Civil Society, Headlines, Human Rights, Latin America & the Caribbean

RIGHTS-ARGENTINA: Gov’t Alarmed by Disappearance of Witnesses

Marcela Valente

BUENOS AIRES, Dec 28 2006 (IPS) - The news that another witness in a human rights case has gone missing in Argentina – the second in three months – shook the country Thursday.

Luis Gerez, a 50-year-old construction worker and torture survivor, had testified against a former assistant police chief accused of torturing detainees during Argentina’s 1976-1983 military dictatorship.

Gerez went shopping Wednesday night near his house in Escobar, a town near Buenos Aires, and has not been seen or heard from since.

Reports that he had gone missing have alarmed the national and provincial governments, and human rights groups.

President Néstor Kirchner, who had been planning a holiday break in his home province in southern Argentina, Santa Cruz, returned to the seat of government to meet with Interior Minister Anibal Fernández, the governor of the province of Buenos Aires, Felipe Solá, and other officials.

The president of the Mothers of the Plaza de Mayo Association, Hebe de Bonafini, said that these disappearances are designed to “sow terror.”

“They want to show us that they still have power, which is why the government must take tough measures,” said the activist, whose group was founded during the dictatorship by mothers of victims of forced disappearance.

Gerez testified last April before a lower house commission, and his testimony played a key role in keeping rightwing deputy-elect Luis Patti, a former assistant police chief and former mayor of Escobar, from assuming his seat in parliament.

Patti is accused of torture and forced disappearance during the de facto regime, when some 30,000 people were “disappeared”, according to human rights groups.

In his testimony, Gerez said that in 1972, when he was 16 years old, he was arrested by the Escobar police, hooded and tied naked to a metal bed frame, where he was tortured with electric shocks to force him to confess to a crime he had not committed. “I couldn’t see, but I recognised his (Patti’s) voice, because I knew him. Everybody in Escobar knew each other back then.”

“I don’t know if he actually used the electricity on me, but he asked me questions, and he was the one directing the torture,” said Gerez.

He also testified against Patti in a case involving the disappearance of Gastón Goncalves, which occurred on Mar. 24, 1976, the day of the coup d’etat that ushered in the dictatorship.

Goncalves had argued with Patti, who threatened to kill him, just a few days before the young man was abducted. He was last seen in the Escobar police station.

Goncalves’s wife, Ana Maria Granada, was killed in her home, her body riddled with 14 bullets, shortly after her husband disappeared.

One of the couple’s children was taken away at the time. But he was reunited with his relatives in the 1980s after he was tracked down by the Grandmothers of the Plaza de Mayo, a group created to find the missing children of the “disappeared”, many of whom had been illegally adopted by members of the armed forces or people with connections to the military.

Asked about Gerez’s disappearance, Patti said that “If this man has really gone missing, it is a disturbing case in which the national and provincial governments must act, because the scamps who do these things number more than two or three,” he said.

Manuel Goncalves, the son of Gastón Goncalves, expressed concern about Gerez’s disappearance. “Both times that he testified, in the courts and before Congress, Gerez came out trembling,” he said Thursday.

“I felt bad to see him in that state after reliving the torture and everything he had gone through, but he told me he was grateful because after so many years he had been given the opportunity to be heard.”

Gerez is the second witness to go missing in just three months.

The first was Julio López, 77, another construction worker, who disappeared on Sept. 17 after testifying in a trial in which former Buenos Aires provincial police commissioner Miguel Etchecolatz was brought to justice. Etchecolatz was sentenced on Sep. 19 to life in prison for kidnapping, torture and homicide.

López was never heard from again. At the time, he was described by Governor Solá as “the first victim of forced disappearance to disappear again in Argentina in democracy.”

According to Solá, López may have been kidnapped to intimidate other witnesses who are to appear in some 1,000 trials that have opened up since Argentina’s two amnesty laws for former members of the military were declared unconstitutional and struck down by the Supreme Court last year.

Legislator Araceli Méndez, of the Frente para la Victoria – Kirchner’s faction of the ruling Justicialista (Peronist) Party – said “both kidnappings were carried out by the same people.”

She also maintained that the practice was aimed at intimidating other witnesses in human rights cases.

But the Centre for Legal and Social Studies, a local human rights organisation, said in a statement Thursday that Gerez’s disappearance “reveals the ineffectiveness of the national and provincial authorities in moving ahead with the investigation into López’s whereabouts and establishing a system of protection for victims and witnesses.”

A month ago, Gerez, an active member of the Justicialista Party, reported that he had been the target of threats and intimidation. For instance, all four tires of his car were slashed on three occasions.

He also said he was approached in the street by a stranger who gave him detailed information on his movements and those of his family, and that when he was waiting for a bus, a man in a passing car flashed a gun at him.

Another alarming incident occurred earlier this month in the northeastern province of Santa Fe. Héctor Bustos, a human rights activist in the town of Venado Tuerto, was shoved into a car by a group of men that he suspects were police officers and held somewhere for 13 days until he was finally released.

During that time, he testified in court Wednesday, he was brutally tortured. “They beat me with a chain, shoved a stick up my anus and made me lick it afterwards, and used electric shocks on me until I felt like I was going to explode,” said the victim.

Bustos also said a plastic bag was placed over his head, and his torturers pretended they were going to shoot him. A swastika was burnt onto his chest with a cigarette, and his genitals were burnt. “This case is extremely serious, and I am deeply dismayed,” said Deputy Alicia Tate, referring to the Bustos case. “The immediate clarification of this case must be insisted upon.”

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