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 In one of the first trials for human rights abuses since amnesty laws were repealed in 2005, Etchecolatz had been charged with involvement in six murders plus two cases of kidnap and torture.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