Patricia Isasa has fought for justice and transparency for over 30 years. At the time of her kidnapping, July of 1976, architect Patricia Isasa was 16 years old. She was abducted by a commando group of the provincial police and taken to one of the 375 clandestine detention and torture centers set up during the dictatorship. She was targeted for her organizing efforts as a delegate of the High School Students Union in the province of Santa Fe. She was held prisoner without trial for 2 years and two months. After her release in 1979 she compiled complaints to be presented to the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights of the Organization of American States, which was about to visit Argentina. She was again abducted with another thirty men and women. She was released after three days, but was one of only four to survive.
Since 1997, Isasa has gathered exhaustive documentation to put her perpetrators behind bars. However, full stop and due obedience laws implemented in the early 90’s foreclosed any successful prosecution of ex-military leaders for human right crimes by the courts. Last year the Supreme Court struck down amnesty laws that protected former military officers who served during the dictatorship.
Now, after nearly 25 years since her release from clandestine detention centers, Isasa’s life is again in danger. Since the conviction of former police chief Miguel Etchecolatz, in a landmark trial human rights activists have faced a wave of threats and attacks. Jorge Julio Lopez, a key witness in the land mark human rights trial to convict Etchecolatz for crimes against humanity, went missing on September 18 2006. Lopez, a retired construction worker and former political prisoner disappeared just hours before he was slated to give his final testimony on the eve of the conviction of Etchecolatz.
Patricia Isasa has entered a witness protection program after receiving threatening phone calls. The judge handling her case also received death threats. However, her will to fight for justice is never ending. She is planning to give a court testimony in Santa Fe in March, a very dangerous place because of local power’s interests in protecting former members of the military junta. In a recent interview with Isasa, she talked about her case and hopes for truth and justice.
MT: What is the news on your case?
PI: My case is paralyzed at the moment, just like all the human rights trials in the country after Etchecolatz’s conviction and kidnapping of Jorge Julio Lopez. I had a court date for a trial against my perpetrators in November 2006. We’re now in February and the courts are telling me that my case won’t come up until November 2007. This means two serious things. First, it means another year of waiting, injustice and impunity. Secondly, is that the repressors have a chance of being released from jail. They can be released after two years if they haven’t been sentenced in court.
MT: Can you give us some background on your case to put your perpetrators on trial?
PI: When I finished the investigation I couldn’t take it to Argentine courts because it was the year 1997-98 and the amnesty laws protecting members of the military junta were still in place. I then took the case to Spain and presented it to the international Judge Baltasar Garzon. Garzon requested the extradition of my perpetrators in Spain in 2003. This request was denied and the Argentine courts were forced to try my perpetrators here in the country.
The nine people who were arrested following my investigation are being tried for genocide, state terrorism and torture which are all crimes against humanity. But the courts still haven’t defined the legal charges they are facing. At any moment the judge can change the charges. It’s doubtful that they will be charged with illicit association. Illicit association is the alma mater of state terrorism. I am accusing these nine people for kidnapping, torturing and murdering fellow detainees. They had people detained for years without any trace. I personally lived through this. For six months I was held somewhere where I didn’t know if it was night or day or how many days had gone by. To organize all these crimes there had to have been illicit association: an association among a group of people to commit crimes that were planned, organized and orchestrated from the state.
These people don’t have a defense. Crimes committed during the dictatorship weren’t crimes of passion. Former members of the junta government can’t say they were crazy. They can’t claim insanity, because later on they became public officials with government positions of power. The only thing they can do in their defense is to muddle with the legal process.
Who are the people involved in the case? We have five police officers, three from the army and we have a court employee, because the courts were accomplices in the repression. Juan Orlando Rolon, Domingo Marcellini and Nicolas Correa belonged to the army. Domingo Marcellini was a graduate from the School of the Americas in 1973 and later became chief of intelligence. He was responsible for repression in Santa Fe during the crudest years of the dictatorship. In the city of Santa Fe alone there were more than 300 people who were disappeared. Nicolas Correa was an army lieutenant in charge of operative intelligence. It’s an elegant way to say he was the chief of torture. They called torturing and interrogating people part of security intelligence. Correa is a serial killer who was responsible for more than 300 deaths.
Mario Jose Fasino was the head of torture and extermination camps in Santa Fe. Half the people who entered these camps were murdered or they died during torture sessions. Eduardo Ramos was a torturer, rapist and administered electric shocks. The other two police are Hector Romeo Colombini and Juan Perizzotti.
The civil servant from the courts was Victor Hermes Brusa, who interrogated detainees in the clandestine camps. What would interrogators do? When the torture session was over, they would pick you up naked, bleeding and sometimes after being sexually violated. They would throw you into an adjoining room and have you sign a previously prepared document. Victor Brusa would say ‘sign or you’ll go back to the torture room.’
M.T.: What happened to these individuals after the military dictatorship ended in 1983?
P.I.: What is most paradoxical of all this is what these individuals turned into after the return to democracy. The misfortune of failing to put these people on trial wasn’t the only result of impunity, they were also rewarded for their crimes. Up until now none of them have faced trial. Correa became Security Secretary for the province of Santa Fe. Fasino became a local mayor in Santa Fe 20 years after running a clandestine torture center. Ramos was the Culture Secretariat in Santa Fe for many years. Hector Colombini was in charge of the illicit drugs division in the police force. Finally, when I investigated my perpetrators 10 years ago I discovered that Victor Brusa, an interrogator in the concentration camps had become a federal judge.
M.T.: How did you take the news about the disappearance of Jorge Julio Lopez, another key witness in La Plata?
P.I.: For me his kidnapping was a slap in the face. I naively thought for the past 20 years in democracy that this wouldn’t happen again. I thought that no one supported the methods used during the dictatorship – killing torturing, throwing people alive into the sea and burying people alive. Even the fascists who support the dictatorship, I thought they did it only behind closed doors. I never thought that we’d go back with the banner and demand “AparaciÃ³n con vida ya! – For the safe return, Now!”
In this sense Lopez was kidnapped to avenge Etchecolatz. Etchecolatz’s group with ties to the provincial police kidnapped Lopez to create fear and to prove that they have the infrastructure to kidnap more people. I think they kidnapped and killed him and then hid his body. A national death threat campaign later ensued.
The government is absolutely responsible for actions following Lopez’s disappearance. Why don’t they look into the groups connected with Echecolatz? Why are all the repressors currently under arrested facing trials being held in the same place? They should be spread out in jails throughout the country. These individuals killed thousands; don’t they deserve to be put in regular jails? They should be in maximum security prisons, not under house arrest or in a jail along with fellow military buddies.
M.T.: Patricia, what do you need to feel at peace and to feel as if justice has been served?
P.I.: The trials against former members of the military dictatorship are clearly stopped. As a result of the kidnapping of Lopez, hundreds of threats against judges and activists, many witnesses have dropped out of the trials. I no longer have a date for my trial. They are telling me that in another year the trial will begin. This means another year of impunity. Another year of being a witness whose life is in danger. When can I have a sense of peace? When these repressors have a firm sentence and are put in jail. When they are deactivated as much as possible. Please, don’t put them together in the same jail so they can lobby for a shorter sentence or negotiate with another kidnapped witness.
The trials against former military from the junta are just the tip of the iceberg. What I would like is for the trials charging ex-military officers to be guided by the search for truth, to look beneath the surface and explain what happened and why. Why did the state decide to kidnap, torture, kill and hide the bodies of 30,000 citizens? We need to understand what happened. They killed off the opposition and created an atmosphere of terror to impose a new economic and social model. What the Argentine people need now is justice.
Marie Trigona is a journalist based in Argentina. She can be reached at [email protected]