The once-fearsome police commander, now gray-haired and stooped, arrived at the courthouse amid chants of “Murderer!” and “Genocide!”
His hands cuffed, he fingered rosary beads as a judge recited charges of illegal arrest, torture and murder against this alleged overseer of a secret Argentine gulag three decades ago.
Miguel Etchecolatz, 77, went on trial last week in a landmark case that highlights Argentine President Nestor Kirchner’s uncommon resolve to punish human rights abusers from the “dirty war” waged by the 1976-'83 junta.
Etchecolatz is the first former officer to face trial here since the Supreme Court quashed immunity laws last year in a legal challenge championed by the Kirchner administration. A pair of amnesty statutes from the 1980s had shielded him and hundreds of other officers implicated in a junta-designed reign of terror against leftist opponents that left as many as 30,000 dead or “disappeared,” activists say.
Since his election in 2003, Kirchner has purged top officers, centralized civilian control of the military, appointed a defense minister with a human rights background and even ordered the removal of the paintings of former junta strongmen from the military college. He created the Museum of Memory on the grounds of one of the most notorious junta-era detention centers, the Navy Mechanics School.
In the face of several military protests and reports of rising tension in the armed forces, Kirchner has declared he will not be intimidated.
“I want to make it clear, as president of this nation, that I am not afraid of you,” Kirchner told the assembled brass at the national military college on Army Day last month. “We want an army that is completely separate from state terror.”
The tenacity of Kirchner’s campaign is unusual in Latin America, where a more circumspect approach usually prevails in civilian governments’ dealings with the armed forces.
Argentina had long hewn to that deferential tradition: Previous presidents supported amnesties and pardons in the interest of promoting “national unity,” undercutting cases that targeted Etchecolatz and others, some of whom died without having faced justice.
“The way the military held the country to ransom ... is repugnant to most Argentines, and Kirchner was the first president to fully embrace that sentiment,” said Sebastian Brett, a researcher with Human Rights Watch based in Santiago, Chile.
Most agree that a direct military threat to the Argentine state is extremely unlikely in a nation where democratic rule is well-entrenched and the armed forces were disgraced during the last junta and the calamitous 1982 Falklands War. The military’s budget has since been slashed and the draft has been eliminated, creating an all-volunteer force of about 100,000.
Still, by making the abolition of military immunity a touchstone of his presidency, Kirchner has generated ill feelings within the armed forces. At several recent military speeches, Kirchner has been heckled and had listeners turn their backs to him. Several officers have been disciplined for participating in public ceremonies honoring military men killed during the junta.
In the view of pro-military hard-liners, Kirchner suffers from selective memory: He inflates casualties among the leftist “subversives” while ignoring victims of guerrilla attacks. Military chiefs of staff serving under Kirchner are regularly labeled turncoats.
Some in the military camp still hint that many of the so-called “disappeared” actually left for Europe or elsewhere.
But that is a distinctly minority view in a country where, almost 25 years after the generals stepped down, paid advertisements still regularly appear in newspapers remembering loved ones detained in those days and never heard from again.
In fact, even Argentine military officials have conceded that the dirty war was actually less an actual war than a junta-organized roundup and slaughter. No more than 300 officers lost their lives during the dictatorship years, according to most estimates, compared with the tens of thousands of dissidents who were never seen again, human rights officials say.
“In our country, there was no war, rather a true human manhunt,” Martin Balza, an ex-army chief and Kirchner’s ambassador to Colombia, wrote recently. “These words express the pain of an old soldier, but I feel the necessity of saying them for the sake of youth, for the sake of memory.”
Still, critics say Kirchner, with popularity ratings topping 70%, is playing politics with the human rights card, consolidating support in his left-wing base for a reelection run next year.
“He is returning to the past,” complained Elisa Carrio, an opposition leader in Congress. “In Argentina we need to end the time of revenge.”
Others see Kirchner’s efforts as a sincere response from a man who lost several “disappeared” friends and was himself arrested briefly during the junta.
Kirchner and his wife, Cristina Fernandez, now a senator, spent most of the junta years in the relative tranquillity of his native Patagonia. He pursued a lucrative career in law and politics before joining the national stage in 2003, promising economic reforms in the wake of the country’s financial collapse of 2001-02.
Only after he took office did many here learn of Kirchner’s commitment to prosecuting human rights violators from the junta period.
The president has never spoken publicly of Etchecolatz’s case, but the former deputy provincial police chief in Buenos Aires is one of the more notorious surviving commanders of dirty war days.
While benefiting from the now-vacated immunity laws, Etchecolatz wrote a book defending the junta’s “war against Marxist subversion” and disdainfully confronted one of his alleged torture victims in a 1997 television appearance.
“The treatment we gave you,” Etchecolatz sneered, “could have cured the blisters on your feet!”
But there was no bravado in court last week as the frail Etchecolatz cited his “sacred right” not to respond to the charges.
A former prisoner, Nilda Eloy, testified in detail how she had been arrested in 1976 and tortured by electric shock and other means, apparently under the direction of a man called “the colonel.” She said she was unaware of the colonel’s identity until almost 20 years later, when she glimpsed him on television.
“I was paralyzed when I saw that face,” Eloy said. “That’s when I learned his name: It was Etchecolatz.”
Andres D’Alessandro of The Times’ Buenos Aires Bureau and special correspondent Claudia Lagos Lira in Santiago, Chile, contributed to this report.