THE MAN WHO ‘DISAPPEARED’
Born in Azul, a suburb of Buenos Aires, he joined the Argentinian police force and rose through the ranks. He was married with a daughter, Mariana (born in 1970).
In the mid-1970s, amidst economic and industrial chaos in Argentina, there was a military coup which toppled President Isabel Peron. She was replaced by General Jorge Videla and ‘The Generals’ – the start of a military dictatorship.
They immediately started a ‘National Reorganisation Programme’ known as ‘El Proceso’ – an anti-subversion operation designed to remove any opposition. It is nowadays known as the ‘Dirty War’.
Etchecolatz was Commander General of the Police (i.e. second in command), reporting only to Police Chief Ramon Camps. He was also ‘Director of Investigations for Buenos Aires, which gave him enormous power in the city.
Outside of the standard police force he created a network of informers and henchmen, including violent street thugs and a Catholic priest who reported what he heard in the confessional. Etchecolatz was given free rein to act as he wished and controlled various detention centres. His area of the city had the highest number of detentions in the whole of the country.
He was directly responsible for the ‘Night of the Pencils’ in September 1976, when 10 high school students (6 boys, 4 girls) were arrested (“forcibly detained”) and interrogated. Six of them were never seen again – ‘disappeared’.
Etchecolatz was also responsible for child abduction – taking the children of detained ‘suspects’ (often babies), stripping them of their identity and sending them for adoption. Police Chief Camps said, “Subversive parents will raise subversive parents.”
General Videla, the dictator was replaced in 1981 by General Roberto Viola and then later in the year by General Leopold Galtieri. In a desperate effort to save the military junta, they embarked on the Falklands War in 1982, but defeat hastened their collapse, and democracy returned to Argentina in 1983.
The new Leader was Raoul Alfonsin.
Meanwhile Etchecolatz became Vice President of ‘Anidar’ an extreme right-wing group of ex-military men, policemen and neo-fascists.
In 1986, Etchecolatz was arrested and prosecuted for detention and forced abduction.
But whilst his court case was underway, President Alfonsin passed ‘Ley de Punto Final’ (The Full Stop Law) and the Law of Due Obedience. They basically pardoned all ‘security officers’ and allowed them to walk free. Etchecolatz’s court case was cancelled.
From now on he defended his actions. There was a national ‘Never Again’ campaign, so he wrote a book to justify himself – ‘The Other Never Again Campaign’.
He would appear on television to challenge his accusers and never showed the slightest remorse. He never admitted he had done anything wrong. “I have never had, or thought to have, or was haunted by any sense of blame. For having killed? I was the executor of a law made by man. I was the keeper of divine precepts. And I would do it again.”
Alfonsin’s successor as president, Carlos Menem, also refused to prosecute any of the security forces.
Etchecolatz said he was part of a war – “that we won.”
But in 2003, Nestor Kirchner was elected Argentinian President. As a student he had been arrested and imprisoned by the junta – and was determined to bring the guilty men to justice.
In 2004, Kirchner repealed the laws which gave them pardons. Etchecolatz was immediately charged with a case of child abduction. Found guilty, he was sentenced to 7 years imprisonment.
But because he was over 70, he was allowed to serve his sentence under house arrest. However, during a police search of his home, a loaded gun was found. This breached the terms of his sentence so he was sent to prison.
In 2006 the government opened the ‘Dirty War Crimes’ trials. Police Chief Camp was sentenced to life imprisonment. Former Presidents Videla, Viola and Galtieri all went to prison.
But one lawyer, Myriam Bregman, was determined to chase Etchecolatz to ground.
He was put on trial for human rights abuse. He protested, saying he was, “an old man who is ill, with no money and no power.”
He refused to recognise the civil court saying military courts were the only legitimate ones in Argentina. He clutched a rosary and said he was only answerable to God – and then he threatened the jury (“In my day you would have been shot.”) and threatened the judge (“This farce will end soon and those who have not honoured their posts will be accountable to a particularly impartial court.” He tried to control the proceedings until the judge shouted at him, “YOU ARE NOT THE JUDGE!”
There were over 100 witnesses. One was Pablo Diaz, a survivor of the Night of the Pencils. He described being starved and the torture – too grim to repeat here.
The star witness was 77-year old retired builder and mason Jorge Julio Lopez. He had been arrested and described the punishment, pointing out Etchecolatza as his torturer. Lopez, who had suffered PTSD since his ordeal (and was now suffering Parkinson’s disease) said, “He is a serial killer. He has no compassion. He directed a massacre personally.”
But halfway through the trial Lopez disappeared. The prosecution said the trial had been too traumatic for him and he had suffered a relapse. But he was never seen again.
President Kirchner said, “The past is not defeated…But we cannot go back to that past.”
During the trial the ‘Mothers of the Disappeared’ sat in the front seats of the public gallery, stony-faced, staring at him. Another protestor ran forward and poured a tin of red paint over him.
Etchecolatz was found guilty and sentenced to life imprisonment, the judge calling him, “an essential part of an apparatus of destruction.” The judge accused him of “genocide” – the first time the word had been used in the Argentinian courts – ever!
But amazingly, he was allowed house arrest again. But there were so many protests outside his home from local people, and tens of thousands of people protested in the Plaza de Mayo in Buenos Aires. He was taken to prison for his own safety.
He was stunned that the lead protestor against him was his own daughter, Mariana. She said, “I repudiate my genocidal father.” She called herself his, “former daughter.”
In 2014 she changed her surname to Dopazo, claiming Etchecolatz was, “a surname tinged with blood and horror.”
That same year (2014), he was back in court again, charged with multiple offences. He claimed he was a prisoner-of-war and a political prisoner. “I did not kill. I fought in combat. I responded to aggression.”
During the trial he scribbled a note to the judge. A cameraman managed to photograph the note in his hand. It simply said, “Jorge Julio Lopez – kidnapped.” It was a threat – but also unwittingly, an admission that his supporters had done away with Lopez (now sadly known as ‘The man who was Abducted Twice’).
He was found guilty and given 9 life sentences.
In 2020, he was back on trial again. All in all, he had received 23 life sentences, with 3 more cases ongoing.
A lifelong heavy smoker, he was suffering heart problems and was awaiting surgery to put in a pacemaker when he died. He had claimed that the fact one wasn’t put in immediately was a violation of his human rights.
To the end, he refused to let any of his victim’s have any information about the loss of their loved ones. His secrets died with him.
30,000 people ‘disappeared’ during the Dirty War. 400 babies were stolen and adopted. 130 of those have regained their real identity.
The Argentinian ambassador to Italy said, “In hell, which has been full for a long time, there is a place reserved for him.”
The Environment Minister, Juan Cabandie said we must, “neither forget nor forgive.”
The final comment is from his daughter, Mariana Dopazo. “He was not a madman – he was evil.”
RIP – Ruthless, Interrogating Policeman