Argentina's security forces killed at least 107 people in Buenos Aires and the neighboring province in 2012. This is the story of police brutality and how the province's local force, the "bonaerense," has practically turned into a mafia.
Twenty-eight-year-old Miguel Angel Durrels was sitting in the backseat of a patrol car on a Sunday afternoon. The officers were bringing him to the police station in Pilar, a small town in Buenos Aires province. He was wearing typical "gaucho" clothing, with wide pants and sandals. He had short hair, and was unshaven.
When they arrived at the police station, the officers said they had found him with 78 grams of marijuana. Their fellow officers put him in a jail cell. It seemed like a straightforward case. The police said a couple of men on motorcycles had given a package to Durrels, which they thought was suspicious, so they stopped him and found the drugs.
In similar situations, the accused always claim the marijuana is for personal use and they are freed without a long prison sentence. But this time, as the hours dragged on, the case became more complicated. The next morning, Durrels was found dead in his cell, hanging from a white cord tied to the bars.
According to the investigation file, the next day the police commissioner took statements from the four jail guards. David Cordobes – who had found the body – said that at three in the morning, he went down to the prison cell to take Durrels' fingerprints. Next to the cell door, he had seen Sergio Rojas, the only other inmate that shared the cell with Durrels that night. Rojas was asleep. There was no electricity, so Cordobes had to look hard to find Durrels. When Cordobes saw him at the back of the cell, “standing, immobile, rigid,” he called out to Durrels, but there was no answer. Cordobes looked closer and saw that his neck was tied to the bars, in a choking position. That was when he shouted for help.
In his declaration to the commissioner, Rojas said he only woke up when he heard the officer shout to the other guards. Miguel Angel Durrels had been hung three meters from where he was sleeping, but he hadn't heard anything.
The ambulance arrived 15 minutes later and Durrels' body ended up in the Lomas de Zamora morgue, a town to the east of Buenos Aires city. Weeks later, the family would obtain a copy of the autopsy. Miguel Angel Durrels, male, 1.68 meters, dark-skinned, black hair, brown eyes, medium-sized mouth, nose, and ears, unshaven. Weight: 64 kilos, teeth in good condition but with a few missing.
The next morning, Durrels was found dead in his cell.
The report said that he suffocated to death via hanging and that his body had wounds on the face and torso, but it was not clear if he had hung himself. The report also omitted whether the cable that caused the asphyxiation was the same one found around Durrels' neck, when the guards found him.
A doctor from the morgue in Lomas – who preferred to remain anonymous – noted that the report did not state whether the neck wound looked as though it was caused by the cable. Additionally, the report failed to mention what type of mark the knot from the cable left on his skin.
The doctor also said that the wounds on Durrels' face and the torso could have been caused if he hit himself against the bars, although they could also have been caused by “blows” from the police. The doctor also said that when looking into a possible confrontation between an inmate and a police officer, a state attorney must take charge of the investigation. However, this did not happen in Durrels' case: the guards were interrogated by the police commissioner. There was also no DNA testing done in order to prove, for example, whether Miguel Angel Durrels had grappled the iron bars -- whether he had tried to resist being hung. The autopsy did not determine if Durrels had committed suicide or if he had been murdered.
In the months that followed his death, Durrels' family members and friends marched in Pilar several times, demanding justice. On October 9, 2013, one month after his death, his father, Roberto Durrels, two of his daughters, and a handful of family members and friends walked the streets of Pilar under a torrential rain. Roberto Durrels wore a white shirt with a photo of his son and a phrase: “Justice for Miguel Angel."
An hour later, they arrived at the downtown headquarters of the "bonaerense"-- the term for the Buenos Aires Provincial Police -- and began to shout: “Murderers, murderers!” They left dozens of candles at the door to the police station, as well as photos of Miguel Angel on the walls, where they also spray-painted the word, “Justice!”
The suspicions held by Durrels' family coincide with those of several NGOs in Buenos Aires that specialize in human rights violations. Luciana Pols, a researcher with the Center for Legal and Social Studies (CELS) searched for similarities between Miguel's case and previous incidents.
She found several within a few minutes.
“There was this Mendoza boy, William Vargas," she said. "They caught him because he had six marijuana plants in his house and they put him in pre-trial detention. He was in jail for a month while awaiting his trial and a group of seven guards tortured him during that time. They filmed it and put in on the Internet.”
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That happened in 2011. That same year, the bonaerense police killed a 17-year-old in Balcarce, a city in Buenos Aires province. He had apparently just bought seven grams of marijuana. The police agent that chased him shot and killed the teenager. The officer -- who was sentenced a few months ago -- claimed the weapon had gone off accidentally.
According to statistics from the CELS, in 2012 alone 107 citizens from the city and province of Buenos Aires died at the hands of security forces. The bonaerense were involved in 49 of these cases. That same year, an adolescent died allegedly from a stray bullet from the same police force. The 15-year-old girl was on a school patio in Moron municipality, in Buenos Aires province. Also in Moron is a bonaerense lieutenant who is serving a six-year prison sentence for shooting and killing a minor from behind, in 2008. The CELS and other organizations like the Coordinators Against Police and Institutional Repression (CORREPI) speak of an “easy trigger" -- referring to the police force's tendency to use excessive force.
"A group of guards tortured him. They filmed it and put in on the Internet."
Journalist Ricardo Ragendorfer, author of the book "La Bonaerense," an account of police corruption in the country's most populated province, wrote the following:
In countries such as Mexico, Colombia, or Russia, there are corrupt police because the mafia bribes them. Here, the police bribe the criminals. They say the traditional mafias were always reluctant to set up operations in Argentina throughout the twentieth century because of the hostility they felt from the police.
A high-level security official – who preferred to remain anonymous – tells the following joke that sums up the perception that many people have of Argentina's security forces:
“Representatives from three police units meet to see who is the best. There is the Scotland Yard, the FBI, and the bonaerense. It is a simple test: the referee lets go of a rabbit and gives it a five minute head start before the police chase after the rabbit. The officer that returns the rabbit in the shortest amount of time wins.
"They let the first rabbit go, they give it a head start, and Scotland Yard takes 22 minutes to return the animal. The same happens for the FBI, who take 18 minutes to return the rabbit. They let the rabbit go for the bonaerense, give it a five minute advantage, then the officers begin searching. Five minutes later they arrive with a bloodstained and badly bruised pig claiming it is a rabbit.”
On June 2, 2013, Nestor Roncaglia, head of a narcotics unit for the Federal Police, finished working and left for his house. When he arrived home, he got out of his car and saw three men walking quickly towards him. Roncaglia greeted them, but at that moment, one of the men took out a pistol and pointed it at him.
Roncaglia – who had three decades of experience as a police officer -- took out his gun and fired a shot at the same time the bullets rained over him. He was hit three times. He fell to his knees. Meanwhile, one of the men who tried to kill him fell to the ground. The other perpetrators fled, and Roncaglia remained lying on the ground until a woman came to help him. “I survived by 20 centimeters," the agent said, while repeatedly looking at the 30-second video from the day he almost lost his life.
The head of a police anti-drug unit has dozens of possible enemies. Even today, Roncaglia does not know who tried to kill him. They arrested the man who was injured at the scene of the crime, but they could only determine he was a burglar. He and his accomplices came from a neighborhood known as General Rodriguez, on the outskirts of Buenos Aires.
“My first theory is that other police officers told them to kill me," Roncaglia said while sitting in a federal police office. "The criminals lived 70 kilometers away and did not know I was an officer."
Nicknamed "Ronco" by his colleagues – and considered an excellent cop, due to the multiple investigations he has led – Roncaglia points at his body and shows where the three bullets hit him that day. Two in the hand from a .32 calibre gun and one in the torso from a .45 calibre. In his office, he has a poster of the movie “I Am Legend” with his face Photoshopped on Will Smith's, a gift that one of his best friends gave him after the assassination attempt.
Ronco's second theory is that a drug trafficker who was sentenced to 12 years in prison in 2008 -- after he was found with a ton of cocaine in the General Rodriguez neighborhood -- ordered the hit.
The third theory -- according to the state attorney general -- is that the police “liberated” the area for burglars. “At times, the police leave areas free from supervision so that others can rob it. The police know a group of thieves will go into an area, and they tell them which blocks won't have any police presence during which times. This happens a lot in the province, but I am still inclined to believe the first theory.”
Over the last several years, Roncaglia has worked on several of Argentina's most high-profile cases, like the investigation into the so-called “medicine mafia," an organization dedicated to the illegal sale of pharmaceutical drugs; the case of Chilean police officer Arancibia Clavel, who was accused of assassinating a high-level general in Chile; several important bank robberies, as well as the corruption case of Schokender II, the ex-finance director for the Mothers of the Plaza de Mayo Foundation (Fundacion Madres de la Plaza de Mayo). Just weeks before the interview, Roncaglia had captured Delfin Zacarias, one of the biggest drug traffickers in Rosario, a drug boss that was friends with the mayor and the local police and who had never been investigated. Roncaglia arrested him with 300 kilos of drugs. The biggest criminal groups in Rosario, as well as the Canteros and the Monos gangs, were supplied by Zacarias.
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"We take him to the police station in Santa Fe and within two minutes he already had two cell phones. We found that out because we were investigating the case apart from the organization. A federal police officer in Rosario was arrested for telling a criminal group about a raid. A state attorney, Juan Murray, came to Buenos Aires specifically to ask for support from the federal police. He told them: 'If I go to the local police force...' The Rosario police never found out what we were doing.” Roncaglia told the story to illustrate how the local police, and even some federal police, are infiltrated by drug trafficking. “We used to have a violent dictator, but now almost everyone is beginning to work within democracy. Corruption cases occur, but not like before,” Roncaglia noted.
There have been complaints against the Argentine police for decades. One government official, Marcelo Sain – who was in involved in the police reform between 2004 and 2007 – told of various police officers linked to torture, assassinations, and the creation of demarcated zones for criminals to rob (as is suspected in Roncaglia's shooting). Ten years ago, the police force was decentralized, separating investigations from the judicial process and removing the institution's corrupt leadership. “We fired 3,000 of the almost 40,000 agents, many of whom were high ranking,” Sain affirmed. He added that the police were one of the political bastions in Buenos Aires, a third of the Argentine political system. Sain lamented that since the reform, little by little, things have started to return to how they were before.
* This is a version of an article written by Alejandra S. Inzunza and Pablo Ferri for Mexican Newspaper El Universal, as part of an investigation by the journalist collective Dromomanos on how drug trafficking operates in Latin America. See original article here. Follow the team on Twitter @Dromomanos, and see more of their work at https://dromomanos.com.