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Argentina wants 78-year-old ex-military officer, living in Miami, to face charges in decades-old killings

Embassy of Argentina (AgnosticPreachersKid/WikiCommons)
December 25, 2020

On the surface, Roberto Guillermo Bravo epitomizes the successful American immigrant.

Born and raised in Argentina, he graduated from the country’s naval academy and served as a lieutenant before coming to the United States to work as a military attaché in the Argentine Embassy. After retiring from the military, Bravo moved with his family to Miami, became a naturalized citizen and started his own business.

But at age 78, an alleged atrocity in his past has come back to haunt him, for the second time.

Bravo, who lives in a $1 million-plus waterfront home with pool and yacht in North Miami, is wanted by his native country in an extradition petition accusing him of multiple murders at an Argentine military prison that happened nearly 50 years ago. The petition, filed last year, has dragged on because of the COVID-19 pandemic but will likely be decided by a federal judge in Miami next year.

A decade ago, Bravo survived a similar extradition complaint when another Miami federal judge ruled in his favor — but this time Argentine authorities and federal prosecutors say the case is stronger because it’s based on evidence from a 2012 Argentine trial in which three of Bravo’s fellow officers were found guilty of the inmate murders dating back to August 1972.

In Argentina, Bravo faces charges of participating in the fatal shootings of 16 unarmed prisoners and injuring three other inmates who were members of a leftist group that opposed the country’s military-backed president.

Relatives of victims killed in what they describe as the prison “massacre” have also sued Bravo in Miami federal court because he is a U.S. citizen who lives here. They allege that as a 30-year-old officer at the Trelew naval prison he committed the “extrajudicial” killings and human rights violations under a U.S. law, the Torture Victim Protection Act.

Bravo, who was arrested at his Sans Souci Estates home by U.S. Marshals in October of last year, is a free man for now because he was allowed to post a $4 million personal surety bond co-signed by nine family members and friends and to post an additional $1 million bond with $100,000 deposit. His bonds were granted by Magistrate Judge Edwin Torres, who rejected the prosecution’s argument to hold him in detention.

An attorney representing relatives of the victims said they support the extradition request for Bravo’s criminal trial on aggravated homicide charges in Argentina. But the lawyer said they also want to see “some accountability and measure of justice” in their federal civil case, especially because Bravo has been allowed to live with impunity in the “safe harbor” of the United States for decades.

“He has lived a comfortable, successful life for nearly 50 years after committing these crimes,” said Claret Vargas, senior staff attorney for the San Francisco nonprofit, Center for Justice and Accountability, which filed the lawsuit on behalf of the victims of the military prison killings. “We hope that he is extradited — that’s what all the families want.”

Bravo’s longtime defense attorney, Neal Sonnett, described him as “an honest, contributing businessman with an untarnished record” who moved with his family to the United States in 1980 after retiring from the Argentine military.

Sonnett told the Miami Herald that Argentina’s extradition request and the victims’ civil suit should be rejected, calling the allegations “false” because the military prison killings happened as a result of an inmate uprising by “terrorists.” He also described Argentina’s second extradition petition as a “travesty” because it had previously been resolved by a Miami federal judge in Bravo’s favor.

“The lawsuit against Roberto Bravo is legally wrong, factually untrue, and morally bankrupt,” Sonnett said. “The events in the complaint took place almost 50 years ago, and a 2010 attempt by Argentina to extradite Mr. Bravo was denied by a federal judge, who found that Mr. Bravo had been acquitted in Argentina of any wrongdoing, and that charges brought in Argentina more than 30 years later were ‘political offenses’ barred by our extradition treaty.”

The Bravo case has resurrected the painful era of Argentina’s oppressive military-backed dictatorships in the 1970s and 1980s that were only later held accountable for the “disappearance” of countless leftist dissidents branded as “terrorists” seeking to overthrow the government. The period was known as the “Dirty War.”

“My father survived the Trelew massacre and wanted to devote his life to expose the truth of what happened, but he was murdered before he could see justice,” Raquel Camps, the daughter of the late Alberto Camps and the lead plaintiff in the Miami lawsuit, said in a statement.

Whether the relatives’ lawsuit will be allowed to go forward depends on a motion to dismiss the torture case by Bravo’s attorney, Sonnett. He must file the motion in January, which is likely to be based on technical grounds, such as the statute of limitations.

Sonnett has been successful in defending Bravo, overcoming a prior extradition petition by the Argentine government. In 2010, a magistrate judge, Robert Dubé, declined to certify the country’s petition. He noted Bravo was protected under an Argentine amnesty law, was exonerated by a military tribunal, and that the testimony of three survivors of the prison shootings was not credible.

Significantly, Dubé found that at least one of the 19 prisoners attacked a guard and attempted to grab his weapon just before the shooting erupted in 1972. As a result, the judge found the shooting offense was “political” in nature and Bravo couldn’t be charged under the U.S.-Argentina extradition treaty because he was defending himself against a rebellion.

That political issue — cast against evidence showing the prisoners were unarmed when Bravo and the other officers shot them — will weigh heavily on Torres, the magistrate judge deciding whether to extradite him.

According to the extradition complaint and other court records, 25 prisoners affiliated with a militant leftist group opposed to Argentina’s de facto military government escaped from the Rawson Penitentiary in Chubut Province on Aug. 15, 1972, which resulted in the shooting death of one prison guard.

Of the 25 escapees, six eventually got away in a jetliner that had been hijacked, but the other 19 were recaptured and taken to the Almirante Zar Naval Air Base in Trelew, Argentina.

During their incarceration there, Bravo was a lieutenant in Argentina’s Naval Infantry Battalion No. 4 at the base.

In the early morning of Aug. 22, 1972, the extradition petition says, all 19 prisoners at the Argentine naval base in Trelew were sleeping when Bravo and four other officers arrived with machine guns and .45-caliber pistols.

“The officers ordered the prisoners to stand in a line outside their cells with their heads down,” says the new extradition complaint, based on evidence from Argentine authorities. “Moments later, the naval officers shot at them from a close distance.

“Many of the prisoners were killed instantly from this initial round of gunfire,” the complaint continues. “The naval officers then proceeded to discern whether there were any survivors and attempted to execute them. Bravo located several prisoners who did not die in the initial salvo and used his pistol to shoot [them].”

Three of the 19 prisoners survived the shootings and became key witnesses, including Raquel Camps’ father, Alberto, though he and the other two survivors who gave statements later died.

Despite losing the extradition case a decade ago, federal prosecutors in Miami argue that the latest extradition complaint is stronger. They point to the 2012 Argentine trial of three of Bravo’s fellow naval officers who were involved in the prison massacre. They were prosecuted and convicted based on witness evidence showing the officers carried out the fatal shootings of unarmed inmates at close range, according to the extradition complaint filed by the U.S. Attorney’s Office. Bravo could not be tried in absentia under Argentine law.

“Notably, the trial court and appellate court’s findings [in Argentina] rejected several legal and factual defenses raised by Bravo during his prior extradition proceeding, including his claim of statutory amnesty, prior acquittal in a military inquiry, and the purported lack of credibility of the survivors’ statements,” according to the extradition complaint.

At an extradition hearing earlier this year, federal prosecutor Jason Wu argued that Bravo and the other officers did not act in self-defense.

“The Argentinian Trial Court [in 2012] concluded beyond a reasonable doubt that a group of military officers, including Mr. Bravo, massacred unarmed and defenseless prisoners in the dead of night, and those findings provide more than enough probable cause to certify this request,” Wu said at the extradition hearing last March.

But Bravo’s defense attorney, Sonnett, countered nothing has changed about the facts and the law, arguing there is still a lack of probable cause that his client committed any crimes at the military prison. He said the Trelew prison shootings were not “summary executions” and the fact that there were three survivors proves that point.

Sonnett argued that Bravo and the other officers at the naval prison were defending themselves against imprisoned members of a leftist terrorist group known as the Montoneros, who in August 1972 had escaped from another prison a week earlier before being recaptured and incarcerated at the naval prison in Trelew.

“These people were Montoneros, they were guerrillas,” Sonnett said at the hearing. “They were very tough, illegal people. They had escaped from a maximum security prison six days earlier.”

“The [Argentine] report makes it clear that [one of the prisoners] attempted to take away the weapon of one of the guards [at the Trelew prison], and that’s when the shooting started. … So this is not a situation … that they just lined these people up and shot them indiscriminately.”


(c) 2020 Miami Herald

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