In Search Of Justice Under the Argentine Witness Protection Program
In Search Of Justice Under the Argentine Witness Protection Program
Two large undercover security guards arrive first in a separate car to
survey the parking garage. They radio "all clear" back to the second
car, carrying her and her escort. The first guards then scout out the
route to the restaurant and stake out her table according to lowest
"We are custodians of the architect Patricia Isasa", they say to the
concierge flashing their badge, "She will be eating here this
evening." Isasa arrives shortly thereafter, escorted by at least one
more bodyguard. Her return home is similar to her arrival, including
the security check underneath her car to ensure that no bomb has been
placed while they ate.
Isasa's house is under constant surveillance, her transportation and
destinations chosen carefully. Her emails and phone calls are
revised, and she receives a weekly list of those who called.
"My life is crazy," Isasa admits.
Isasa- who was disappeared, tortured and held prisoner for nearly 2
and a half years during Argentina's military dictatorship -is the lead
witness in a trial set to begin this year, which could bring nine
influential Argentine's to justice for torture, complicity, or even
genocide. She is one of approximately 2,000 witnesses across the
country that could give their testimony to the crimes committed during
the dictatorship, but one of only a handful protected under the
Argentine Witness Protection Program with such high-level security.
Isasa's life has changed dramatically since Argentina finally lifted
the amnesty for crimes committed under the military dictatorship,
1976- 1983, and began to try the perpetrators last year. Last
September she fled to the States after a series of death threats and
the disappearance of the lead witnesses in a landmark trial which
landed the known torturer and former police commissioner, Miguel
Osvaldo Etchecolatz, 77, life in prison for genocide. Etchecolatz is
the second to be convicted so far and one of 900 former officers and
collaborators from the dictatorship that could reportedly face trial.
But the sentences have not been without their cost. In his final
remarks, Etchecolatz called himself a "political prisoner" and
launched back at the court, declaring, "This tribunal is not
condemning me, you are condemning yourselves."
The next day, lead witness, Jorge Julio Lopez, 77- whose testimony was
instrumental in Etchecolatz's conviction -disappeared. His body, like
tens of thousands during the military dictatorship, has yet to be
On September 19, the day after Lopez's disappearance, Isasa received
suspicious calls at two former residences (and one home where the
telephone line was registered under her name, but where she had never
lived) from someone interested in meeting with her.
"When will Patricia return? I have information for her," they said.
Isasa did not answer. The calls persisted. Less than a week later,
the federal judge in charge of Isasa's trial, Reynaldo Rodriguez,
received the identical threat letter as the main judge on the
Etchecolatz trial, sent from the same location. Isasa, the lead
witness in her case and the only one whose testimony can incriminate
all of those on trial, was immediately placed under the Argentine
Witness Protection Program.
"You are the next in line," they told her.
Just under three weeks later, she was on a plane to the United States,
afraid for her life.
The situation remained tense. In late November, death threats were
left for the first time on her voice machine at her own home in Buenos
Aires, the day she was set to return to the country. In December
another witness, Luis Gerez, 51, disappeared for two days before a
plea from Argentine President Nestor Kirchner appears to have forced
Isasa returned home to Buenos Aires in January to pressure for the
trial, which has already languished for more than two years, and which
she feared without her presence might be delayed further.
"It's my commitment... I need to find justice," she responded to Amy
Goodman, who asked her why she would return in an interview on
Democracy Now! last fall. Isasa's trial is the culmination of over
ten years of personal investigation by the Argentine architect, in
which she has amassed 4000 pages of documents which she says proves
the guilt of her torturers
As a result, the defendants in Isasa's case are currently awaiting
trial behind bars or under house arrest, and Isasa received the good
news at the beginning of last month, that because of the sensitivity
of the case, Rodriquez has extended their incarceration for at least a
year longer. Rodriguez additionally assured Isasa that her case is
the second in line and that it will go to trial before July and be
completed by the end of the year.
But it's not that easy. Isasa's torturers are high profile, including
former federal judge Victor Hermes Brusa; former mayor of San Jose del
Rincon, Mario Jose Facino; and former Secretary of Security for the
Province of Santa Fe, Nicolas Correa. Isasa also does not
underestimate what she says is "the difficulty of trying Brusa and the
other eight accused in the same trial where he was judge for more than
ten years and named almost 80% of the workers, and where the Secretary
was his secretary."
Nevertheless, Isasa is going to push. She has plans to return to
Santa Fe (her hometown and location of her both of her kidnappings,
torture and detention) to "declare" against her torturers, denounce
the slow speed of the trial, and add renewed information including
another name to the already nine defendants.
Although she will take precautions, she is afraid. She is not naive
about the potential of her torturers in this region even if they are
currently behind bars. As a result, Isasa has plans to meet soon with
Argentina's Secretary of Human Rights, Dr. Eduardo Luis Duhalde, to
talk about her security in Santa Fe, and the realities of trying Brusa
in the district where he has held so much power.
"They have a lot of power. A lot of money," Isasa says.
In Santa Fe, Isasa says that the incessant broken windows in her
father's bedroom window finally convinced him to install a grate to
block the rocks. "He thinks they are stones from the neighborhood
kids," Isasa said recently, but Isasa's father has not received any
verbal threats and Isasa doesn't believe he will.
"They don't want to threaten this time," she says matter-of-factly.
"They want to kidnap me, to kill me."
"I'm the only witness that accuses all nine repressors. In other
words, kill me and there almost wouldn't be a trial... but what I
want to do is declare so that even if they kill me I have my
declaration opened, so that it would be unnecessary to kill me in
order to block the trial. It's a way of self-protecting me," she said
recently in an email to friends.
Isasa is also relying on the support of national and international
solidarity and her relatively high profile for the promotion of her
case and her safety. El Cerco (Cuatro Cabezas, 2006), a documentary
on her trial, was aired late last April on Argentine television before
an audience of millions, thrusting Isasa in to temporary stardom.
For now, however, Isasa's real safety is in the hands of Argentina's
"finest", who keep their vigilant eye on the architect. Ironically,
however, this is the same police force that only thirty years ago was
waging a silent war on Argentina's citizens, and which would lead to
the assassination and disappearance of 30,000 Argentineans.
Nevertheless, Isasa believes she is safer under the "program" than out
of it. But this irony has led many witnesses, such as Lopez and
Gerez, to decline protection from the Argentine government with fears
that it may still have connections to their former repressors.
Bodyguards and security precautions may be a nuisance, but for now
Isasa doesn't see any way around it.
"That's life," she says.
Michael Fox is a freelance journalist, reporter and translator based
in South America. His articles have been published with The Nation,
Counter Punch, Venezuelanalysis and others.