Miguel Osvaldo Etchecolatz, one of the most infamous human rights violators from the dark era of Argentina’s brutal 1976-83 dictatorship, has died at the age of 93.
The former Buenos Aires Province police deputy chief died of heart problems at a clinic where he had been admitted days before, local media reported. He had been awaiting surgery.
Etchecolatz, who showed no remorse for his crimes, passed away while serving nine life sentences for multiple crimes against humanity, including torture and murder. Trials against him continued to almost the very end of his life, with his latest life term handed down only in May.
His death was confirmed by Federal Oral Court Number 1 of La Plata to plaintiffs in the various human rights cases he had stood trial for. Three cases against him are still ongoing.
The 93-year-old had been granted house arrest by one court in recent weeks due to his deteriorating health, but the benefit had not been granted as it applied only to one of the nine life sentences keeping him behind bars.
When the coronavirus pandemic began, Etchecolatz was being held at Unit 34 of the Campo de Mayo prison and, joined by a number of other prisoners guilty of crimes of humanity, he had unsuccessfully sought house arrest from the courts.
In recent weeks, as his health worsened, he was transferred to the Estrada Clinic in the town of Merlo and hospitalised in an intensive care unit. On June 27, he was transferred to the Sarmiento Sanatorium to be fitted with a pacemaker, according to judicial sources, though the operation did not take place.
According to a recent medical report, filed with the courts, the killer – a smoker for most of his life – was suffering from a range of ailments, including high blood pressure, the aftermath of a cerebrovascular stroke, cognitive deterioration and heart failure.
Etchecolatz was born in Azul, Buenos Aires Province, on May 1, 1929 and headed the detective squad of the Buenos Aires provincial police during the most ferocious stage of state repression and terrorism.
He was unrepentant about his crimes, saying he would “do it again” if he had the choice.
"Because of my position, I had to kill and I would do it again," said the criminal during one of the trials against him, according to the Télam state news agency.
During the dictatorship, Etchecolatz commanded some 20 clandestine detention centres across Buenos Aires Province known as the “Camps Circuit,” where thousands of people were tortured and killed. He also oversaw clandestine maternity wards, where women who were kidnapped gave birth and had their children snatched away from them.
Etchecolatz was involved in murders, kidnappings, disappearances, the appropriation of minors and was one of the key figures behind the so-called Noche de los lápices ("Night of the pencils"), on September 19, 1976, when a dozen students were detained and tortured by the security forces.
The former top cop was first convicted of crimes against humanity in 1986, but was a beneficiary of the Full Stop and Due Obedience Laws which granted amnesty to human rights violators. When Congress repealed those laws and pardons granted to members of the security forces, proceedings against him were resumed.
In 2017, an oral court in Buenos Aires City granted him house arrest, which he enjoyed for a short time at a house in Mar del Plata, but after repeated and vehement protests from locals, the courts revoked the benefit one year later and he never left prison again.
Etchecolatz never recognised the jurisdiction of the courts which tried him and he maintained that he should be tried under military law. He also argued that his actions could only be judged "by God” alone.
In 1997, the criminal published a book – La otra campana del Nunca Más – in which he sought to challenge the official narrative and confront the 1984 report Nunca Más, which recorded 8,961 deaths and disappearances during the dictatorship.
Human rights organisations estimate that around 30,000 people went missing under the dictatorship while an estimated 400 babies were illegally adopted, of whom more than 130 have been able to regain their identity.
Etchecolatz was widely condemned for his refusal to tell the relatives of victims what had happened to their loved ones. Members of his own family, including his daughter, had repudiated his actions and cut ties with him long before he expired.
"He had a clear conscience of what he did until the end. He never, in all the opportunities he had, said a word about the fate of the disappeared," said lawmaker Myriam Bregman.
"When people sometimes spoke of an 'ex-genocide' or 'ex-repressor,' we lawyers said that he was not 'ex', because he renewed his commitment to the disappearances every day," said the Frente de Izquierda national deputy.
Silence on victims
Etchecolatz’s death prompted a strong reaction from politicians and citizens alike, with many highlighting the fact that he had not provided information on the fate of hundreds of disappeared detainees and babies stolen from their parents.
“The perpetrators of genocide continue to die without revealing their secrets, without telling us where they [the disappeared] are or what they did with our relatives and disappeared comrades,” said Environment & Sustainable Development Minister Juan Cabandié in a post on social media.
Frente de Todos lawmaker Mara Brawer defined Etchecolatz as a "criminal and genocidal murderer," while Argentina’s Ambassador to Italy, Roberto Carlés, said that “in hell, which had been full for a long time, there is a place reserved for him.”
Buenos Aires City hawker Victoria Montenegro (Frente de Todos), the daughter of two of the disappeared, decried Etchecolatz as "one of the most nefarious torturers of the dictatorship" and “a murderer repudiated by the people.”
Upon the criminal’s death, many remembered the disappearance of La Plata bricklayer Jorge Julio López, a key witness in a 2006 trial involving Etchetcolatz who later went missing.
López – who had previously been kidnapped, tortured and held as a prisoner in 1976 during the era of state terrorism – provided testimony as a witness and victim in the case, revealing that Etchecolatz had directed and carried out torture sessions, which involved the use of electric cattle-prods, at several clandestine detention centres.
López's disappearance came just hours before the retiree was due to provide further testimony before the court and a day before the trial was to end. It was initially believed that he may had suffered post-traumatic shock as a result of reliving his torture, but fears about his safety rose quickly.
Human and civil rights groups have long since speculated that active and retired provincial police personnel may have kidnapped López, in order to intimidate other witnesses and impede future trials addressing crimes against humanity.
Suspicions about the cause of López's disappearance were strengthened in 2014, when Etchecolatz and 14 others were convicted in a high-profile trial addressing crimes committed at the 'La Cacha' clandestine detention centre.
As the judge handed down sentences, Etchecolatz took a piece of paper and wrote on it: "Jorge Julio López." Most view that as a warning message of intimidation to others who were considering coming forward.