SERIES: Countdown to the International Day of the Disappeared (IDD): 21 days to go!
At the heart of Buenos Aires
By Mia Corazon Aureus
Buenos Aires (CF), Argentina – “Where is Julio López?” This is the question of the Argentine people who marched on October 6, 2006 through the center of the city in response to the call of the Madres de Plaza de Mayo (Línea Fundadora). These mothers, together with the other organizations of relatives of the disappeared, summoned everyone who believed in the Right to Life, to Truth and Justice, to join the march they started 30 years ago and demand that Julio López, a disappeared-survivor and a key witness to the trial of a military person, be released alive.
First disappearance in the period of democracy
During my first two weeks in Buenos Aires (CF), the name Jorge Julio López was spoken almost everywhere I went. His photos were plastered on walls and even on vehicles making his face as ubiquitous as his name. Round street corners, vandals read: “¡Aparición con vida ya de Julio López!” (Give Julio López back alive!) Newspapers significantly contained news of the nation’s search for him. One headline highlighted that this could be the first disappearance in Argentina’s period of democracy.
My host mom and mentor, María Adela Antokoletz1, told me that Julio López was last seen on September 17 [the day I arrived in Argentina]. He disappeared just a few hours before he was supposed to give his final testimony on the trial of former Commissioner General of Police, Miguel Etchecolatz.
Etchecolatz served as second in command in carrying out the operation of the “Night of the Pencils”2 during the years of military dictatorships from 1976 to 1983. He was the first to be prosecuted after the Full Stop Law and the Due Obedience Law, otherwise known as the Pardon or Impunity Laws3, were declared unconstitutional by the Supreme Court in 2005.
There were many notions surrounding the disappearance of Julio López. Considering how supporters of the military dictatorships had gone to the extent of threatening witnesses and some human rights groups, e.g. Abuelas or the grandmothers of the disappeared children, many strongly believed that Julio López was disappeared again and worse, killed. Some, however, also thought that it was possible that the said witness seriously suffered from post-traumatic stress disorder and, thus, wandered off on his own.
Deep Wounds of the Past
Ruled for seven years by the iron fists of military generals Videla (1976-1981), Viola (1981), Galtieri (1981-1982) and Bignone (1982-1983), the Argentine people suffered massively from human rights abuses. Under the context of protecting national security against the threats of communism, the generals swept the country of suspected communist insurgents and disposed of them in places where families could never find them again.
But the military underestimated the love of a mother for her child. Refusing to be cowered by fear when their children’s lives were at stake, the mothers marched to the Plaza de Mayo on April 30, 1977. In front of the rose-colored government palace, Casa Rosada, they demanded the administration to give them back their beloved children. It was then that they donned their heads with white scarves signifying the breech cloths of their once infant sons and daughters who the government snatched from their bosoms.
Such act of defiance against the domineering military leaders gave birth to a strong human rights social movement in the country. The cry of one mother brought with it the power of thousands of mothers, grandmothers, brothers, sisters, sons and daughters. With one voice, they demanded for Truth, Justice, Redress and Memory of their beloved desaparecidos.
Painful Process towards Truth and Justice
The collapse of the dictatorships in the 1980s ushered in a period of transition back to democracy. It was then that the military finally had to account for their transgressions. According to the Asamblea por los Derechos Humanos (APDH) or the Assembly for Human Rights, there were two key factors which eventually led to the prosecution of the repressors and, in the case of Etchecolatz, conviction.
First, survivors and human rights groups collaborated and took the chance of documenting the victims’ testimonies. Second, these were carefully kept until democracy came in 1984. When the human rights trials opened, the documentations served as crucial evidences. That same year, the stories were collected and published into a book entitled, “¡Nunca Mas!” which means “never again.”
Forensic findings conducted by the famed Argentine Forensic Anthropology Team further boosted the credibility of these testimonies. To cite an instance, bodies of disappeared mothers were found washed up by the river coast in 2005. The autopsy study reported that the bodies could have fallen from a high altitude as indicated by the smashed bones. This later confirmed the cases of “death flights” where detainees were drugged and boarded on a helicopter. Military officers would then drop them into the Mar del Plata weighed down by chains so their bodies would not float and evidences of their existence would be buried at the bottom of the sea.
Moreover, human rights groups worked to ensure that there would be laws to hold the military accountable for their crimes. The Centro de Estudios Legales y Sociales (CELS) or the Center of Legal and Social Studies was one of the institutions which greatly contributed in establishing more human rights-based policies and in institutionalizing the Right to Truth.
Through the transition years to democracy beginning in 1983, CELS continued to work on the legal processing of human rights violations committed during the past repressive administrations. It collaborated with the National Commission of Disappeared Persons (CONADEP) and the military courts in exposing the truth behind the criminal cases. This initiated the court prosecution of the first three military juntas and former heads of the Buenos Aires Province Police.
These officers were tried under four defined crimes by the Penal Code: (a) torture; (b) illegal deprivation of liberty; (c) conspiracy to take away babies from biological mothers (referring to the disappeared children born in detention centers); and (d) illegal sequestration of property.
However, as what had been mentioned before, Pardon Laws were issued in 1986 putting to a halt the developments in these trials. Moreover, in 1990, President Carlos Menem provided the military officers indultos, similarly pardoning them for their atrocious crimes. Consequently, CELS worked on the repeal of these laws.
Backed by the provisions of the Inter-American Human Rights Convention4 which the State signed in 1969, the Congress in 2000 and the Supreme Court in 2005 ruled declared the Pardon Laws and indultos unconstitutional5. By 2006, all cases filed against military officers were reopened.
The current Penal Code, however, still does not contain a specific definition for enforced disappearance and genocide. Relatives, friends and human rights workers soon want to have them clearly stated in the Penal Code with the due punishments identified based on the gravity of the crimes. At present, convicted criminals over 70 years old, in general, are given house arrest, much to the dissatisfaction of many people.6
With regard to the recent Etchecolatz case, the court took a bold move in sentencing him to serve life imprisonment in a communal jail. He had been found guilty for deprivation of liberty, homicide, and for acts committed under the context of genocide.
The Fight to Remember
Within the five weeks that I stayed in Argentina guided by María Adela and Patricio Rice, FEDEFAM’s adviser, I witnessed how the people fought to hold on to the memory of their loved ones. The Madres in particular, have, for 30 years now, continued to march every Thursday around the Plaza de Mayo.
In addition, the people conduct memory activities such as the homenajes or tribute ceremonies, excavation and reclamation of former clandestine camps to turn them into spaces for memory, i.e. ESMA and Club Atletico, exhumations, art exhibits, theater performances, etc.
One Sunday, María Adela and I attended an homenaje at the Iglesia de Santa Cruz for four of the founding mothers of the Plaza de Mayo, namely, Esther Ballestrino, María E. Ponce, Angela Auad, Azucena Villaflor; and also for the French nun, Hna. Leonie Duquet, who dedicated her life to help the poor people of Argentina and the Mothers during the dictatorships. They were seized from this church in 1977.
During the ceremony, I witnessed how friends and families of the disappeared prayed and offered songs for them. Towards the end, the people shouted each of the names of the disappeared followed by a resounding “¡Presente!” For everyone, the memories of the desaparecidos remained very much present in their hearts and minds despite how the repressive state tried to erase their lives.
Moreover, creative friends and families of the disappeared used arts, to further convey the message about their struggle not to forget and to never let such atrocities happen again.
A concrete example was the art exhibit at Recoleta which opened during the last week of September 2006. While going around the gallery, María Adela and I came across the artwork of Oscar Muñoz. Entitled, “Breathe,” his piece was composed of steel discs hung on the wall. At first glance, I thought there was nothing special there to see as the disc only reflected images like a mirror. But when I came close enough to breathe onto the surface, the mist revealed faces of disappeared people. And as the moist evaporated, the image faded away. So I tried to breathe onto it again to see the image.
According to the brief explanation of the artwork, the viewer’s breath brings life to these faces. In the same manner that we, the people of today, continue to let the disappeared live in our hearts and memories. To forget is to let them fade away; to let the causes they fought for and sacrificed their lives for die in vain.
Consequently, in the event of Julio Lopez’s disappearance vis-à-vis the trial of Etchecolatz, the people gathered again reminding Argentina to stand on guard and fight for democracy. On that chilly October evening, they marched through the heart of the city chanting, “¡Ahora, ahora! ¡Resulta indispensable! ¡Aparición con vida y castigo a los culpables!” Steadfast in their vow to stay vigilant, they moved forward towards Plaza de Mayo with their banners held high crying: “¡Nunca Mas!”
1 María Adela is the daughter of one of the founders of the Madres de los Plaza de Mayo (Línea Fundadora).
2 The Night of the Pencils (La Noche de los Lápices) occurred on September 16-17, 1976 at the City of La Plata, Province of Buenos Aires. The Buenos Aires Provincial Police kidnapped, disappeared and tortured high school students who were demanding free bus passes at that time.
3 These Impunity Laws were enacted by President Raúl Alfonsín from 1986 to 1987 to quell the military’s rebellion against the human rights trials. (hrw.org)
4 The Inter-American Convention provides that all States which signed and recognized the competence of the Convention cannot pardon crimes committed against humanity.
5 The Constitution was reformed in 1994 to include the provisions stated in the international human rights treaties which Argentina signed and committed to uphold.
6 Former President Jorge Rafael Videla, condemned for the atrocities of the Dirty War, is under house arrest as well as the other military members over 70 years of age.