A Victim Victorious : Now, After Eight Years, Horacio Martinez-Baca Can Relax; ‘the Argentine Eichmann’ May Be Extradited to Face Multiple Charges of Murder

Times Staff Writer

In the courtroom of federal district Judge Lowell Jensen on this cold windy afternoon, something’s very strange. The defendant in this extradition hearing, former Argentine Gen. Carlos Guillermo Suarez-Mason, otherwise known as “the Argentine Eichmann,” is sitting there in a gray sweater with a slightly bemused smile on his face. His manner is so mild and inoffensive that he looks like the friendly owner of a corner grocery store or, as one of his surviving victims, Horacio Martinez-Baca, puts it, “the manager of a Radio Shack branch.”

But, according to federal court records, when Suarez-Mason was commander of the First Army Corps during the Argentine junta’s self-described “dirty war” against subversives, about 5,000 people from his zone, the Buenos Aires area (out of perhaps 12,000 or more countrywide), “were disappeared” (i.e. killed) by police and military personnel directly under his control. Suarez-Mason fled to this country in 1984, after the military junta fell from power after the Falklands War, and was arrested at his hiding spot in a San Francisco suburb by U.S. marshals in January, 1987. He’s been in jail ever since.

A Bad Week

Last week was, in fact, a bit of a bad week for Suarez-Mason. Two days before this hearing, Martinez-Baca, a 48-year-old attorney now living in Oakland, won a $21-million civil damages suit against him in another federal court. Now Suarez-Mason is waiting to see whether Judge Jensen will send him back to Argentina to face multiple charges of murder and kidnaping. So is Martinez-Baca, sitting alertly in the first row.


Martinez-Baca doesn’t look like anyone who was tortured, beaten, confined and humiliated for four years--he’s too exuberant and irrepressible. His pronunciation of English is brilliantly ingenious, but he makes up for it with his hand gestures--they wave, they implore, they plead. In conversation he is apt to brush lint off your jacket, pat your shirt with an open palm or tap your lapels with the flat of his fingernails. His eyebrows go up and down like express elevators.

At the moment, however, he is uncharacteristically serious as he leans forward in his seat, pushing his left ear out with two fingers of his left hand, listening to the judge’s decision.

When Jensen finally gets to the key point--"The court finds and certifies the extraditability of Carlos Suarez-Mason,"--Martinez-Baca suddenly leans back in his seat as if, now after eight years, he can finally relax.

From the next row back, one of his 10 attorneys (all of whom worked on the case free of charge) reaches forward to squeeze his arm in victory. Turning around, he gives her a two-eyed wink as if to say, “Aw, we had him all the way.”

At 6 feet 7 inches, Martinez-Baca towers over his friends and attorneys in the subsequent press conference. It’s a sedate affair until a reporter casually asks one of Suarez-Mason’s lawyers, J. T. Prada, what effect Martinez-Baca’s civil damage award might have on his appeal of the extradition ruling and Prada, who speaks English with a Spanish accent, somewhat testily replies that it won’t have any effect--the evidence was “unconvincing.” When the people around Martinez-Baca burst into laughter, Prada stomps out of the room. Over his shoulder, he hurls back an accusation: “You might want to know what Mr. Baca did between 1976 and 1980.”

It’s no secret, shouts Martinez-Baca at his disappearing back: “I date your sister.”

Actually, Martinez-Baca says an hour later in the living room of his small North Oakland home, “I was in jail from 1976 to 1980.” It was a terrible time for Argentina. Juan Peron was dead. His widow couldn’t manage either the country or the military. Terrorism was increasing. Inflation had reached 700% annually. On March 24, 1976, a military junta staged a coup d’etat and immediately began a plan to crush the terrorist threat.

At 1:30 p.m. four days later, says Martinez-Baca, the door to his apartment burst open and in came two men, one of whom was carrying a .45 automatic. “Come with us,” they told him.

It was so shocking, Martinez-Baca says. “All your life you burn your eyebrows in a university studying constitutional principles, the Code of Hammurabi, the Magna Carta, Norman barons, Alexis de Tocqueville, the Bill of Rights and then you are thrown in jail without the minimum rights of your life, deprived of everything, without knowing what this is all about, just because you (object) consciously and honestly and in good faith to the military takeover. You are not a communist or a Marxist. You are a nice, stupid (person) who believes in democracy.”

But the military, he says, is so narrow-minded. “Once in prison, an officer came to interrogate me. He wanted to know why I was so communist.

“I wasn’t a terrorist,” Martinez-Baca says. “I wasn’t a Marxist.” His main claim to fame was having briefly been secretary of state of Mendoza province, having once helped a relief effort to supply food and blankets to refugees from Chile’s Pinochet government and four years previously having given a speech against military takeovers at a workman’s compensation conference in Sao Paulo, Brazil.

But this hardly made him a terrorist, Martinez-Baca says. “I was a yuppie.” He was 36, recently divorced, living in a penthouse apartment with a big glass-walled living room, “making $150,000 a year” representing trade unions and banks.

But that, Martinez-Baca says, is the way the military thinks. When Martinez-Baca called Suarez-Mason’s wife for a deposition in the torture-false imprisonment lawsuit he just won, “she called me and my attorney terrorists.” Furthermore, Martinez-Baca says, “I think she was honest. To her, we are killers. We have to be eliminated.”

Military Inefficiency

Shortly after his arrest, Martinez-Baca was blindfolded, put in a truck and driven three blocks to be tortured. But even that was done with typical military inefficiency. The guards were overloaded, Martinez-Baca says. “You had to wait your turn.”

Once in the torture cell, the guards told Martinez-Baca to pull down his pants. “They put a wire around my penis and a nail into my gums.”

Then using a 12-volt battery connected to a rheostat, Martinez-Baca says, they varied the voltage, all the time asking questions. “But their questions didn’t lead anywhere. They were random. It was like “1984.” The main thing was--'torture this guy!’ ”

At other times, Martinez-Baca says, they beat him unconscious in his cell, made him run in circles till he was exhausted, beat the soles of his feet so badly he couldn’t walk for two days. They played the same song over and over on the prison loudspeakers for five hours straight “at something like 2,000 decibels.” Worse yet, any moment any prisoner could be taken out and shot.

Most of the time, he says, he was kept in a two-man, 5-by-7-foot cell. Since there wasn’t anything else to do, he read books--"all six volumes of Marcel Proust, the Bible 2 1/2 times,” more than 500 books in all.

After four months, Martinez-Baca says, the military determined that he was not a terrorist and reclassified him as “parsley,” which is to say, harmless, and formally acknowledged that he was in their custody. Although they weren’t ready to let him go, the acknowledgment gave him some additional protection in that they couldn’t “disappear” him now without having to explain it. It also allowed him to have visits from his two daughters. But he soon told them not to come anymore because the guards did body cavity searches on the girls, who were only 12 and 13 at the time.

“I can forgive Suarez-Mason for everything,” Martinez-Baca says, “but for what he did to my daughters. They lost their childhood.”

After four years in jail, on April 18, 1980, Martinez-Baca says, he was released from prison as a result of pressure from the U.S. State Department and particularly Sen. Edward M. Kennedy. “Someone sent a telegram making the junta responsible for my life,” Martinez-Baca says. “I sent a letter to Kennedy saying, ‘I’m alive thanks to you.’ I never heard from him. Undoubtedly he was very busy.”

Because the junta freed him on the condition that he leave the country, Martinez-Baca decided go to California, a state not unlike his home province of Mendoza.

The day of his release, he was driven to the airport in a motorcade. Then he says two Air Force officers grabbed him under the arms and were about to throw him on the plane, which was a Pan American scheduled airliner, when the pilot told them, “Stop! This is American property. Dr. Martinez-Baca is a free person here.”

“Everyone on the plane cheered,” Martinez-Baca says. “They served me California champagne. I thought, ‘God, they killed me and I’ve gone to heaven.’ ”

Martinez-Baca is sitting at a table in a little Italian restaurant along College Avenue in Oakland finishing a plate of pasta and scallops in cream sauce.

“How was it?” the waitress asks.

Martinez-Baca closes his eyes and raises his head toward the ceiling. “Forgive me, father,” he says, “for I have sinned.”

Talking with Martinez-Baca is like talking to a free-associating comedian with a Spanish accent. He alternately gives out recipes for garlic pasta with olive oil and fresh basil sauce, tosses a rubber hot dog to his German shepherd puppy, Camile, (“Poor baby, she is the doggie of a refugee”), and every few minutes jumps up to take another call from reporters, family and friends.

These days Martinez-Baca makes his living practicing international law in Argentina and Spain and is studying to take the California bar this July. He recently got married and bought a house.

“I am living the life that in jail was a dream for four years,” he says.

Yet, the four traumatic years he spent in jail still hangs over him. A few years ago, after the junta had been deposed, Martinez-Baca returned to Argentina to visit the prisons in which he once had spent his time.

“From the outside,” he says, “they looked so much smaller. When you were inside them, it seemed as if they went on forever. They were your whole world.

“The worst thing in prison,” Martinez-Baca says, “isn’t the torture--it’s the humiliation. Everything you were as a person is gone.”

Even if you do get out someday, Martinez-Baca says, “you still have the ex-prisoner mentality--your life stopped in jail. It was the most important thing in your life--the most terrible and the most unforgettable.”

Which is the reason, Martinez-Baca says, once he got out he made a conscious decision that he “wouldn’t be an ex-prisoner for the rest of my life. I won’t allow Suarez-Mason (to force me to live) as a former prisoner.”

As a result, says Martinez-Baca’s wife, Cynthia, a sales-coordinator for a San Francisco steamship company, Martinez-Baca is one of those people who “wants to do it all. Go the furthest. Drink the most wine. He is godfather to people we don’t even know. He invites people home from the Safeway to dinner.”

In the meantime, he says, he wants to help other surviving victims of the junta’s reign of terror, which is why, he says, when a friend called him in January, 1987, to tell him that Suarez-Mason had been arrested in Foster City, he rushed to the Berkeley law library to look up the legal precedents.

With the help of the New York-based Center for Constitutional Rights, Americas Watch (a Western hemisphere human rights organization), and his attorneys of record, the San Francisco firm of Morrison & Foerster, he filed his $21-million lawsuit against Suarez-Mason. After a brief trial in federal court (he presented evidence of people thrown out of helicopters and of the murder of pregnant women), Martinez-Baca was awarded the $21 million in compensatory and punitive damages.

David Cole of the Center for Constitutional Rights says he does not know how much might be recoverable from Suarez-Mason. “But we’ll be hounding him for the rest of his life.”

The judgment against Suarez-Mason is important, says another one of Martinez-Baca’s attorneys, Joanne Hoeper of Morrison & Foerster, because it is “recognition by another country that Mason committed atrocities.” The size of the award serves “as an enforcement mechanism for violations of international human right.” And finally, Hoeper says, it serves to strengthen the landmark Filartiga v. Pena, a 1982 international law case awarding damages to relatives of a 17-year-old Paraguayan man who was tortured to death in 1976.

Pledge to Victims

If any money is recovered, Martinez-Baca says, he has pledged half of it through an agreement with his attorneys to a plan to aid other Argentine victims of the “dirty war.” And the rest, he says, will be used to set up a foundation to help other torture victims in other Latin American countries file civil lawsuits against their oppressors.

In the meantime, he says, he’s trying to cope with his new life. Recently, he says, he took his younger daughter (now 24) and her boyfriend on a trip to Spain with him.

“She told me, ‘You are an American now (Martinez-Baca has dual U.S.-Argentina citizenship). I hope in the best American tradition you will allow me to sleep with my boyfriend.’ ”

He shrugs, as if to say, “What could I do but say yes? Life is too short.”

Besides, he says, one of the expert witnesses he called for the damages portion of his trial testified that as a result of his imprisonment he now had a “reduced life expectancy.” Martinez-Baca says he was stunned at this unexpected information.

“I said, ‘I do ? How much?’ ”