Miguel Etchecolatz, enforcer of Argentina’s ‘dirty war’, dies aged 93

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Miguel Etchecolatz, a notorious police henchman in Argentina’s military dictatorship from 1976 to 1983 who was convicted of prominent roles in the baby robbery as well as the kidnapping of 10 high school students – a crime that became known as the “Night of the Pencils” – died July 2 in a clinic in Buenos Aires. He was 93.

His death from an unknown cause while being treated under police guard was announced by a court in La Plata, the capital of the province of Buenos Aires. This was the region where many of the teenage students were arrested in 1976 as part of the junta’s sweeping repression of leftist opponents and other perceived enemies. Only four escaped custody alive.

The arc of Mr. Etchecolatz’s disgrace as a junta enforcer and later because of his unrepentant defiance of Argentina’s return to democracy was a study of the country’s struggle for a full reckoning of the atrocities committed during the dictatorship. Estimate from human rights groups up to 30,000 people were killed or “disappeared” and many more were tortured in secret detention camps, some headed by Mr. Etchecolatz, Police Deputy for the Buenos Aires region.

But Mr. Etchecolatz revealed few secrets during a series of trials over the decades, when crowds derided him as a “murderer” and “oppressor” after he threw red color with him in 2006. A life sentence at that trial described him as an accomplice in “genocide,” a landmark judgment that, for the first time in Argentine jurisprudence, framed the “dirty war” to fit the United Nations definition of a genocidal campaign.

Mr Etchecolatz, the belief was“was an integral part of an apparatus of destruction, death and terror.”

He refused to recognize the authority of the civil courts, calling himself a prisoner of war or sometimes holding a rosary and saying “only God” could judge him. Despite many opportunities, he also never offered significant details to explain the thousands still missing or provide insights for historians to piece together the junta’s complex web.

“I never felt guilty, never thought, or was haunted by guilt. To have killed for it? I was the enforcer of a man-made law,” he wrote in a 1988 autobiography, “La Otra Campaña del Nunca Más” (“The Other Never Again Campaign”). “I was the keeper of the divine commandments. And I would do it again.” (The book title referred to Nunca Más, or Never Again, a report by a national commission on state-directed human rights abuses during the junta.)

Mr. Etchecolatz, a chain smoker whose “investigative unit” ranged from street thugs to a Catholic priest who overheard police confessions, became one of the security apparatus’ most feared figures. The junta took power at a time of near-total chaos: uncontrolled inflation and workers’ strikes, as well as threats from left-wing guerrillas and right-wing militias.

Etchecolatz appeared to have a free hand to advance the junta’s ruthless purge known as the National Reorganization Process, or simply “El Proceso.” According to prosecutors, more people were arrested or disappeared in Mr Etchecolatz’s territory – the capital Buenos Aires and surrounding areas, including La Plata – than anywhere else in Argentina during the early years of the dictatorship.

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An early shock was the night of the pencils. Over two days in September 1976, masked agents rounded up eight high school students – four boys and four girls – suspected of leftist sympathies. Two other male students were arrested in other raids this month. They were all held in Etchecolatz’s gulag, prosecutors say, and six were never seen again by their families.

One of the surviving students, Pablo Diaz, said he received electric shocks to his mouth and genitals at a detention center called Arana. He was 18 at the time. “They pulled out a toenail,” he told investigators. according to the BBC. “It was very common to go several days without eating.”

Democracy returned in 1983 after the military regime proved unable to stabilize a faltering economy and made a disastrous attempt to wrest from Britain the Falkland Islands, which Argentina claimed as part of its territory.

Etchecolatz was first convicted in 1986 during a spate of prosecutions against junta officials. However, legislation passed later that year gave amnesty to many security officials to avoid unrest in the military and police after the junta. Etchecolatz and others convicted of abuse in the Dirty War have been released.

Mr. Etchecolatz wrote his memoirs, appeared on television programs to confront accusers, and openly mingled with former officials of the dictatorship, including his former boss, General Ramón Camps, whose 25-year prison sentence was also commuted.

That The amnesty was lifted in 2003 by the government of President Néstor Kirchner, a leftist who was briefly jailed during the junta years for his student activism. Mr. Etchecolatz stood trial again the next year, in a civil case not covered by immunity.

This time he and a police doctor, Jorge Bergés, were convicted for roles in take hundreds of infants of the families of “disappeared” or imprisoned parents and their adoption by junta supporters. Camps, who died in 1994, openly admitted to stealing babies “because subversive parents raise subversive children.” Etchecolatz and Berges were each sentenced to seven years.

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In a separate trial in 2006, Etchecolatz became the first senior junta official to be tried for human rights abuses after Argentina’s Supreme Court approved the lifting of the amnesty. More than 100 witnesses were summoned, some of whom described conditions in the torture camps in chilling detail. In the front row sat members of the Mothers of the Plaza de Mayo group, women who held weekly vigils outside the presidential palace for their children and grandchildren lost during the dictatorship.

Judge Carlos Rozanski read the allegations of torture and enforced disappearance. Then he turned to Mr. Etchecolatz. Your job? asked the judge.

“Retired police officer,” Mr. Etchecolatz replied calmly. Holding a rosary, he said he would not recognize the jurisdiction of the court and claimed he should face a military trial.

Months later, just before the judge read out the life sentence, Mr. Etchecolatz rose with a handwritten sign around his neck. “Lord Jesus, if they condemn me, it is because I have followed your cause,” it said.

The crowd in court cheered the verdict.

Miguel Osvaldo Etchecolatz was born on May 1, 1929 in Azul, Argentina. He rose through the ranks of the police force and became a junta loyalist after the 1976 coup.

A full list of survivors was not immediately available. At least one daughter, Mariana Dopazo, has openly rejected her father, changed her last name and condemned Etchecolatz and other junta leaders.

Almost two generations away Since the junta era, Mr. Echecolatz has remained a powerful symbol of the iron grip once held by the military and police. He has been on trial several times to face the Dirty War charges recently in 2020 with another life sentence for crimes including torture in internment camps including Brigada Lanús, widely known as El Infierno or Hell.

Etchecolatz continued to block prosecutors and others looking for leads to the missing persons. Only once did he appear to open a door.

At a 2014 trial, reporters noticed Mr Etchecolatz holding a piece of paper with a name on it. Jorge Julio Lopez, a survivor of junta-era torture who disappeared in 2006 before he was due to testify against Mr Etchecolatz. On the other side of the paper was written: Kidnap. Lopez remains missing.

Rights groups and others claimed sympathizers of Mr Etchecolatz kidnapped López to intimidate other potential witnesses at future trials. Etchecolatz’s enigmatic note was widely interpreted as reinforcing the warning.

“The perpetrators of genocide continue to die without revealing their secrets, without telling us where [the disappeared] are or what they did to our relatives and missing comrades,” wrote Argentina Environment Minister Juan Cabandié, in a tweet following the death of Mr. Etchecolatz. “Neither forget nor forgive.”

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