‘Dirty War’ Suspect Is Flown to Spain

Times Staff Writer

Ricardo Miguel Cavallo, a navy lieutenant and alleged executioner during Argentina’s “dirty war,” was handcuffed and flown from Mexico to Spain on Saturday in a precedent-setting extradition that upholds the principle of universal jurisdiction for egregious violations of human rights.

After nearly three years of legal battles following his arrest in Cancun, Mexican authorities handed the retired military officer over to Spanish police and Interpol agents, who escorted him aboard a Spanish air force jet bound for Madrid. Cavallo faces a hearing there today before Baltasar Garzon, the crusading Spanish judge, on charges of terrorism and genocide.

As the 51-year-old prisoner arrived at Mexico City’s airport in a police car, a group of Argentine protesters banged their fists on the vehicle, shouting “Murderer! Murderer!” Nearly 9,000 people were abducted and killed by the right-wing military regime that ran Argentina from 1976 to 1983, according to the country’s truth commission.

Argentina’s amnesty laws protect Cavallo from prosecution in his own country. But Garzon indicted him under a law giving Spanish courts worldwide jurisdiction over human rights atrocities, regardless of where they occur or the whereabouts of the perpetrator. Mexico’s supreme court this month accepted Spain’s request to bring the Argentine to justice.


“This is the first time that one country extradites a person to another to stand trial for something that happened in a third,” said Reed Brody, advocacy director of Human Rights Watch in New York. “The precedent sends a message that there are no safe havens for people who commit the worst atrocities.”

Garzon’s 1999 indictment, based on testimony by the victims’ families, implicates Cavallo in the torture of one prisoner and the murders of two others in 1977 and 1978. Cavallo denies the charges against him.

Cavallo’s extradition followed recent attacks on the principle of universal jurisdiction. Brody and other legal experts say the principle is needed because many Third World governments fail to investigate atrocities by their predecessors.

The Bush administration and other critics of universal jurisdiction say it erodes the sovereignty of nations and subjects leaders to the whims of foreign courts.


Belgium agreed this month under U.S. pressure to limit the scope of its decade-old law, which is similar to Spain’s, to exclude cases that lack a clear link to Belgium, such as a Belgian victim. The law had been used to bring genocide charges against President Bush and U.S. Gen. Tommy Franks for leading the war in Iraq.

Belgium’s incoming government announced its decision to amend the law after U.S. Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld threatened to push for the transfer of North Atlantic Treaty Organization headquarters from Brussels.

In addition, the United States is pressing countries around the world to sign immunity agreements pledging never to send U.S. citizens to the International Criminal Court, which was set up last year to try the worst human rights abuses.

Some countries have resisted efforts to bring former dictators to justice.

Gen. Augusto Pinochet, the former Chilean president, spent 18 months in detention in Britain while Spain fought unsuccessfully to extradite him to stand trial for disappearances and deaths of opponents during his 17 years of military rule. The octogenarian was sent home to Chile in 2000 but declared unfit to stand trial on grounds of ill health.

Similarly, Saudi Arabia has resisted efforts to extradite Idi Amin, who presided over a murderous regime in Uganda in the 1970s.

Cavallo’s extradition became possible after Mexican President Vicente Fox, elected just a month before the Argentine’s arrest, embraced the idea of universal jurisdiction. He accepted Spain’s extradition request two years ago, setting off a round of unsuccessful court appeals by the former officer.

Most Latin American countries fell under repressive military rule in 1970s and 1980s, and subsequent civilian governments have favored amnesty over prosecution of atrocities committed in those decades.


But Argentina’s new president, Nestor Kirchner, says he favors striking down an amnesty law that has protected all but the highest-ranking perpetrators of the “dirty war.” The fate of that law is now before the country’s supreme court.

Cavallo was living quietly in Mexico and running the country’s motor vehicle registry when a controversy unrelated to Argentina put his face in Mexican newspapers. Several of his former prisoners said they recognized him as “Serpico,” the bespectacled torturer who worked for an undercover squad that abducted presumed leftists and imprisoned them at the Navy Mechanical School in Buenos Aires.