Incognito Argentine nabbed for dictator-era crimes

A once-rising star in Mexico is jailed Saturday, awaiting extradition to Spain.

Ricardo Miguel Cavallo thought things were going his way when his company was awarded the contract to create Mexico's new national car registry. And it seemed even better to the Argentine citizen when he was put in charge of developing and implementing the new program, designed to reduce car thefts in Mexico.

But Mr. Cavallo must have been a little nervous when the program became a national controversy this past month, putting him increasingly in the public spotlight, his face and name converted to daily news fare.

Last Friday, Cavallo was arrested by Interpol-Mexico, accused of hiding his past identity as Miguel Angel Cavallo, a former Argentine military intelligence officer wanted in Spain on charges of torture, terrorism - and auto theft - during Argentina's 1976-83 military dictatorship. Cavallo is one of 98 Argentine military officials accused of crimes against humanity by Baltasar Garzn, the Spanish judge who sought the extradition of former Chilean dictator Augusto Pinochet from Britain in October 1998.

The Cavallo case is the latest coup for international judicial officials and rights groups seeking justice for the victims of South America's military dictatorships. The news of Cavallo's detention in Mexico sent cheers through the Buenos Aires offices of organizations dedicated to shining the light of truth on the dictatorship and bringing its strongmen to justice. Between 20,000 and 30,000 Argentines are estimated to have died or disappeared in the 1976-83 period, many while in military or police custody.

It also got the gears of the Spanish justice system, idled for summer holidays, back in motion. Judge Garzn's office contacted Interpol-Mexico shortly after Cavallo's arrest, and by Friday afternoon Mexican judicial authorities had received an international arrest order for Cavallo from Spain. French authorities also filed a request to question Cavallo in connection with the killing of 15 French citizens in Argentina during the dictatorship.

The case illustrates again the separation between a sense of impunity among the dictatorships' oppressors, and a growing global demand that a price be paid for past rights abuses. Chile's General Pinochet had waved off the warnings he received from aides and family members that a trip to Britain might not be a good idea because of international orders for his arrest. Last month, retired Argentine Army Colonel Jorge Olivera was arrested in Rome as he prepared to return home from a vacation. Italian police acted on a request from French officials investigating the death and disappearance of French citizens during the Argentine dictatorship.

Now Cavallo, who earlier helped set up car-registration programs in El Salvador and Guatemala, sits behind bars. His fortunes soured on Thursday, when the Mexico City daily Reforma ran a front-page investigative report in which it asserted Cavallo was wanted for crimes against humanity. As opposition to the car-registration program grew, Reforma had sent photos of the program's Argentine director to Buenos Aires. At least five victims of the military regime's torture centers positively identified the man in the photos as Miguel Angel Cavallo.

Cavallo was detained in Cancn during a fuel stop of a flight bound for Buenos Aires, claiming he was returning for documents that could clear his name. But officials speculated that Cavallo may have been trying to return because many of the dictatorship's officers benefit in Argentina from an amnesty granted by former President Carlos Menem.

Interpol-Mexico and Mexican judicial authorities say there is no doubt about Cavallo's identity, citing fingerprints, photos, and personal documents they have obtained. Officials say they have proof that Cavallo is a retired naval captain. Cavallo originally told Reforma he had only briefly served in the Argentine military as a conscript. Then in his last interview before his arrest, he said he had in fact been a naval officer, but he couldn't recall what rank.

When shown pictures of Ricardo Miguel Cavallo, several victims of the Argentine dictatorship unequivocally identified him as the man they had known during their detention as "Serpico." According to Argentine rights and justice groups, "Serpico" worked in the infamous Naval Mechanics School in Buenos Aires, where many of the regime's victims were taken and last seen.

Mexico City psychiatrist Ignacio Maldonado says he remembers "very clearly" the references to Cavallo and "Serpico" in therapy sessions he offered to exiled victims of the Argentine dictatorship. Dr. Maldonado fled his country for Mexico in 1974 after receiving death threats for denouncing rights abuses even before the dictatorship. "They talked about how this man 'Serpico' had personally tortured them," he recalls, "or how they had witnessed him killing someone in a very cold-blooded way."

Maldonado says he is not at all shocked by the hubris of people like Pinochet or Cavallo, who pushed for a high-profile, international career even as South America's former dictators joined the list of the world's most wanted. "It is not surprising to me that being arrested and condemned is the last thing these people thought would happen to them. These are people who thought the impunity with which they tortured, killed people, or ordered people killed, was intact and made them untouchable."

And because of that sentiment of impunity, Maldonado says he is certain there will be more cases like Cavallo's. "These criminals think they can go around the world in complete tranquility," he says, "but finally we are seeing that they are mistaken."

(c) Copyright 2000. The Christian Science Publishing Society

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