BUENOS AIRES, Argentina — Another witness against the officers who ran Argentina's "dirty war" on opponents of the country's military dictatorship has turned up dead.
Police found the body of retired army Lt. Col. Paul Alberto Navone on Monday in the central Argentine city of Ascochinga with a gunshot to the head and a handgun nearby.
Police also said they'd located what may have been a suicide note, but Navone's death is just the latest in a wave of mysterious deaths and kidnappings of witnesses in the prosecutions of former officials in Argentina's brutal 1976-1983 dictatorship.
Like many other Argentines, former political prisoner Carlos Lordkipanidse, who spent more than two years in a military concentration camp, said he thought that those seeking to stop the prosecutions murdered Navone.
Last year, Lordkipanidse testified at the kidnapping and torture trial of one of his old tormenters, former Coast Guard officer Hector Febres, only to see the 66-year-old official poisoned to death four days before his verdict was to be read.
Like Navone, Febres reportedly was prepared to speak about one of the dictatorship's most macabre chapters, the abductions of hundreds of babies who were born to jailed or missing dissidents. In all, 30,000 people — many of them leftist guerrillas and activists — were killed or simply disappeared.
"Navone's death was in the same line as Febres'," Lordkipanidse said. "I spent two and a half years with these people, and I know how they think. Before there's a problem, they take care of it. They take preventative action. If Febres had spoken, he would have created an enormous problem for a lot of powerful people."
The deaths of Febres and Navone followed the suspected kidnappings of two former political prisoners who'd testified in other trials. On Sept. 18, 2006, Jorge Julio Lopez disappeared near his house in the provincial capital of La Plata, and he remains missing. Three months later, Luis Angel Gerez also disappeared, but he turned up two days later in a suburb of Buenos Aires, the national capital.
The violence has marred a historic series of trials that many Argentines had hoped would finally bring justice to a country still split by its bloody history of military repression.
In 2005, the country's Supreme Court struck down amnesties that had protected officers suspected of participating in the persecution, and trials began the next year with the enthusiastic support of then-President Nestor Kirchner. Some 1,100 cases are being investigated, and more than 200 of the accused have been detained.
The first trial sparked by the court decision ended with the conviction and life sentence of former police Officer Miguel Etchecolatz on charges of kidnapping, torturing and killing prisoners. The trial was marred by the disappearance of Lopez, a key witness.
Three trials later, the body count has grown, and many worry that the process is in jeopardy. Witnesses have reported receiving death threats, and some are under police protection.
"The government thought it could close all this history and say, 'We Argentines are finished with this,' " said lawyer Luis Bonomi, who represented plaintiffs in the Febres case. "Well, it's turned out another way, and we've opened a new chapter."
Investigators' failure to find the perpetrators of any of the suspected kidnappings and deaths has sparked suspicion and fueled conspiracy theories blaming the crimes on everyone from the government to ex-guerrillas to former military officers.
The lack of information about Lopez more than 17 months after his disappearance has drawn the most outrage, with protesters filling the streets of La Plata on the 18th day of every month to demand answers.
"You can't put the investigation in the hands of the police when it's the police who tortured and are being investigated," said Eduardo Castellanos, a former political prisoner who testified against Etchecolatz.
Gerez's case also remains unsolved, with many suspecting that the national government faked his disappearance and reappearance to win popular support. The witness, who's said he knows nothing about his kidnappers' identities, turned up a day after Kirchner demanded his release on national television.
Federal legislator Nora Ginzburg, a conservative opposition leader, has twice called for a congressional inquiry into the Lopez investigation only to be turned down by legislative allies of Kirchner and his wife, Cristina Fernandez de Kirchner, the current president.
"We need the first and last names of the people behind this," Ginzburg said. "People are saying this is all the doing of the repressors, but there's no proof of this because there's been no investigation. For some reason, the government has no interest in finding out."
Human rights activists accuse the government of doing the bidding of still-powerful military leaders. They point out that the four trials opened by the Supreme Court decision haven't touched any military officials, instead targeting former police and Coast Guard officers and a police chaplain.
"We're dealing with forces that still defend what they did," said attorney Guadalupe Godoy, who represented Lopez. "They're the ones who don't want to follow this path."
Investigators admitted frustration with the slow pace of the inquiries but said that their work continued, with some 200 investigators on the Lopez case alone. There's a $320,000 reward for information leading to Lopez's whereabouts, and some 2 million anonymous tips have arrived.
"Every time I see a picture of Julio Lopez, it tells me I'm not a magician," said Paulo Starc, the investigations sub-secretary for the province of Buenos Aires, where Gerez and Lopez disappeared. "We can't just come up with the answers overnight."
Five people have been charged in connection with Febres' death, which medical examiners say was caused by a dose of cyanide four times the amount needed to kill a person his size.
The defendants are Febres' wife and two grown children, who've been accused of helping to hide key evidence, and two Coast Guard officials charged with participating in the murder. Investigators still don't know who administered the cyanide to Febres around midnight on Dec. 9.
In a report on the case, federal Judge Sandra Arroyo Salgado said that Febres died on International Human Rights Day and hours before Fernandez de Kirchner was sworn in as president. In the judge's opinion, the killers most likely chose that date to send Argentines a message.
"Febres had information that, if it was revealed, could legally hurt other members of the military," the judge wrote. "Because of this, his silence had to be secured."