The Case of Repressor Cavallo. Wanted, Tried, and No Medals. Collective Memories and Universal Justice
The traditional monthly event of the ESMA Museum and Site of Memory took place on Saturday, October 31st, featuring the theme “The Case of Repressor Cavallo. Wanted, Tried, and No Medals. Collective Memories and Universal Justice”, and organized together with the French Embassy in Argentina and the Institut Français d’Argentine.
This time, the activity featured some welcoming words by the Secretary of Human Rights Horacio Pietragalla and the French ambassador in Argentina, Claudia Scherer-Effosse.
The presentation was given by ESMA Museum and Site of Memory Director Alejandra Naftal. Guests included Sophie Thonon, French jurist and human rights activist; Sébastien Touzé, director of the René Cassin Foundation, member of the United Nations Committee against Torture; Juan Gasparini, ESMA survivor and journalist based in Switzerland. This time, the chroniclers were journalist and writer Eric Domergue and illustrator Miguel Rep, who was drawing throughout the event.
Alejandra Naftal welcomed the meeting and greeted the guests following the screening of a video that featured testimonies of journalist José Vales, a correspondent in Argentina for Mexican newspaper Reforma; Cristina Muro, wife of Carlos Alberto Chiappolini, who disappeared from ESMA; Shula Erenberg, director of the film “Cavallo Behind Bars”; and Manuel Ollé, lawyer for the prosecution against Cavallo;:
“We have been doing the Five O’clock Tour activity for four years in order to offer visitors a tour with first-person testimonies. At present, due to the pandemic situation, we face the great challenge of doing it in a virtual way, which enables the possibility of people watching us from other parts of the country and the world. The tour is based on the case of repressor Cavallo and we want to approach this tour from different points of view, keeping in mind that memory is Present”.
Before introducing the Secretary of Human Rights, Naftal read a message from Leonardo Constantino, Argentina’s ambassador to France, who highlighted the withdrawal of Cavallo’s award as one of the main achievements of President Alberto Fernández’s visit to France. Afterwards, she shared a video made by the Museum staff that featured fragments of the films “Cavallo Behind Bars”, by Shula Erenberg; “Indefeasible“, by Alejandro Ester, and testimonies from the ESMA trial, case 1270, as well as an introductory story about the case of repressor Cavallo.
Next, Horacio Pietragalla greeted and thanked the visitors for their presence: “Good afternoon everyone, it is very important for us to witness this meeting. Cavallo is a symbol of what civil complicity with the dictatorship meant, but also of solidarity between countries. The search for universal justice by countries that did not want to allow people who committed crimes against humanity to circulate around the world and to let these cases go unpunished.”
To conclude, he added: “I do not want to forget to thank the visitors. And the French ambassador who at the beginning of the year I let her know about the request we were going to make for the withdrawal of the award. The solidarity between the countries to seek justice in such aberrant cases as crimes against humanity has paid off.”
For her part, the French ambassador to Argentina, Claudia Scherer-Effosse, especially thanked the Secretary of Human Rights and the Director of the ESMA Museum and Site of Memory for the invitation:
“I feel very honored to be able to share this virtual Five O’clock Tour with you. The sanitary context does not allow us to visit the museum but I am very familiar with it. I’ve already been in Argentina 10 years ago, and I am aware of the historical and tragic weight of these buildings. In the French embassy the memory of the victims of the civic-military dictatorship is still very present as well.”
During her presentation, Scherer-Effose remembered the two French nuns who disappeared at ESMA, Alice Domon and Léonie Duquet, and the victims of the Church of the Holy Cross. He also referred to the withdrawal of the Order of Merit to Ricardo Miguel Cavallo, decided by French President Emmanuel Macron in April 2020, and explained the origin of said award: “The awards for any military attaché at the end of his mission represent a kind of courtesy in France, with no particular meaning in relation to merit, it’s protocol”, and added “When I started my term I was amazed that this issue had not been resolved, and in the meeting we had with Horacio (Pietragalla), I committed myself to solve it.”. In the end, she highlighted the joint work and cooperation between France and Argentina in the field of human rights. “I would like to highlight the excellent cooperation the René Cassin Foundation –the French institute specialized in human rights– has been developing for several years with the University of Buenos Aires, organizing annual seminars with French and Argentine experts.”
Sebastián Touzé could not be present during the event, but he sent a video with a message in which he thanked the invitation and said that he accepted immediately for three reasons: “The first one is that I feel a deep affection for Argentina and its history (… )”. “The second is that on this occasion I saw a means to consolidate the bond that currently binds the French Embassy with the René Cassin Foundation, a very strong bond that includes several Argentine institutions, and that materializes France’s great involvement in the international protection of human rights. The third reason derives from the cooperation in which this conference is framed “.
Then, he made a special reference to the importance of Sites of Memory such as the ESMA Memory Site Museum: “The Museum of the Navy School of Mechanics, a historical witness of the most flagrant denials of human dignity, is thus inscribed in a common universal heritage of defense and promotion of the most essential human values as it reminds us of the worst of humanity, but also, as proven by the role this commemorative site plays, the best that humanity can and should have. A museum sometimes involves evoking the worst of history in order to better understand it, to appreciate the beauty of the present.”
To conclude, he highlighted the relevance of the State’s involvement in the policies of memory, truth and justice: “Will alone is not enough, the law is not enough: the actions of the State, especially through the judges, is decisive, since it will enable an effective response to the victims so that impunity ends and the right to truth and justice is respected.”
Sophie Thonon highlighted the importance of the universal justice principle: “The only trials for victims of the Argentine dictatorship were held abroad, in Spain, Italy and France. France’s first court decision –which illustrates our justice’s capacity to prosecute based on the nationality of the victim— is the conviction of Alfredo Astiz in 1992 for the disappearance of the two French nuns”.
She then explained what she did concerning the Cavallo case: “The association of former detained prisoners had positively identified Ricardo Miguel Cavallo, who had entered Mexico in 1999 under a false identity: Miguel Ángel Cavallo. When we organized the arrest of the military officer Jorge Olivera in Rome, Cavallo realized that the main genocides are not only ones getting arrested. The same day when we were waiting for the arrest warrant, I had written to the judge requesting him to send an international appeal to Mexico so that Cavallo could questioned about two elements: first, the French nuns, and second, the Pilot Center in Paris, which was a kind of secret annex to the Argentine embassy where a very famous case emerges: Elena Holmberg, who he had seen this center didn’t just organize cultural events, they did things of a different nature, which was to infiltrate the Argentine and Latin American refugee communities in general.”
Before listening to Juan Gasparini, Alejandra Naftal read a message from people who had been in captivity along with him.
Gasparini began by thanking the former French ambassador in Geneva, Jean-Baptiste Mattéi; Anne-Françoise Tissier, Legal Adviser at the French Ministry of Foreign Affairs, and the former French Foreign Minister, Bernard Kouchner. He then made a chronology of how they filed the request for the withdrawal of Cavallo’s award, and at the same time how the repressor was linked to several cases related to property theft and the disappearance of the French nuns.
“This issue surprised me in the middle of a trip to Argentina I took because there was a possibility of writing a book. This had a link with Cavallo. I went to Mendoza to investigate the subject of the book and I found myself with the dirty businesses that were being uncovered there, and among the papers that had been seized in some offices there was a letter from Cavallo in which he presented his curriculum and said that he had the French national order of merit since 1985,” he explained.
And he added: “On September 30, 2010, I testified at the Argentine trial for the ESMA Mega-case, which was connected to Cavallo’s crimes, particularly the murder of the French nuns, and I spoke about all this and also said President Sarkozy had done everything necessary for France to be able to withdrew his award, Argentina had to do its part of the work, which was getting the final conviction. The Supreme Court ratified the sentence in 2015 and I only found out at the beginning of 2019 in a meeting at ESMA with the staff, the guides and Alejandra Naftal”.
He also referred to the importance of the diplomacy lead by President Alberto Fernández in France, expressing his gratitude to Minister Marcela Losardo and French President Emmanuel Macron: “I also thank my companions in captivity, that group of some 30 people with whom we signed a declaration on January 30, which generated the repercussion it had on the Minister of Justice of Argentina, Marcela Losardo, to whom I also want to pay tribute because when she met with the Minister of Justice in Paris, on February 2020, she didn’t move cautiously, but straight-out requested the withdrawal of the award. Days before presenting the case again with the help of an NGO, it was publicly announced that President Emmanuel Macron had taken the decoration away from Ricardo Cavallo. Therefore I extend my gratitude to the president of France, the person who made the final decision.”
Finally, he added: “I would like to say goodbye using the words of transitional justice: truth, justice, reparation, guarantees of non-repetition and memorialization. This must not be forgotten.”
One of the chroniclers of the meeting, Eric Domergue, referred to the importance of an active exercise of memory and spoke of the French victims of the dictatorship, including the case of his brother: “I want to keep emphasizing how comforting every effort of memory is to me. Everyday I rescue the role of memory as a relative of a French detained disappeared, and as a member of a society that does not accept oblivion, that vindicates the activism of the 30,000, the Relatives, Mothers and Grandmothers, and denounces all manifestations of denialism. Relatives have counted 22 French citizens victims of State terrorism in Argentina, among them my brother Yves, kidnapped in Rosario in September 1976 along with his partner Cristina. Both were identified 34 years later by the Argentine Team of Forensic Anthropology in two mass graves in the Melincué cemetery, south of the province of Santa Fe”.
In his closure he was visibly moved, and expressed his gratitude and tribute to all the detained and disappeared companions: “The most famous cases of French citizens are Léonie Duquet and Alice Domon, the beloved nuns victims of Alfredo Astiz and Ricardo Cavallo. And rescuing the example and teachings of these two women, my brother and the importance of this shared tour of ESMA, thanking everyone, I want to once again pay tribute to the 30,000 and to all the manifestations of memory because the dedication of those who are absent continue to guide and comfort us”.
As a closure, the other chronicler of the Five O’clock Tour, illustrator Miguel Rep, showed the drawings he was making live during the event: “What I show you is my greeting. Memory, truth and justice.”