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Politics and Upheaval in Argentina’s Prison System Following Escape

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BUENOS AIRES, Argentina – Victor Hortel, the chief of the Servicio Penitenciario Federal Argentino, or the Federal Penitentiary Service known as the SPF, stepped down on Wednesday following the escape of 13 inmates from a prison under its jurisdiction.

Illustration

Illustration

In the industrial and utilitarian Buenos Aires suburb of Ezeiza lies the federal prison of the same name. In the immediate vicinity lies the Ministro Pistarini Airport, the country’s largest and most important, along with the headquarters and training grounds of the Argentinian football federation, a golf course, and the Autopista Ezeiza-Cañuelas, the main highway leading into the center of Buenos Aires.

At least 13 inmates broke free from Ezeiza on Tuesday, with the police believing that the daring escape took place strategically in the afternoon when the prison is busy and bustling with the noise and commotion of family visiting hours. The escaped inmates are considered highly dangerous as all have been convicted of either murder, armed robbery, or kidnapping. Two of the inmates were captured in Cañuelas, a town about 40 kilometers southwest of Ezeiza, while the others remain on the run.

During his resignation press conference, Hortel explicitly implied that prison officials and staff at the complex were in on the escape. The now ex-chief provided damning evidence: “They made a hole of 40 x 22 cm. That had to break about 30 cm of reinforced concrete. The dirt from the tunnel is still inside the cell. They had to cross three perimeter fences,” adding that the escapees must have used tools to which they ‘did not have access.’” Hortel continued: “Neither the guards nor the inspectors did their job. The officials did not find the tools. The soldiers in the two posts at 50 meters should have seen the movements. The guards that should have been positioned on the roofs also were not there or apparently failed to see the escapees.”

Along with Hortel’s resignation, it was announced that 19 prison guards and supervisors were suspended pending an investigation into their actions. The former chief stirred up political controversy when he told the pro-government newspaper Tiempo that the escape had to have been “planned from within the prison system by people who wanted to embarrass the government of President Cristina Fernández,” and he remarked that the penitentiary service still includes many people who sympathize with Argentina’s 1976-83 military dictatorship. These individuals have sought to “undermine the Fernández government because of its track record of advocating for human rights,” including rights for prisoners.

In a strange and ironic twist, Julio Alak, the Argentinian Minister of Justice and Human Rights, created even more controversy Wednesday by appointing Alejandro Marambio in the position Hortel left vacant. The irony is that Marambio has been accused by human rights activists of allowing inmate torture to increase under his previous watch, which ended in 2010 with Hortel’s appointment. Marambio has countered criticisms by saying that during his tenure, he made Argentina the only Latin American country whose jails were not overpopulated numerically, i.e. not exceeding the official capacity. Those claims have been labeled by critics as misleading and vague.

Adolfo Pérez Esquivel, Argentinian human rights advocate and Nobel Peace Prize winner (1980), said the government should take a long, hard look at Marambio’s past words and actions as he believes Marambio’s reappointment is a mistake.

“I believe these positions need to be filled by people who have a clear and clean career path and can guarantee that they’ll work with ethics and social responsibility,” Pérez Esquivel said.

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