Demanding Justice at Police Station
"Everything is kept in the spine of memory that is life and history. The memory picks at people until they bleed when they keep it moored and don’t let it fly free like the wind" – Leon Gieco, Argentine folksinger and songwriter.
"‘Where is Luciano Arruga?’" His mother, Monica Alegre, struggles to answer this question, responding with hopelessness and despair in her eyes, the look of a mother who has lost her child. "Luciano Arruga is a 16-year old boy who was forcefully disappeared on January 31, 2009."
One year since his disappearance authorities, relatives and neighbors still have no trace of Luciano’s whereabouts. A growing movement of relatives demanding justice for and an end to crimes committed at the hands of police against their loved ones has joined the cries of "Where is Luciano Arruga?"
Luciano Arruga, working class youth from the suburban de-industrialized beltway of Buenos Aires, was disappeared in democracy. According to witness accounts and the little evidence collected in the investigation, his disappearance points to the model of police corruption and ‘easy trigger’ police who’ve turned violence against poor youths into an institution in the marginalized outskirts of the nation’s capital.
Luciano lived in a two room cement brick house with his mother and two younger siblings in the neighborhood of Lomas del Mirador, in the Greater Buenos Aires municipality of La Matanza. Like most boys his age in Greater Buenos Aires, he liked music, played the guitar and worked for months selling collected cardboard to save up for his first MP3 player. He was the oldest brother in his family, a heavy burden for a boy who lost his father at the age of 8.
"I don’t have hopes of finding Luciano if the police continue to operate in a similar fashion with complete complicity from the political and judicial system," says Vanessa Orieta, Luciano’s sister. The two siblings had a special relationship; Luciano looked up to his sister who is a student at the University of Buenos Aires. Shortly before he was last seen, Luciano decided that he wanted to go back to school to finish high school and give his sister his diploma as a present.
Leading up to his disappearance, Luciano was the victim of harassment from local police. According to his sister and mother, on several occasions he was offered to ‘work for’ the police who promised him that he would be able to buy himself brand name sneakers and take care of his mom. When he declined, the threats began. Twice, Luciano was detained at the local police station in Lomas del Mirador, on June 22 and September 21, 2009. "Luciano couldn’t walk over to my house, because the police would stop him, threatening him that he would end up in a ditch," said Orieta.
Luciano’s mother, Monica Alegre, in front of a banner that reads the date of her son’s disappearance. Photo by Mimi Schiffman
Officials admit that police corruption in the Greater Buenos Aires police force remains widespread. Pablo Pimentel, human rights lawyer from the Permanent Assembly of Human Rights says the recruitment of poor youths to commit crimes for police is a rampant trend. "What happened to Luciano Arruga is not an isolated case. It’s part of a culture of the provincial police who recruit vulnerable youths from poor neighborhoods to go out and rob for the police. The police accuse you of crimes you didn’t commit if you don’t work for them." He adds that because residents fear police repercussions they avoid reporting corruption. Luciano’s mother says the mistake she made that she will pay the rest of her life for is not taking action against the police harassment her son faced following his refusal to work for the police.
The last time his mother saw her son was the night of January 31, 2009. Luciano told his mother that he was going out and asked her for money, he gave her .25 cents, all that she had. He exchanged with her a smile and kiss. According to witnesses, Luciano was last seen on a corner four blocks from the police station. "At midnight, my son was disappeared. It happened at night when no one was around to see, my son was alone, defenseless and they took advantage of him," says Alegre.
Hours after Luciano didn’t return home his mother began to worry. When his mother went to the police station, they told her, "’don’t worry, he’ll show up.’ And they laughed in my face." Public prosecutor Celia Cejas told the national daily Pagina/12 that "the strongest hypothesis is that police are responsible." However, during the first 45-days of the investigation, no evidence was collected because the former prosecutor suspected Arruga of selling drugs. The previous prosecutor was removed and Cejas conducted a rescue dog search. From the dog search, traces of Luciano were found in a patrol car parked in the precinct’s driveway. Police records also recorded that the patrol car were stopped in municipal lot where traces of Arruga were also detected.
A prisoner identified Arruga from a photo, and testified that he had seen the youth in the station after being tortured. However, the prosecutor Cejas discounted the testimony. The eight officers on duty the night of Arruga’s disappearance were removed from precinct to be transferred to another by provincial Security Minister Carlos Stornelli. Arruga’s family lawyers have requested that the police officers on duty be asked to testify as witnesses in the case, to evaluate whether their testimonies contradict.
The social stigma of forced disappearances
"Until his body appears, we can’t say that the police killed Luciano Arruga. We can only suspect that police killed him," says provincial Human Rights Minister Sara Derotier de Cobacho. The Human Rights Minister is an expert on the stigma of disappearances. Her two sons and daughter in law were disappeared during the dictatorship, kidnapped in the night by commando groups, taken to clandestine detention centers, tortured and later their bodies were never to be found. She forms part of the human rights group, Mothers of Plaza de Mayo who still after 30 years continue to search for the whereabouts of their children and justice for those responsible for the disappearances.
"Where is Luciano Arruga?" Photo by Mimi Schiffman
The act of forced disappearances has left deep wounds in Argentina. More than 30,000 were disappeared during the nation’s bloody military dictatorship from 1976 to 1983. The Latin American Federation of Associations for Relatives of the Detained-Disappeared (FEDEFAM) was formed in 1981. FEDEFAM defines forced disappearances as a method to instill terror and a violation of all basic human rights. "The objective of forced disappearance is not simply the victim’s capture and subsequent maltreatment, which often occurs in the absence of legal guarantees. Because of the anonymity of the captors, and subsequent impunity, it also creates a state of uncertainty and terror both in the family of the victim and in society as a whole."
Even after the return to democracy in 1983, the legacy of forced disappearances has continued in Argentina. Miguel Bru, a student from La Plata, was killed in a police station in 1993 but his body was never found. Julio Lopez went missing three years ago on September 18, 2006 in his hometown of La Plata, Argentina. The disappearance of the witness Julio Lopez in 2006 has reignited painful memories of selective repression with impunity and fears about the possibility of violent repercussions against survivors and witnesses participating in human rights trials.
In the case of Luciano Arruga, activists participating in the campaign to bring to the alarming increase in police violence and corruption to public view have received threats. Juan Tevez, a 22-year-old activist with a grass roots movement of unemployed workers, Frente Dario Santillan, received a phone call on January 31, after attending an anniversary event for Arruga’s case. The caller asked Tevez ‘if this was his number’ and proceeded to say that he knew this date was special for him. The call ended with the caller playing a funeral march. "The case of Luciano Arruga represents the stigmatization of poor youths. The media tells the public that poor kids are criminals, which allows the police to commit abuses," says Tevez in an interview with Toward Freedom. He adds, "Our campaign into the whereabouts of Luciano Arruga questions the repressive state institutions like the police. Those of us who are receiving threats are young people who’ve chosen not to stay quiet and not to accept police violence; this is why they are upset because they want to silence us."
Movement against police violence
On the year anniversary of Arruga’s disappearance, hundreds gathered in La Matanza for a festival against police repression. Mothers, fathers, sisters, brothers and compañeros carry photos of their loved ones who fell victim to police violence. Since 1983, 2,826 people have died at the hands of easy trigger police or inside prisons or juvenile institutes. Half of those deaths were of young poor males under 25 years of age, reports the human rights group, Coordinator Against Police Repression (CORREPI).
"The state is responsible. The state trains the police. Police officers are given honors, a diploma, a badge, a gun to kill and a license for it to be legal," says Alegre. "Our youths need opportunities, not police." Luciano Arruga has entered the lexicon of terror and impunity, where security forces stigmatize society with the uncertainty of the victim’s whereabouts or ultimate fate. However, a growing movement against state repression wants to break the walls of impunity.
Marie Trigona is a writer, radio producer and documentary producer based in Argentina. She can be reached through her blog www.mujereslibres.blospot.com