March 9, 2014
30 YEARS OF DEMOCRACYTuesday, December 10, 2013
Despite the victories, challenges remain
Arbitrary detentions, torture, police brutality continue to be an all-too-common reality
They have been allies and rivals. Police brutality was not only an everyday practice during the last dictatorship, which ruled the country between 1976 and 1983. During these last 30 democratic years, “trigger-happy” murders were committed thousands of times, according to human rights organizations. Torture in police stations and penitentiary units was reported hundreds of times, as well.
In May, 1987, less than four years after the return of democracy to the country, a case of police violence hit the headlines, reminding some of the usual shootings during the military regime, which were often presented by the authorities as clashes between the Armed Forces and leftist organizations.
Three young men were drinking beer on the corner of two streets in Ingeniero Budge, an impoverished neighbourhood in the southern part of Greater Buenos Aires. Three policemen opened fire, killing Agustín Olivera, 26, Oscar Aredes, 19, and Roberto Argañaraz, 24. After the killings, people took to the streets to demand justice. In 1990 and in 1994, the policemen accused of firing the fatal shots, Jorge Miño, Juan Ramón Balmaceda and Isidro Romero, were found guilty and sentenced.
León “Toto” Zimmerman was the lawyer in charge of representing the families of Olivera, Aredes and Argañaraz. He was also responsible for identifying these cases as “trigger-happy” murders, lawyer Sergio Smietniansky explained to the Herald.
In 1968, journalist Rodolfo Walsh — who was killed in 1977 by a dictatorship death squad with his body taken to the Navy Mechanics School (ESMA) clandestine detention centre where it disappeared — characterized the Buenos Aires provincial police as “the trigger-happy sect.” Twenty years later, Zimmerman tried to echo his words but it seemed too cruel to talk about “happiness” in this case. That’s why he deemed the the so-called “Budge massacre” as a “trigger-happy” murder.
“This was not the first case of trigger-happy murder but it was the first time that, thanks to social activists, these cases were taken to court,” Smietniansky made clear.
Many cases have been given the same title since then, although some oppose the name.
“They are misnamed ‘trigger-happy’ cases because police violence is a structural practice,” Gastón Chillier, the executive director of the Centre for Legal and Social Studies (CELS), told the Herald.
In her book Repression in Democracy, lawyer María del Carmen Verdú —who heads the CORREPI association which fights against police brutality— said that during these 30 years of democratic rule, police repression has assumed three different forms: shootings, the torture of prisoners and arbitrary arrests.
Maybe the most iconic case regarding arbitrary arrests was the one where schoolboy Walter Bulacio was a victim.
In 1991, Walter was 17 years old. He was a huge fan of San Lorenzo football club and of Patricio Rey y sus Redonditos de Ricota, a popular rock band. On April 19, 1991, the band played at the Obras Sanitarias stadium in this city’s Núñez neighbourhood and Bulacio attended with a group of friends.
Walter, along with 70 other youngsters, was taken to the police station even though the detainees were minors. Police Inspector Miguel Ángel Espósito was furious and, according to witnesses, vented his anger against Bulacio by hitting him on the head.
The police never called his parents to tell them that Bulacio had been arrested nor informed a judge. They were following the instructions outlined in a memo issued by the Federal Police, which established that policemen did not have to inform magistrates if they arrested minors.
After his release, the 17-year-old boy was taken to Pirovano Hospital and then to Fernández Hospital while his parents looked for him. When they found him at Pirovano Hospital, he could not speak. Doctor Fabián Vìtolo later declared that he had asked Walter if someone had beaten him on the head. He replied: “Yes, the cops.”
On April 26, 1991, a week after his arrest, Walter died at the Mitre Clinic. Since then, his parents and his grandmother have been seeking justice. It was only last month that a court, for the first time, judged and sentenced Espósito to three years. But he will not go to jail.
“We had no expectations,” Verdú said because, according to her, cases like Bulacio’s are widespread throughout the country.
According to a recent survey released by CORREPI, 4,011 people died in the last 30 years as a result of police brutality. Verdú told the Herald that they had reported more cases of security forces violence during the last decade despite the human rights policies and the accompanying “narrative” built up by the Kirchnerite administration.
From 1996 to 2002, they had reported 1,292 cases of police brutality but the number climbed up to 4,011 by this year. The year 2009 was the most violent, registering 285.
Of the cases registered during theses 30 years of democracy, 46 percent are “trigger-happy” murders while 39 percent are people killed while in custody in police stations or jails.
Many cases of torture ended up in the death or disappearance of the prisoner, as happened to 16-year-old Luciano Arruga. He was forcibly disappeared on December 31, 2009. He lived in a poor neighbourhood in Lomas del Mirador, La Matanza, Buenos Aires province. A witness said he had seen the teenager tortured at a house in Lomas del Mirador which operated as a police station.
After several delays in the investigation, a prosecutor ordered the search of an area known as Monte Dorrego, a piece of wasteland in Lomas del Mirador where police cars were parked for three hours on the day Arruga went missing and where it was thought he could have been buried.
Like Arruga, many other youngsters suffered in similar situations. Their forced disappearances are a consequence of the torture they suffered while they were in custody. As CELS states, sometimes members of the security forces make their bodies vanish to hide their crimes.
Torture is a big problem in most of the provinces in the country. However, in Buenos Aires province, partly because the number of people incarcerated is higher, reports of such cases are too.
According to the Buenos Aires Provincial Memory Commission (CPM), there were around 28,300 people in jail last year. Most of them were remanded in custody and only 929 had their sentences confirmed. In 2012, 143 people died in custody. Forty of those were traumatic deaths.
Ten days ago, the CPM reported that since 2005 they have recorded 17,689 denunciations of torture.
Police against protesters
“We believe that during these 30 years, police repression targeted youngsters from poor sectors,” Smietniansky said. Although during the dictatorship the targets were political militants, that situation changed during the few last decades.
In addition, human rights organizations have denounced that police forces also targeted protesters during these 30 years.
According to CORREPI, 45 protesters were killed during Fernando de la Rúa’s presidency. Most of them were killed during December, 2001, in the upheaval which followed the economic and social crisis.
During Eduardo Duhalde’s term in office, two protesters were killed. Maximiliano Kosteki and Darío Santillán were members of the unemployed movement and were blocking Pueyrredón Bridge, which connects Buenos Aires province to BA City. In a violent clearing of the blockade, police opened fire against the protesters. Both of them were killed while trying to flee.
During Néstor Kirchner’s presidency, two protesters were killed. One of them was teacher Carlos Fuentealba, shot by policeman Darío Poblete during a strike in 2007 in Neuquén province, when teachers were demanding better salaries. According to CORREPI, 18 demonstrators have been killed since President Cristina Fernández de Kirchner took office in 2007.
Having analyzed these reports from three decades, human rights organizations have demanded major reforms.
“Security forces should undergo a reform. That’s a pending issue for democracy,” Chillier declared.