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Argentina: Kidnapping and forced prostitution verdict causes uproar

The case of Marita Veron would never have reached the courts except for the extraordinary courage, strength and persistence of Marita’s mother, Susana Trimarco, who fought obstructions by police, highly placed politicians and the judicial system in an attempt to get justice.

By Robyn Marshall, Buenos Aires

January 8, 2012 — Links International Journal of Socialist Renewal -- The failure of three judges in the province of Tucuman to convict 13 men and women accused of the kidnapping and forced prostitution of Marita Veron has caused national uproar here in Argentina. The Argentinian women’s movement, outraged by the verdict, has been united in its response to the judicial failure to convict the men, with demonstrations all over Argentina. The case has been in the newspapers for weeks, highlighting the horrendous situation of thousands of women who have been kidnapped at a young age and forced to live the life of a sex slave, locked up, bashed and terrified into submission, in order to make millions for brothel owners.

The particular case of Marita Veron would never have reached the courts except for the extraordinary courage, strength and persistence of Marita’s mother, Susana Trimarco, who fought obstructions by police, highly placed politicians and the judicial system in an attempt to get justice. Her daughter, 23 years of age, disappeared in 2002 when she went to keep a medical appointment in the city of Tucuman. She was seen being dragged into a red car. Three days later she was found by police in the town of La Ramada, 30 kilometres away, wearing red high heels instead of her sneakers. She told police she had escaped from a sex party. They put her on a bus back to Tucuman, but she was never seen again. Marita had a three-year-old daughter, Micaela.

Trimarco and her husband began a long search for their daughter, travelling to Uruguay, Chile and Paraguay. She had to investigate the case by herself, paying her own expenses, as well as confronting police agencies and the judiciary, who with false clues and legal tricks put obstacles in her path. Trimarco even dressed as a prostitute to enter brothels to look for her daughter. The electricity was cut off at her house as she couldn’t pay the bill, and at other times during the search, she lived on the streets with her granddaughter. Trimarco eventually wrote a book about her daughter’s disappearance, called Stolen Lives (Vidas Robadas), in 2008, which brought home to Argentinians what had been a totally hidden story. Her husband died in 2010 without ever knowing what happened to Marita.

“Maltreatment” was made a federal offence in 2008. Maltreatment is defined as the "kidnapping, the movement and receiving persons with the aim of exploitation, using means such as fraud, violence, threats or whatever means of intimidation, or coercion, abuse of authority, causing a situation of vulnerability". As a result of this law, some 500 pimps moved out of the brothels of Buenos Aires into the provinces. It was the work of Susana Trimarco who brought about these few changes.

Trimarco finally discovered the man who had kidnapped her daughter. It is the acquittal of this man and 12 others that has brought the Argentinian judicial system into disrepute.

The court case

The Marita Veron case began in the Tucuman courts in February 2012, and was heard by three judges, Alberto Piedrabuena, Emilio Herrera Molina and Eduardo Romero Lascano, and not by a jury.

Despite the testimonies of 55 experts and 140 witnesses, producing 660 boxes of statements over nine months, it wasn’t enough to convict the 13 charged.

There were suspicious manoeuvres by the Tucuman courts, according to lawyer and president of the women’s organisation Cladem, Adriana Guerrero. There was to be a demonstration outside the courts, when the judges were expected to announce their decision. "The tribunal declared a holiday to disinfect the court rooms, one day before the judgement. They wanted to generate a climate so as to demobilise us. There was a huge police operation totally disproportionate to the number and the spirit of the people who were there. All of us were crying and it didn’t occur to anyone to provoke a violent situation”, said Guerrero.

Federal prosecutors have now said there was enough evidence to charge these 13 men and women with crimes involving prison sentences of at least 15 years.

Some 10 victims of maltreatment came forward to testify in the trial that they had seen Marita and could describe her state of health. They also spoke of their own suffering. They did it in front of their captors, their rapists and in front of brothel owners who had kept them prisoners for years. The judges simply concluded they were all lying and that there was insufficient proof to say that Marita had been captive in the brothels of Candy, Candilejas and El Desafio in the town of La Rioja, in Tucuman province. The town of La Rioja in the northwest of Argentina, close to the border with Chile, is described as a sleepy town with three beautiful tree-lined central plazas, but obviously with a sinister underbelly.

The December 14, 2012, Pagina!12 described the trauma of the women, “To be able to speak without fear of beatings, repression, transfers. To go to the streets, freely. To rest. To choose when and with whom to have sex. For those who never have been subjected to such slavery, it is difficult to imagine it. For these girls, it is hard work to become free again. To say what you want. The fear remains glued to the body.”

The judges indicated that the only witness who had sufficient evidence was Fatima Mansilla. She had known Marita and had spoken with her. However Mansilla had been kidnapped, exploited sexually and beaten, since the age of 16, for 10 years by Daniela Milhein and her husband Alejandro Gonzalez, two of the accused. The judges declared that as a consequence, her testimony lacked "objectivity and truthfulness as a witness".

Of an ex-policeman who was charged, Pascual Andrada, the judges said that undoubtedly his role as a kidnapper of young people was convincing. He, along with others of the accused, were certainly involved in a network of prostitution, both national and international, with the use of esoteric rituals, intimidation, a high level of both psychological and physical violence to achieve the subjugation of victims, but there was no proof he and the others accused had been involved in the particular case of Marita Veron, they said.

The judges’ 590-page statement, quoted in the Mar del Plata, December 20, said, "To condemn them, the tribunal should possess the conviction or be certain of the exact facts of the participation of those accused in a form that they are clearly guilty. Due to this doubt, the tribunal ought to absolve them of the crimes''. There was no dissenting opinion from any of the judges.

Aftermath

Susana Trimarco has accused the judges of corruption. She alleges bribes were paid by brothel owner Ruben Ale, known as “La Chancha“ (the Cheat). Trimarco’s lawyer, Jose D’Antona, has asked that Ale be investigated for the kidnapping of Marita. He was not one of the 13 charged, in spite of the fact he was one of the owners of the taxi company, Cinco Estrellas, whose logo was seen on the red Fiat car in which Marita was kidnapped. Ale was also manager of the San Martin club and is alleged to be one of those responsible for the networks of prostitution and narco-trafficking in Tucuman. During the trial one of the accused actually confessed but was then threatened in the bathroom by one of the other accused. D’Antona also asked that the case be reopened to investigate ex-governor Julio Miranda, ex-secretary of security Julio Diaz and a public servant of the law courts, Ernesto Baclini.

D’Antona added that he will charge the judges because of "the attitude the judges assumed during the trial, which in my understanding is criminal. There are innumerable examples (during the actual trial) such as the maltreatment of women, the maltreatment of victims, situations of violence about which the judges did nothing, threats to witnesses, including actions of the Federal Police. I have serious doubts that from my request for a political condemnation (of the conduct of the trial), that the judges will stand trial, as Piedrabuena and Herrera will ask for retirement, the refuge of judges to avoid possible condemnations."

Federal attorney-general Marcelo Colombo, in an interview with Pagina!12, accused the tribunal of sexism and a total ignorance of the lives of working-class women. “The failure of the judges to convict was due to the fact that they disregarded the evidence of other prostitutes, who said they saw Marita at brothels but couldn’t always accurately give time, dates and places, as all these events occurred 10 years ago", said Colombo. "This is because the women prostitutes themselves have been brutally bashed, threatened and violated so many times that they were psychologically traumatised and found it difficult to remember exact details."

Colombo added that laws should also incorporate the possibility that the victims of maltreatment be interviewed by a psychologist and that it be forbidden that they be interrogated in any direct manner by both sets of lawyers. He added that cases should be heard by juries instead of judges, as a method of direct decision making by the general public and society. He also called for a more efficient and rapid system to find persons who have disappeared.

Trap of prostitution

It is difficult to estimate the exact numbers of young women who have become sex slaves in Argentina, although it a widespread phenomenon. Brothel pimps kidnap young girls between the ages of 13 to 17 years of age. After a number of years of enslavement, they are often sold on to brothels in Spain. Teenagers are the most vulnerable to this form of terror, bashed into submission, losing the will to run away, fearing more brutal reprisals and without any resources, physical or emotional, to resist.

They are moved from one brothel to another, as if they were furniture. Other young girls are lured with the promise of a well-paid job as a nanny in another city, away from their hometown, only to find themselves working in a brothel. Other young women living in extreme poverty, uneducated, with no chance of work, accept prostitution as the only solution. Another common source of prostitutes in Argentina are young women taken from Paraguay and the Dominican Republic, who are transported by bus from southern Chile into Argentina.

The extent of the problem can be seen by the fact that the national program for the rescue of women subjected to maltreatment, run by Argentina’s Ministry of Law and Justice, was able to release 572 victims in only nine months. Susana Trimarco during her long struggle, herself was able to rescue 115 young women. Data, cited by parliamentarian Agustin Rossi, shows that since the 2008 change to the law, some 3900 women have been rescued from maltreatment, almost three every day. It is still not known exactly how many are trapped.

What is driving these crimes is the extreme level of profits to be made. “A brothel of medium size, in the barrio of Flores in Buenos Aires, in five years can produce a net profit of 10 million pesos”, said Colombo. Psychologist Patricia Gordon said in the December 14 Pagina!12, “The maltreatment or sexual exploitation must be analysed as a multifactorial phenomena. In the first place … the most important thing is the business. If they were really able to prove the crimes, there is prison and punishment, but that would put an end to a good business for many people, not only the brothel owners, but many others, the politicians, the police and members of the judicial powers, who live off this business.”

The problem is that only the victims of sex slavery can reveal the extent of the crimes, as December 14 Pagina!12 explained: “The brothel owners are not going to self-incriminate, the clients are not going to ask any questions. It’s not important to them or at least, their own skin is more important. It won’t be viewed by the public as an act of heroism, if the clients testify and, moreover, the great majority of judges, politicians and police simply protect the brothel owners. The beatings, the kidnappings, the rapes are not going to be carried out in front of witnesses. The victims are the only ones who can reconstruct the trauma and say exactly what happened. But their voices are not heard, they fall on deaf ears and the crimes continue unpunished.”

Leaders of the Association of Women Volunteers Argentina (Ammar) and a member of the trade union federation CTA repeated the same theme: “They do not listen to us because we are prostitutes, as they didn´t listen to the witnesses in the judgement of Marita Veron. Neither did they listen to the witnesses of the assassination of our comrade Sandra Cabrera in 2004." Sandra Cabrera was murdered in 2004 for denouncing the sexual exploitation of young women in the city of Rosario, and there is proof of the involvement of members of the provincial police, federal police, political officials and judges. The murder of Cabrera remains unsolved.

Elena Reynaga, founder of Ammar, said, “The difference between the exploitation of sexual work and the maltreatment of peoples is that exploitation occurs when the girls who carry out sexual activity take home about 60% of their payment but they are not kidnapped, they come and go from their home. The difference from the cases of those kidnapped is that they never see the light of day again. The Dominicans and the Paraguayans are the people who suffer the most maltreatment in Argentina."

There have been other failures of the justice system, notably, the recent cases of Maria Ovando in Misiones, Carla Figueroa in La Pampa and Tatiana Kolodziey in Chaco. The group Sin Cautivas (No Prisoners) was created in the city of Neuquen after the disappearance of Florencia Penacchi in March 2005. Sin Cautivas stated, “The failure of this tribunal is a monument to the lack of penalties. What justice can hundreds of the disappeared hope for, if they come from poor families, without resources, without access to doctors and lawyers? We have another explanation: we live in a state run by the pimps.”

In Cordoba, the coordinator of Vinculos en Red (Network Ties), Alicia Peressutti, said after the judgement, “I am very afraid. Because in this case which is so significant, with so much media, they let all of them off, imagine what our judges will do… We have many cases which have just began with only one or two witnesses. What is going to happen now?” Vinculos en Red works to rescue victims and accompanies them when they report the perpetrators.

Due to the wave of criticism, minister of security in Tucuman Mario Lopez Herro resigned after the judgement. The failure of the Marita Veron case elicited indignation in a multitude of political and social sectors, but not in the judiciary. The only judicial group that openly condemned the decision of the tribunal was the Association of Women Judges.

Kidnappings of toddlers is also widespread. I was standing in a queue at a migration office at the Brazil-Argentina border and commented on the number of photos of disappeared women as well as young men. The Argentinian woman in front of me told me her three-year-old granddaughter was kidnapped from a park, four years ago, and nothing had been heard of her since.

Methods similar to the dictatorship

Lawyer Ana Oberlin traces a historical line between these crimes and those of the past in the December 14 Pagina!12, “[Maltreatment] is a sinister practice, which in this country generates an immediate association with what occurred with the disappearances during the military dictatorship and what the search for people implies. In the case of the disappeared under the dictatorship, people had to spend many years to confirm there had been assassinations. In this case it produces the same uncertainty, the same anxieties of the families of the victims."

Oberlin continued, "Under the dictatorship, there was a structure for the illegal repression. In the crimes of maltreatment, there is also a developed structure, that allows these crimes to be committed. They are not caused by one person or another in an individual isolated manner. They are committed inside criminal structures.”

Other human rights organisations, including the Grandmothers and Mothers of Plaza de Mayo, said in a press release, “One more time, the Justice Department has shown that they maintain the same practices that they inherited from the dictatorship where they act in conjuction with corrupt police and powerful people, who still act as feudal lords in some Argentinian provinces.” Estela de Carlotto president of the Mothers of Plaza de Mayo, said, “The maltreatment of persons, when they involve the forces of security and the political power, is really another form of forced disappearances... The judgement … is a emblem of the fight against this crime and the judges of Tucuman, with this failure, have said to society that they support and promote this crime."

Amnesty International also condemned the justice system of Argentina: “It is fundamental that we send a clear signal that these kind of acts will not be tolerated... The state has the duty to take all measures necessary for this crime not to remain without punishment, that they find out the truth of the facts” (quoted in Pagina!12, December 17, 2012).

New laws

ln an extraordinary session of the federal parliament President Cristina Fernandez de Kirchner rushed through changes to the Law on Maltreatment on December 20, with the agreement of all political parties. Sensitive to the demands of working prostitutes not to outlaw prostitution, the major changes included:

1. That a signed consent form from the woman does not give any absolution of responsibility to the perpetrators of sexual exploitation.

2. Punishment of brothel pimps who receive monies in the promotion of prostitution with sentences from four to six years.

3. Penalties increased if the victim has been subjected to violence, threats or any other form of intimidation.

4. The national government is obligated to provide assistance to the victim, medical and psychological, and to obtain help in obtaining work, training and to re-enter the education system.

5. If the victim is less than 18 years old, the penalty will increase from 10 to 15 years.

The session ended with people in the gallery holding photos of Marita Veron and other images such as red hand-prints, and the slogan “No to maltreatment.”

Parliamentarian Ricardo Gil Lavedra from Frente para la Victoria, said a “cultural debate” was needed about men who pay for sex and how the mass media treat women. He said that you “cannot deal with maltreatment, without the complicity of the state, the judiciary, the police and political questions, which are linked to the existence of the crime ... [as is the] accepted stereotype of the devaluation of women." He added that rights of women required the decriminalisation of abortion.

During the debate MPs mentioned several cases of women being kidnapped into sex slavery only to be confronted with state inaction or complicity.

King of prostitution

The December 21, 2012, Pagina!12 exposed the extensive networks of Argentina’s brothels and their protection by the state. Lorena Martins denounced her father, Raul Martins, as the owner of brothels in Buenos Aires and Cancun in Mexico. Raul Martins is a former agent of SIDE, the secret police during the dictatorship. Mexican journalist Lydia Cacho has called Raul Martins “the king of prostitution”.

Lorena Martins told Pagina!12: “My accusations will not only affect one of the oldest networks of maltreatment and disappearances in the capital city, but also provide evidence of the complicity of a network of important people in the world of politics, judicial power, the police and agents of SIDE… Never before has anyone spoken about this from the inside. And this I can do because the head of the mafia is my own father. I can deliver videos, photos… The mafia organisation I will denounce can count on many contacts in power; they have dozens of lawyers working for them, enough money to corrupt everybody they can, including bank accounts with millions in the Cayman Islands, the result of laundering the money.''

“If there is no justice for Marita, what can the rest of us expect?”, asked Lorena Martins.

Lorena Martins is presently living in Spain and has asked for protection after receiving threats. Police raid on her house in Argentina, removing many material she needed for her accusations to be proved. ''I have seen the crime very close up, and I know what atrocities can occur. I have seen the pain of the victims and the fear they have. I have seen very young girls with burns on their feet from cigarettes, frightened, pressured, threatened and suffering other types of abuse, physical and psychological. I know of terrible experiences that many of the girls have lived through. From this experience, with this reality, I know that my life has changed. What I have seen is so powerful, that I cannot turn my back.''

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