December 13, 2013
The great escape
While Tuesday’s cinematic escape of 13 convicts from Ezeiza penitentiary belongs more to descriptive journalism, the subsequent change in the Federal Penitentiary Service helm warrants analysis. By replacing the extravagant Víctor Hortel (on his 51st birthday. no less) with his predecessor Alejandro Marambio (immediately questioned by prestigious human rights voices), the government risks moving from one extreme to the other — and even creating a controversy on the scale of General César Milani’s controversial promotion to Army chief-of-staff earlier this year.
Human rights can no more be denied to prisoners than they should be restricted to the events of four decades ago and the new penitentiary helm is cause for concern here. This space has in the past mentioned prison conditions as a prime example of current civil rights issues to which human rights groups could be usefully updating their attention and there is scant evidence of Marambio doing much to improve these while heading the prison system between 2007 and 2010 (even if prison overcrowding is worse in the rest of the subcontinent, as Justice Minister Julio Alak has pointed out). Former airport police chief and current Buenos Aires provincial deputy Marcelo Saín dubbed Marambio’s return a setback from the moment he was named and yesterday Saín was being echoed by various other critics including 1980 Nobel Peace Prize winner Adolfo Pérez Esquivel. There should be no rush to judgement before weighing these misgivings but the new/old official needs to be vetted with the greatest care.
These serious doubts outweigh any arguments in favour of this move. The chief of these would probably be seeing the back of Hortel whose controversial “Vatayón Militante” and the “cultural excursions” (apparently not enough for Tuesday’s absconding convicts) created such a media splash last winter — his time was undoubtedly the Kirchnerite high tide following the 2011 landslide and he would be seen more as a toxic asset for this year’s voting. In that context, Marambio might not be the best example but returning to a 2007 Néstor Kirchner appointment could be an interesting precedent for reverting to the more successful teams of earlier periods (described by Washington’s ambassador at the time as “ordinary people doing extraordinary things”) — a “back to the basics” approach instead of “deepening the model” and plunging faster ahead. At least the government is now seen to be paying more attention to the crime issue and that is positive. But perhaps not only the causes of this breakout of dangerous criminals need to be fully probed.