Argentine 'dirty war torturer' tries to escape genocide trial in Spain

Jan McGirk,Latin American Correspondent
Thursday 14 September 2000 00:00

Baltazar Garzon, the Spanish judge who pursued the Chilean ex-dictator Augusto Pinochet for crimes against humanity, has formally requested an extradition order for a suspected Argentine torturer and nun-killer now held in Mexico.

Baltazar Garzon, the Spanish judge who pursued the Chilean ex-dictator Augusto Pinochet for crimes against humanity, has formally requested an extradition order for a suspected Argentine torturer and nun-killer now held in Mexico.

"Serpico", the nom de guerre for the exiled businessman Ricardo Miguel Cavallo, is among the 99 Argentine officers accused of genocide, terrorism and torture committed two decades ago during their "Dirty War" against left-wing dissidents, which left an estimated 30,000 people missing. He was arrested last month before boarding a plane in the southern resort of Cancun, destined for Buenos Aires, where the law grants amnesty for atrocities committed during the 1976-83 rule by military junta.

Mr Cavallo has been identified by several of his former torture victims through photographs, and his fingerprints match the ones held by Interpol officials. He is accused of stealing the babies of 16 prisoners held in the basement of the notorious Navy Mechanics' School, torturing 110 inmates, and playing a key role in 21 executions and the forced disappearance of more than 200 Argentines.

The 231-page Spanish document issued on Tuesday night charges the dapper silver-haired businessman with a total of 423 criminal acts committed while he was a captain in the Argentine navy. Victims remembered him as the soft-voiced tormenter in charge of the Navy Mechanics' School's kidnapping squad.

Miguel Angel Cavallo, who headed Renave, a nationwide vehicle registry in Mexico, objects to this arrest. His lawyers maintain that, although he completed his military service under the Argentine junta, his is a case of mistaken identity. They insist he is not the man cited in the warrant, Ricardo Miguel Cavallo. Mexico'sprosecutor-general questioned the prisoner at length yesterday over the recent suicide of his former Renave boss, Ramos Tercero, found last week with his neck and wrists slit.

The extradition request creates a legal predicament for Mexico, long considered a sanctuary for exiled Latin American military officers accused of political crimes because it values its sovereignty over human rights considerations.

If Mexico does comply with the Spanish order, against the advice of the Argentine President, Fernando de la Rúa, and sends Mr Cavallo to Spain to face trial for offences allegedly committed 20 years ago, it risks establishing the precedent that the law need not respect frontiers. Reed Brody, the advocacy director of Human Rights Watch, said: "When you arrest Pinochet, it sends a chill through the tyrants. When you arrest Cavallo, it sends tremors through the ranks. If they commit torture today, they could be prosecuted tomorrow, and not only in Spain."

France also seeks testimony from Mr Cavallo, who served as a military attaché in Paris 17 years ago, concerning the execution of 15 French citizens, including two nuns, during the military regime.

The Spanish Prime Minister, José Maria Aznar, said such cases eventually should be tried by an international tribunal. Last week, Mexico agreed in principle to a United Nations plan to establish an international criminal court.

The accused man's brother, Oscar Cavallo, complained to The New York Times that Serpico's transgressions ought to be forgiven and forgotten."How far should we go back to undertake revisionism in the world?" he said.

Natalia Bruschtein, 25, the daughter of a leftist who "disappeared" after abduction by uniformed gunmen, joined a protest march of Argentine exiles in Mexico City last week demanding the immediate extradition of "Serpico" for a torture trial in Spain.

"The military will win only if they are able to make us forget," she said. "Our memories are our greatest defence."

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