On September 18, 2006, Jorge Julio López, a retired mason, left his house in the morning and never returned. Now, 10 years later, that is still the last thing we know about his whereabouts. López, who was illegally detained and tortured during the last military dictatorship, provided key testimony against former police commissioner Miguel Etchecolatz, one of the most notorious torturers of that dark era. But López was not able to witness how the man whom he pointed to as his torturer was sentenced to life for crimes against humanity. López vanished days after providing that key testimony against Etchecolatz.
Immediately after his disappearance, photos of López were posted across the country. It was a terrifying moment in Argentine history. Just as former dictatorship-era leaders were being held accountable for the tens of thousands of people they tortured and disappeared, López’s disappearance raised the specter of a return to those dark days oft the past.
His disappearance came a day before Etchecolatz’s sentencing, which was a landmark moment in the country’s historic quest for justice against the perpetrators of crimes against humanity during the dictatorship. It was the first trial after Congress annulled the amnesty laws that prevented those who committed crimes during the dictatorship from being held legally responsible for their actions. It also marked the first time the judiciary used the word “genocide” to describe the crimes that took place during the dictatorship. But suddenly the way he vanished raised fears that other witnesses would hesitate to testify and prevent other trials from moving forward.
Now, a decade later, many seem to have forgotten about López. And the investigation hasn’t moved an inch. His potential whereabouts are as much a mystery now as they were a decade ago. Myriam Bregman, member of the collective “Justice Now!” (Justicia Ya!), that provided legal counsel for López during the case and is now a national lawmaker for the Leftist Workers’ Front (FIT), has called the state’s failed investigation of López’s whereabouts as a “monument to impunity.”
NGO Memoria Abierta (Open Memory) along with the Center For Legal and Social Studies (CELS) released this week a powerful video about the case that makes clear how little the investigation into his disappearance has moved forward.
During the dictatorship, López was illegally arrested during the dictatorship for his political activism in the Buenos Aires provincial capital of La Plata. During that time, Etchecolatz was the head of investigations for the Buenos Aires province police force and led 21 underground detention centers. His trials served as a stark reminder that not all of the illegal detention and torture centers were run by the armed forces.
Etchecolatz also orchestrated the infamous Noche de los Lápices (“Night of the Pencils“), where 10 students from La Plata between the ages of 16 and 19 were disappeared after participating in protests over student bus fares. They were kidnapped September 16-21, 1976. In August, Etchecolatz was granted house arrest by the Federal Tribunal of La Plata. Although he remains in prison for the time being due to other charges pressed against him, human rights groups are raising alarm bells that he may be released from prison.
Part of the fear has to do with the suggestions that Etchecolatz may very well know, or at least have an idea, about what happened to López. In 2014, eight years from López’s disappearance, a judge was reading the life sentence against Etchecolatz when he suddenly began looking straight on at Grandmothers of Plaza de Mayo head Estela de Carlotto. Etchecolatz then proceeded to jot something down on a piece of paper. After the reading of the sentence was complete, Etchecolatz tried to hand over that piece of paper to the court, but he wasn’t allowed. A photojournalist was able to take a picture of the piece of paper where the words “Jorge Julio López” were clearly visible.
A new judge, Ernesto Kreplak, has now taken charge of the investigation into López’s disappearance and earlier this month ordered the preservation of all text messages and phone calls from the days before and after López vanished.
Numerous human rights groups will join forces on Sunday to march in both La Plata and the City of Buenos Aires to mark the tenth anniversary of López’s disappearance. The March in the capital will begin at 2:30 PM in Congress and will then go to Plaza de Mayo, while those who will march in La Plata will gather in Plaza Moreno at 4:30 PM.