Las Americas

Capturing Cavallo

Last month’s surprise decision of the Mexican Supreme Court to allow the extradition of Argentine torturer Ricardo Cavallo to Spain on terrorism and genocide charges sets a precedent that goes far beyond those war criminals who actively participated in Latin American “dirty wars.”

Spanish judge Baltazar Garzon had demanded Cavallo’s extradition after the former Argentine Naval officer was arrested in Mexico three years ago. This is the first successful transfer of an accused war criminal to a third party country. In 1998, Judge Garzon convinced British authorities to serve arrest warrants on Chilean dictator Augusto Pinochet for similar crimes—Pinochet had traveled to London for back surgery. But after a lengthy legal rigmarole, British foreign secretary Jack Straw allowed Pinochet to return to Chile on “humanitarian” grounds when mental examinations suggested the dictator was growing senile. Ironically, Straw himself now stands accused of war crimes for having deceived the public about Iraq’s possession of weapons of mass destruction that led to the joint invasion of that unlucky Middle-Eastern country by Anglo-American forces.

Ricardo Miguel Cavallo, aka “Serpico,” was arrested in Mexico City in August 2000, attempting to flee to Buenos Aires. There, under the law that bestowed amnesty upon members of the Argentine military officials who had “disappeared” as many as 30,000 citizens of that southern cone nation during the 1976-83 dirty war, he would have been immune from prosecution.

In 1999, posing as a legitimate business, Cavallo’s documentation company won contracts to privatize Mexico’s nascent national auto registration bureaucracy—the registration program, known as Renave, was deemed essential to national security by then president Ernesto Zedillo. But because the privatization of the program proved controversial, Cavallo often appeared on Mexican television to defend Renave. Argentine exiles living in Mexico City eventually recognized the slim, mustached bureaucrat as “Serpico,” a brutal torturer at the Naval Mechanics School (ESMA) in Buenos Aires where at least 5,000 “disappeared.”

On the morning of August 24, 2000, after the national daily Reforma ran side-by-side then and now photos on its front page, Cavallo hurriedly caught a plane destined for Buenos Aires. But Interpol agents captured him when the flight touched down in Cancun. He has been beyond bars ever since.

Judge Garzon had opened a probe into the culpability of Cavallo and his former boss Admiral Emilio Masera in dirty war disappearances, at the behest of lawyers for 300 victims and their survivors who had been tortured at the ESMA. “Serpico” is charged with 227 counts of kidnapping and homicide, 110 counts of torture, and the forced disappearance of 16 newborn babies. If convicted, he faces thousands of years in jail.

The naval officer is also implicated in the doping of an undetermined number of citizens who were then loaded into air force planes and dumped into the south Atlantic ocean. Two Mexican generals have been accused of dumping drugged guerrilla suspects in the sea off Acapulco in Mexico’s own dirty war back in the 1970s.

Despite Cavallo’s reputation as a brutal, efficient torturer, the Mexican Supreme Court dropped torture charges as grounds for extradition because Mexico itself had no anti-torture statute when he was originally charged by Garzon—a decision sharply criticized by Amnesty International.

Notwithstanding the Court’s omission, allegations of torture against Captain Cavallo are legion and horrific. Buenos Aires psychologist Cristina Muro recalls how Serpico once placed a gun in her newborn son’s mouth because he would not stop crying. Muro was tortured so savagely that her post-partum stitches burst and she nearly hemorrhaged to death. She never saw her baby again.

Ana Maria Tresca was seized at a beauty parlor with her 5-year-old daughter and taken to the ESMA where she was tortured by Serpico with electric shocks for five months in 1980-1981. Her husband disappeared and was presumably thrown into the sea by Cavallo and his gang.

Malu Cerruti, now a resident of Madrid, saw her whole family tortured. “Cavallo enriched himself with our family’s assets,” she recently told Reforma. A key element in the kidnap-torture-murder operation Cavallo ran out of ESMA was the confiscation of his victims’ property—including their automobiles. The flimflam honed the Captain’s skills at forging documentation, a talent that eventually got him into the auto registration racket; Cavallo ran such programs for Argentine provincial governments and eventually expanded into Central America. Cavallo’s brother Oscar managed the registration program in Guatemala, the destination of most of Mexico’s hot cars.

Serpico has been under 24-hour television surveillance while awaiting extradition at Mexico City’s tough Eastern Penitentiary. “Plenty of people would be happy if Ricardo Cavallo was unable to testify in a Spanish courtroom,” observes Carlos Slepoy, lead attorney for the Argentine victims. But the Captain’s legal fate in Spain remains uncertain. Judge Garzon will no longer be a part of the prosecution and Prime Minister José María Aznar, a U.S. partner in the illegal invasion of Iraq, is not eager to bring this case to trial, alleging that Spain has no jurisdiction in the matter.

When Pinochet was about to be shipped off to Spain, Chile requested that he be sent home for trial. But Argentina’s just-elected president Nestor Kirchner has made no request that Ricardo Cavallo be tried back home.

The Naval captain is one of the few non-Basques to be deported from Mexico to Spain in recent years. Under a joint extradition treaty, dozens of suspected members of the terrorist Euskadi Ta Askatasuna (ETA) have been extradited to Madrid at the request of Garzon. The Judge, a potential Nobel Peace Prize candidate, has waged an unrelenting campaign against ETA, jailing suspects, according to Amnesty International, closing down newspapers and magazines, and canceling the registration of political parties. On the other hand, Baltazar Garzon was a very vocal critic of the Bush-Blair-Aznar aggression against Iraq and it has been suggested that he may seek to bring them to justice for war crimes committed during the invasion and occupation. Nineteen Iraqis have charged the U.S. commander in Iraq, Tommy Franks, with similar violations of human rights before a Belgium court.

Although the Mexican Supreme Court is not known for ground-breaking decisions—last year, it nullified a landmark Indian Rights law that would have granted autonomy to the nation’s 10-20 million indigenous peoples—the Cavallo extradition considerably brightens this country’s tarnished international human rights profile. Nonetheless, the investigation into Mexico’s own dirty war of the 1970s has lagged as judges turn down indictments of police and military personnel on the grounds that the abuses were committed so long ago that they are no longer prosecutable.

Even as the Mexican court extradites Cavallo across the water to face the music, Mexico casts its ballot at the United Nations Security Council in favor of granting U.S. troops accused of war crimes immunity from prosecution by the newly-created International Penal Tribunal, a vote that “satisfied” U.S. Secretary of State Colin Powell when he met recently with Mexican foreign minister Luis Derbez. Relations between Washington and Mexico City have been frosty for months, ever since Mexican President Vicente Fox refused to back the United States in the Iraqi debacle, and the June 12th Security Council vote on U.S. impunity from war crimes prosecution is seen as a way for Fox to worm himself back into George W. Bush’s good graces.

But despite the UN vote, the United States is looking over its shoulder these days at similar efforts to bring the Bush administration to justice with respect to Iraq. When Belgian foreign minister Louis Michel refused to back down on the right of Iraqi citizens to bring charges against Franks under his country’s laws, U.S. Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld threatened diplomatic rupture. (Last year when it was suggested that its citizens could be brought to trial before the World Court at the Hague, a handful of conservative U.S. congressional representatives introduced legislation authorizing Washington to bomb the Netherlands to prevent such prosecutions.)

As the United States launches new “preemptive wars” against the world’s people, its officials and troops lay themselves open to fresh charges of war crimes. But as the prosecutions in Belgium, Mexico, and Spain suggest, impunity is not guaranteed. n

John Ross is in San Francisco, recovering from recent eye surgery. His plans to travel to Palestine are still alive, if postponed (see “Afterword,” this issue).

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Published at 12:00 am CST