

It could not be further from the truth. To study human behaviour is to become aware of how weird we are. Many species will go to great lengths to help and protect their close kin. One or two will show occasional altruism towards unrelated members of their kind. But no species possesses a capacity for general altruism that is anywhere close to our own.

With the possible exception of naked mole-rats, we have the most social minds of all mammals. These minds evolved as an essential means of survival. Slow, weak, armed with rounded teeth and flimsy nails in a world of fangs and claws and horns and tusks, we survived through co-operation, reciprocity and mutual defence, all of which developed to a remarkable degree.

A review paper in the journal Frontiers in Psychology observes that Homo economicus  might be a reasonable description of chimpanzees. “Outsiders . . . would not expect to receive offers of food or solicitude; rather, they would be fiercely attacked . . . food is shared only under harassment; even mothers will not voluntarily offer novel foods to their own infants unless the infants beg for them.” But it is an unreasonable description of human beings.

How many of your friends, colleagues and neighbours behave like chimpanzees? A few, perhaps. If so, are they respected or reviled? Some people do appear to act as if they have no interests but their own – Philip Green and Mike Ashley strike me as possible examples – but their behaviour ­attracts general revulsion. The news is filled with spectacular instances of human viciousness: although psychopaths are rare, their deeds fill the papers. Daily acts of kindness are seldom reported, because they are everywhere.

Every day, I see people helping others with luggage, offering to cede their place in a queue, giving money to the homeless, setting aside time for others, volunteering for causes that offer no material reward. Alongside these quotidian instances are extreme and stunning cases. I think of my Dutch mother-in-law, whose family took in a six-year-old Jewish boy – a stranger – and hid him in their house for two years during the German occupation of the Netherlands. Had he been discovered, they would all have been sent to a concentration camp.

Studies suggest that altruistic tendencies are innate: from the age of 14 months, children try to help each other, attempting to hand over objects another child can’t reach. At the age of two, they start to share valued possessions. By the time they are three, they begin to protest against other people’s violation of moral norms.

Perhaps because we are told by the media, think tanks and politicians that competition and self-interest are the defining norms of human life, we disastrously mischaracterise the way in which other people behave. A survey commissioned by the Common Cause Foundation reported that 78 per cent of respondents believe others to be more selfish than they really are.

I do not wish to suggest that this mythology of selfishness is the sole or even principal cause of the epidemic of loneliness now sweeping the world. But it is likely to contribute to the plague by breeding suspicion and a sense of threat. It also appears to provide a doctrine of justification for those afflicted by isolation, a doctrine that sees individualism as a higher state of existence than community. Perhaps it is hardly surprising that Britain, the European nation in which neoliberalism is most advanced, is, according to government figures, the loneliness capital of Europe.

There are several possible reasons for the atomisation now suffered by the supremely social mammal. Work, which used to bring us together, now disperses us: many people have neither fixed workplaces nor regular colleagues and regular hours. Our leisure time has undergone a similar transformation: cinema replaced by television, sport by computer games, time with friends by time on Facebook.

Social media seems to cut both ways: it brings us together and sets us apart. It helps us to stay in touch, but also cultivates a tendency that surely enhances other people’s sense of isolation: a determination to persuade your followers that you’re having a great time. FOMO – fear of missing out – seems, at least in my mind, to be closely ­associated with loneliness.

Children’s lives in particular have been transformed: since the 1970s, their unaccompanied home range (in other words, the area they roam without adult supervision) has declined in Britain by almost 90 per cent. Not only does this remove them from contact with the natural world, but it limits their contact with other children. When kids played out on the street or in the woods, they quickly formed their own tribes, learning the social skills that would see them through life.

An ageing population, family and community breakdown, the decline of institutions such as churches and trade unions, the switch from public transport to private, inequality, an alienating ethic of consumerism, the loss of common purpose: all these are likely to contribute to one of the most dangerous epidemics of our time.

Yes, I do mean dangerous. The stress response triggered by loneliness raises blood pressure and impairs the immune system. Loneliness enhances the risk of depression, paranoia, addiction, cognitive decline, dem­entia, heart disease, stroke, viral infection, accidents and suicide. It is as potent a cause of early death as smoking 15 cigarettes a day, and can be twice as deadly as obesity.

Perhaps because we are in thrall to the ideology that helps to cause the problem, we turn to the market to try to solve it. Over the past few weeks, the discovery of a new American profession, the people-walker (taking human beings for walks), has caused a small sensation in the media. In Japan there is a fully fledged market for friendship: you can hire friends by the hour with whom to chat and eat and watch TV; or, more disturbingly, to pose for pictures that you can post on social media. They are rented as mourners at funerals and guests at weddings. A recent article describes how a fake friend was used to replace a sister with whom the bride had fallen out. What would the bride’s mother make of it? No problem: she had been rented, too. In September we learned that similar customs have been followed in Britain for some time: an early foray into business for the Home Secretary, Amber Rudd, involved offering to lease her posh friends to underpopulated weddings.



My own experience fits the current pattern: the high incidence of loneliness suffered by people between the ages of 18 and 34. I have sometimes been lonely before and after that period, but it was during those years that I was most afflicted. The worst episode struck when I returned to Britain after six years working in West Papua, Brazil and East Africa. In those parts I sometimes felt like a ghost, drifting through societies to which I did not belong. I was often socially isolated, but I seldom felt lonely, perhaps because the issues I was investigating were so absorbing and the work so frightening that I was swept along by adrenalin and a sense of purpose.

When I came home, however, I fell into a mineshaft. My university friends, with their proper jobs, expensive mortgages and settled, prematurely aged lives, had become incomprehensible to me, and the life I had been leading seemed incomprehensible to everyone. Though feeling like a ghost abroad was in some ways liberating – a psychic decluttering that permitted an intense process of discovery – feeling like a ghost at home was terrifying. I existed, people acknowledged me, greeted me cordially, but I just could not connect. Wherever I went, I heard my own voice bouncing back at me.

Eventually I made new friends. But I still feel scarred by that time, and fearful that such desolation may recur, particularly in old age. These days, my loneliest moments come immediately after I’ve given a talk, when I’m surrounded by people congratulating me or asking questions. I often experience a falling sensation: their voices seem to recede above my head. I think it arises from the nature of the contact: because I can’t speak to anyone for more than a few seconds, it feels like social media brought to life.

The word “sullen” evolved from the Old French solain, which means “lonely”. Loneliness is associated with an enhanced perception of social threat, so one of its paradoxical consequences is a tendency to shut yourself off from strangers. When I was lonely, I felt like lashing out at the society from which I perceived myself excluded, as if the problem lay with other people. To read any comment thread is, I feel, to witness this tendency: you find people who are plainly making efforts to connect, but who do so by insulting and abusing, alienating the rest of the thread with their evident misanthropy. Perhaps some people really are rugged individualists. But others – especially online – appear to use that persona as a rationale for involuntary isolation.

Whatever the reasons might be, it is as if a spell had been cast on us, transforming this ultrasocial species into a population of loners. Like a parasite enhancing the conditions for its own survival, loneliness impedes its own cure by breeding shame and shyness. The work of groups such as Age UK, Mind, Positive Ageing and the Campaign to End Loneliness is life-saving.

When I first wrote about this subject, and the article went viral, several publishers urged me to write a book on the theme. Three years sitting at my desk, studying isolation: what’s the second prize? But I found another way of working on the issue, a way that engages me with others, rather than removing me. With the brilliant musician Ewan McLennan, I have written a concept album (I wrote the first draft of the lyrics; he refined them and wrote the music). Our aim is to use it to help break the spell, with performances of both music and the spoken word designed to bring people together –which, we hope, will end with a party at the nearest pub.

By itself, our work can make only a tiny contribution to addressing the epidemic. But I hope that, both by helping people to acknowledge it and by using the power of music to create common sentiment, we can at least begin to identify the barriers that separate us from others, and to remember that we are not the selfish, ruthless beings we are told we are.

“Breaking the Spell of Loneliness” by Ewan McLennan and George Monbiot is out now. For a full list of forthcoming gigs visit:

This article first appeared in the 20 October 2016 issue of the New Statesman, Brothers in blood