Saturday, March 10, 2007

In Search Of Justice Under the Argentine Witness Protection Program by Michael Fox

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 security risk.

"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 found.

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 his release.

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.