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Trial into 2001 BA City riot killings opens

Former Security Secretary Enrique Mathov is one of the officials accused for the 2001 repression.
By Luciana Bertoia
Herald Staff
Members of De la Rúa’s Cabinet taken to court but former president is not included

Federal Oral Court Number 6 will start tomorrow to examine one of the nightmares that still remain in the Argentine collective memory: the repression unleashed during December 20, 2001 in Buenos Aires City, that left five people dead and more than 117 injured.

In December 2001, the eroded government of Fernando de la Rúa managed to make middle class and impoverished sectors converge in a united demand. People took to the streets, not only in this City but also in the rest of the country. Summer had not yet started but the social climate was already overheating. Looting and police repression multiplied as the hours went by.

By 11pm on December 19, 2001, De la Rúa decided to declare the state of siege. In a national broadcast, he addressed the nation: “There are groups that are enemies of order and the republic and aim to sow discord and violence. They want to generate chaos so that they can achieve what they couldn’t through elections,” he said, blaming his party’s main rival, the Peronists.

De la Rúa still regrets the message he delivered hours before resigning. He had no way out, the journalist Miguel Bonasso explains in his book El Palacio y la Calle, as his Interior Minister Ramón Mestre refused to deliver the address himself. Mestre died in 2003, that is why he will not be made accountable for what happened in those two days in Buenos Aires City and the rest of the country.

De la Rúa is alive but he will not be part of the trial as the Cassation Court confirmed in 2012 Judge Claudio Bonadío’s ruling, dropping the investigation against the former president.

The Supreme Court has still to revise that ruling. The Centre for Legal and Social Studies (CELS), which represents the relatives of two of the fatal victims, filed an appeal before the top court to define de la Rúa’s legal situation.

“De la Rúa won’t be part of this trial but the court can reopen the chance of judging him in another proceeding,” Maximiliano Medina, CELS lawyer who will be taking part in the trial that starts tomorrow alongside his colleague Lucía de la Vega, told the Herald.

The victims

Only in the City, five people were killed during the December 2001 upheaval, prompted by the economic and social crisis. More than 115 people were injured and around 300 were detained.

The state of siege decreed by De la Rúa had an effect that he had not planned for. People took to the streets to defy it. In the early hours of December 20, the iconic Mothers of Plaza de Mayo who during the last dictatorship demonstrated in spite of the state of siege went to the main square and were attacked by the police cavalry.

Repression spread on the streets that surrounded Plaza de Mayo and the killings took place during that fateful afternoon.

Judges José Martínez Sobrino, Javier Anzoátegui and Rodrigo Giménez Uriburu will have to examine the killings of Alberto Márquez, Gastón Riva, Carlos “Petete” Almirón, Diego Lamagna and Gustavo Benedetto.

Márquez worked in the insurance business. He was 57 and was a Peronist. He died near the Obelisco. Thirty-year-old Riva was a delivery boy and was riding his motorbike across Avenida de Mayo when a bullet hit him. The last words he told his friend were “I’m dying” as his wife at home watched as he was being carried by a group of men and heard a TV reporter explaining that he was one of the dead demonstrators. “Petete” Almirón was 24 and he was an activist. He was trying to evade policemen when he and a group of comrades came face to face with the security agents, who opened fire. Diego Lamagna was 26 and Benedetto (23) worked in a supermarket. Benedetto decided to go to Plaza de Mayo that afternoon but he never arrived. He was shot dead by security guards from the HSBC bank, located on Avenida de Mayo and Chacabuco streets. One of the men accused of his death was retired lieutenant colonel Jorge Varando, reportedly a repressor during the last dictatorship. On December 20, Varando rallied his subordinates: “Fire, don’t be such cowards.”

The accused

Seventeen defendants will be in court tomorrow. De la Rúa’s Security Secretary Enrique Mathov will be one of them as well as Rubén Santos, the former head of the Federal Police, the force in charge of the repression in the City.

“The important thing is that we will be discussing the political responsibility of those crimes,” considered Medina.

“This is the first time that the heads of a security force are taken to a court for repression. We are used to having in court the direct authors of the crimes, not their bosses,” the lawyer explained to this newspaper. “We are going to be part of a historic trial,” he added. For the CELS, this would be a good chance for a court to establish certain standards regarding police intervention in social protests.

The trial will last more than a year and judges will have to work hard to lay the ghosts of that infamous December.

@LucianaBertoia

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