Are Argentina's Death Squads Making a Comeback?

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If Argentines are haunted by the horrors of the past, that may be because the dark forces responsible for the "disappearance" of thousands of people at the hands of their country's last military dictatorship appear to be very much alive — and as willing as ever to resort to violence against their foes. Two weeks ago, a key witness whose testimony had recently helped put a major human-rights offender in prison for life disappeared in a manner reminiscent of the methods employed by Argentina's military 30 years ago.

Jorge Julio Lopez, 77, a former torture victim and retired construction worker, was reported missing from his home on the last day of a trial in which he'd testified against his torturer, former police commissioner Miguel Etchecolatz, who ran clandestine detention centers during the dictatorship. His apparent abduction has sent a chill down the spines of many Argentines, unsettled by memories of the state of terror imposed by the military in the 1970s. Lopez's disappearance "has touched a sensitive nerve in society," said an editorial in Clarin, Argentina's largest-selling newspaper. "It revives fears of one of the darkest episodes in Argentine history."

And for Lopez's fellow sufferers, there was no doubt about the identity of his abductors: "This is the work of right-wing fascists in conjunction with members of the security forces sympathetic to their cause," says Adriana Calvo, a survivor of the dictatorship's detention centers and also a witness in the Etchecolatz case.

The recent uptick in prosecution and conviction of the former officers responsible for widespread human rights abuses during the 1976-83 military dictatorship has been accompanied by increasing incidents of intimidation of witnesses and judicial officials. "There has never been such a wave of threats before," adds Tati Almeida, whose own son was never seen again after being abducted by military forces three decades ago.

Almeida, a soft-spoken woman who still marches every Thursday afternoon in front of the Presidential Palace with other members of the Mothers of Plaza de Mayo, a human rights group demanding justice for the "disappeared," believes Lopez's disappearance was designed to dissuade others from testifying against the torturers. "Those who abducted Lopez know that the conviction of Etchecolatz is just the preview of more trials," she says. "They feel the noose tightening around their necks and are scared."

The Lopez disappearance is also an open challenge to President Nestor Kirchner's policy of restarting long-stalled human rights prosecutions. "We're looking for him everywhere, almost with desperation," Kirchner said. "We hope to God things are not how we imagine, but the past has not been defeated and we must be on the alert." Following the apparent abduction, the government retired 36 police officers who had served during the dictatorship, although human rights groups claim other veterans of that abusive era remain in active service.

The defiance shown by Etchecolatz upon his conviction lends further credence to the suggestion that the disappearance of the witness was directly tied to the case. "I am not condemned, you have condemned yourselves," Etchecolatz told the court when he was sentenced. "It was a clear threat, coming as it did the day after Lopez disappeared," says Calvo.

Federal Judge Carlos Rozanski, who sentenced Etchecolatz, has himself received death threats, along with 17 other court officials. "Yes, I'm worried," said the judge. "But I'm still working, it's part of being a judge in a case like this."

One letter threatened court officials that they will receive "real justice" if they continue handing out sentences. Calvo, who is a member of the Association of Former Detainees, which had helped bring Etchecolatz to justice, says her association receives constant threats. "When we get home from our meetings, we'll often find on our answering machines a recording of what we discussed there," says Calvo. "They tap our cell phones, using them as microphones to record our conversations."

Despite the threats, the Etchecolatz conviction has offered new hope to relatives of the missing who had seen justice postponed over the two decades since the fall of the dictatorship. A handful of generals were incarcerated following the return to democracy in 1983, but judicial proceedings were blocked by amnesty laws that had been passed by Congress under the threat of a military uprising by disgruntled officers in 1986. By 1990, the few officers imprisoned before those amnesties took effect were freed by then President Carlos Menem, despěte massive protest marches across Argentina. The amnesty laws that had protected human-rights abusers were finally overturned by the Supreme Court last year, paving the way for the current trials and the prospect of hundreds of former military and police officers being convicted for doing away with thousands of Argentines. Many Argentines now believe that some of those who committed crimes while serving the state, having lost the protection of the law, have resorted to their old ways to evade justice.