SAN FRANCISCO — In the courtroom of federal district Judge Lowell Jensen on this cold windy afternoon, something's very strange. The defendant in this extradition hearing, former Argentine Gen. Carlos Guillermo Suarez-Mason, otherwise known as "the Argentine Eichmann," is sitting there in a gray sweater with a slightly bemused smile on his face. His manner is so mild and inoffensive that he looks like the friendly owner of a corner grocery store or, as one of his surviving victims, Horacio Martinez-Baca, puts it, "the manager of a Radio Shack branch."
But, according to federal court records, when Suarez-Mason was commander of the First Army Corps during the Argentine junta's self-described "dirty war" against subversives, about 5,000 people from his zone, the Buenos Aires area (out of perhaps 12,000 or more countrywide), "were disappeared" (i.e. killed) by police and military personnel directly under his control. Suarez-Mason fled to this country in 1984, after the military junta fell from power after the Falklands War, and was arrested at his hiding spot in a San Francisco suburb by U.S. marshals in January, 1987. He's been in jail ever since.
A Bad Week
Last week was, in fact, a bit of a bad week for Suarez-Mason. Two days before this hearing, Martinez-Baca, a 48-year-old attorney now living in Oakland, won a $21-million civil damages suit against him in another federal court. Now Suarez-Mason is waiting to see whether Judge Jensen will send him back to Argentina to face multiple charges of murder and kidnaping. So is Martinez-Baca, sitting alertly in the first row.
Martinez-Baca doesn't look like anyone who was tortured, beaten, confined and humiliated for four years--he's too exuberant and irrepressible. His pronunciation of English is brilliantly ingenious, but he makes up for it with his hand gestures--they wave, they implore, they plead. In conversation he is apt to brush lint off your jacket, pat your shirt with an open palm or tap your lapels with the flat of his fingernails. His eyebrows go up and down like express elevators.
At the moment, however, he is uncharacteristically serious as he leans forward in his seat, pushing his left ear out with two fingers of his left hand, listening to the judge's decision.
When Jensen finally gets to the key point--"The court finds and certifies the extraditability of Carlos Suarez-Mason,"--Martinez-Baca suddenly leans back in his seat as if, now after eight years, he can finally relax.
From the next row back, one of his 10 attorneys (all of whom worked on the case free of charge) reaches forward to squeeze his arm in victory. Turning around, he gives her a two-eyed wink as if to say, "Aw, we had him all the way."
At 6 feet 7 inches, Martinez-Baca towers over his friends and attorneys in the subsequent press conference. It's a sedate affair until a reporter casually asks one of Suarez-Mason's lawyers, J. T. Prada, what effect Martinez-Baca's civil damage award might have on his appeal of the extradition ruling and Prada, who speaks English with a Spanish accent, somewhat testily replies that it won't have any effect--the evidence was "unconvincing." When the people around Martinez-Baca burst into laughter, Prada stomps out of the room. Over his shoulder, he hurls back an accusation: "You might want to know what Mr. Baca did between 1976 and 1980."
It's no secret, shouts Martinez-Baca at his disappearing back: "I date your sister."
Actually, Martinez-Baca says an hour later in the living room of his small North Oakland home, "I was in jail from 1976 to 1980." It was a terrible time for Argentina. Juan Peron was dead. His widow couldn't manage either the country or the military. Terrorism was increasing. Inflation had reached 700% annually. On March 24, 1976, a military junta staged a coup d'etat and immediately began a plan to crush the terrorist threat.
At 1:30 p.m. four days later, says Martinez-Baca, the door to his apartment burst open and in came two men, one of whom was carrying a .45 automatic. "Come with us," they told him.
It was so shocking, Martinez-Baca says. "All your life you burn your eyebrows in a university studying constitutional principles, the Code of Hammurabi, the Magna Carta, Norman barons, Alexis de Tocqueville, the Bill of Rights and then you are thrown in jail without the minimum rights of your life, deprived of everything, without knowing what this is all about, just because you (object) consciously and honestly and in good faith to the military takeover. You are not a communist or a Marxist. You are a nice, stupid (person) who believes in democracy."
But the military, he says, is so narrow-minded. "Once in prison, an officer came to interrogate me. He wanted to know why I was so communist.