Justice delivered for Angelelli’s death
La Rioja court issues verdict in emblematic dictatorship-era case involving Catholic bishop
Almost 38 years ago, Monsignor Enrique Angelelli was killed by a death squad, the Federal Oral Court in La Rioja province yesterday concluded. The historic ruling comes after the death of the progressive bishop had been presented for years as the result of a car crash but judges yesterday determined that Luciano Benjamín Menéndez and Luis Estrella were responsible for Angelelli’s murder and sentenced both to life.
The verdict was quickly celebrated by government officials, human rights activists and Catholic Church leaders.
When Judge José Quiroga Uriburu said that both repressors will have to serve their sentences in a common jail in Bouwer, Córdoba, there was an explosion of joy in the courtroom. Father Arturo Pinto — who was seriously injured on August 4, 1976 when Angelelli was killed while driving his van — stood up and hugged an activist who was sitting next to him. Tears rolled down his cheeks.
Almost 38 years later, he got the justice he had long been demanding.
“For Christian grass-root organizations — which have long been demanding memory and justice — this was a historic day,” celebrated lawyer Bernardo Lobo Bugeau, who represented the National Human Rights Secretariat, in the proceedings that started in November last year.
The courtroom was packed with human rights activists and officials. La Rioja bishop Marcelo Colombo was also there, making it clear that the local Catholic Church supported the call for justice.
Pope Francis played a key role in the trial, providing letters sent by Angelelli to the Holy See in which he said that “torture was a common practice in the province” during the first dark months of state terrorism. “Several people suggested to me that I must inform you that I am facing death threats,” the priest born in 1923 wrote.
Father Miguel Ángel López was the person who told Colombo that days after Gabriel Longueville and Carlos Murias’ killings, Angelelli gave a brief to Wenceslao Pedernera, who travelled to Rome. After this revelation, Colombo requested those archives from Pope Francis. A couple of days later, the letters appeared and were used as evidence in the trial. “The letters were essential to explain what happened to Angelelli,” Lobo Bugeau told the Herald yesterday.
Human Rights Secretary Martín Fresneda travelled to La Rioja to be present in the hearing. “Those who used to attend mass and then commit crimes against humanity now are being tried in court, putting an end to impunity,” Fresneda said.
In the country, the role played by the Church during the state terror-era has already been examined. In 2007, military bishop Christian von Wernich was sentenced to life in prison for seven murders committed in Buenos Aires province and the court highlighted that those offences were part of the genocidal process.
In 2011, the Bahía Blanca Federal Oral Court ordered to investigate the role played by chaplain Omar Vara during the last dictatorship. Vara fled to Paraguay, where he hid away in a church in Ciudad del Este. Vara died before officials were able to extradite him to the country.
Angelelli’s last journey
On August 4 1976, a Peugeot 504 car forced the van that Pinto was driving off the road. He does not remember the details of the crash because he woke up in hospital. There, he heard that Angelelli had been killed in the supposed accident.
The court yesterday stated that what happened to Angelelli and Pinto on August 4, 1976 at 3.30am, was part of the machine of state terrorism and that the progressive bishop’s murder was a crime against humanity.
That day, Angelelli and his assistant Pinto were returning from El Chamical, where Longueville and Murias had been buried. Both priests had been abducted on July 18, 1976 from the church in El Chamical. They were taken to an Air Force base in that city, where they were tortured. Their corpses, blindfolded, appeared in a patch of waste land.
On July 22, 1976, Angelelli delivered his last homily, a farewell to Murias and Longueville.
“I don’t understand how he (the author of the murders) can sleep or kiss his wife and children. I cannot understand how these men can take their fellow men — saying they are Christian — to grind them,” Angelelli said that day before dozens of parishioners.
“Lord, please, let Gabriel and Carlos shake their murderers’ hearts so that they stop committing these crimes,” the bishop concluded.
The day he was killed Angelelli was carrying a document to file a report on the murder of the two priests. The police, according to plaintiffs, freed the area and the manhunt took place.
Next step: who covered up the crime?
Rodolfo Nicolás Vigo was sworn in as a judge in July 1976. A month later he had Angellelli’s case in his hands. Lobo Bugeau believes that he was not even a judge as in his record it is said that when he got a job at the Federal Police he had not finished his secondary studies.
“I think he was a fake judge,” Lobo Bugeau said, making it clear that there was a clear intent to cover up the murder. Vigo ordered an autopsy and no information on the state of Angelelli’s cranium was included. One of the experts who took part in the autopsy said before the court that he did not understand how that information was not included.
The tribunal yesterday ordered to investigate retired colonel Eduardo José María de Casas and General Norberto Apa. The latter was arrested for the role he played during left-wing armed organization Montoneros’ counter-offensive operation, when dozens of activists tried to enter the country but ended up being abducted and forcibly disappeared.
Lobo explained to this newspaper that both of them are linked to the existence of a parallel investigation and that in 2008 De Casas showed pictures of Angelelli to a priest who told that story in court. Those pictures were never included in the investigation file.
Luciano Benjamín Menéndez was not present in the courtroom. He listened to the verdict via teleconference. However, before the sentence was issued, the man who used to head the Third Army Corps — which was in charge of the repression in ten provinces — said: “I’m innocent. I was not involved in Angelelli’s death.”
Estrella was in La Rioja province. His last words were somehow self-incriminating.
“Witnesses said that the crime scene had not been touched ... sorry, I mean the accident scene,” he said as attendees started to laugh. Estrella was the head of the Air Force base in El Chamical, which was reportedly a clandestine detention centre during the last dictatorship. The Engineers Battalion Number 141, which was where Army chief César Milani served during the 1970s, was in charge of the repression in the province.