Mattresses, tents, and makeshift soup kitchens were spread across Belgrano square, in the dry summer sun of San Salvador de Jujuy. It was December 2015, and dozens of families and social activists were camped outside the Governance Building, demanding the newly-elected governor Gerardo Morales restore resources to their communities. At the center of it all was Milagro Sala: gritty, determined, a leader.
It was a protest that would cost Sala dearly: on January 16, 2016, the police came to her house and arrested her for her role organizing the encampment. Seven years ago today, she was embarking on the first day of a life deprived of liberty. And last month, the highest court in the land refused to hear her case, ruling out her last possible appeal on Argentine soil.
The Jujuy courts and local government claim they’ve served justice to a criminal who used her status as a social leader to siphon off funds and instigate her followers to break the law. But local and international human rights advocates say the case against her is riddled with flaws, and has more to do with her role as a thorn in the side of governor Gerardo Morales than her involvement in any crime.
“Everyone used to take pictures with political prisoners in the past, but today, I feel as if they’re avoiding me,” Milagro Sala told radio station AM750 today, from her house arrest. “I just don’t want people telling me that they support me, and then not doing anything about it. Alberto Fernández lied to me, and I’m disappointed.”
As a newborn baby, in 1964 Milagro Sala was found abandoned in a shoebox in front of a hospital in San Salvador de Jujuy. Adopted by a middle-class family, she lived with them until the age of 14, when she left home. For years, she was on the streets, dealing drugs and stealing to survive. But a harsh and violent life transformed when she became involved in political advocacy.
She started her path of activism in the Peronist movement in her twenties and took part in the creation of the Community Movement Tupac Amaru, a movement inspired by the work of Evo Morales in Bolivia, focused on human rights and indigenous communities. The organization focused mainly on providing food and distributing social welfare among the poorest northwestern communities, though it would expand nationally over the years, and Sala was especially involved during the Kirchner mandates between 2003 and 2015.
Back in 2016, a few months after Radical Party member Gerardo Morales gained office in Jujuy and Mauricio Macri, his political boss, had become President of Argentina, Milagro Sala, an Indigenous Colla woman, became the epicenter of a fight between the government and local social movements.
Just days after Morales became governor, the Tupac Amaru organization claimed that he was cutting off their resources to aid communities in Jujuy. They organized a peaceful camp to demand that the governor addressed their requests to negotiate.
Several social movements took part in the camp, which started on December 14, 2015, and the conflict escalated. On January 13, Morales issued an executive order requiring social movements to register in order to keep carrying out their community work. Social leaders saw it as a way of blocking the resources they were distributing, and many, including Tupac Amaru, refused to file the paperwork.
Sala was detained after a raid on her house on January 16. According to her husband, no judicial officials were present, only local government representatives. The charges against her were “instigation of crime” and “turmoil”, both referring to the organizing of the protests..
Mariela Belski, chair of Amnesty International Argentina, spoke out against her detention at the time, saying: “Indigenous communities are the most criminalized, always.”
“Right from the beginning, there were problems”
Seven years later, Sala remains in detention. Since her arrest, she has faced charges in eleven cases. Most involve her years as a social leader, between 2009 and 2015, but she also stands accused of “instigating crime” for sending a text in support of a protest from house arrest in 2021.
The most significant conviction against her is for the Pibes villeros (Kids from the Hood) case, in which she was sentenced to 13 years in prison for allegedly siphoning off public funds intended for housing projects. Her lawyers say that getting the court to listen proved difficult.
“Right from the beginning, there were problems,” said Elizabeth Gómez Alcorta, one of Sala’s lawyers, who also served as Argentina’s women’s minister from the start of the Fernández administration until last October. “[Prosecutors and judges] wouldn’t take her evidence nor let her witnesses speak, they rejected 90% of the documented evidence, and they condemned her for 96 events that had not been presented to the defense before the trial.”
Convinced that Sala couldn’t get a fair trial in Jujuy, her legal team took the case to the Supreme Court. But last month, the Justices ruled that they did not have jurisdiction to hear her case. Her last appeal within Argentina was exhausted.
In a statement released shortly after the ruling, human rights NGO, the Center for Legal and Social Studies (CELS), highlighted the Jujuy court’s refusal to listen to Sala’s witnesses or accept her evidence. “Milagro Sala was accused of membership in an illicit organization, a controversial and general figure – this lack of precision adversely affected her rights.” CELS, along with other human rights institutions, has supported Sala’s defense.
Criminal association is the offense of participating in a group that exists to commit crime, and can be punished with anywhere between three and 20 years in prison. It’s often used against gang members or corruption rings – but since just belonging to such a group is enough to be convicted, without committing any other offenses, rights groups have highlighted that it is often used against activists, too.
Now, Sala’s defense will turn to the Interamerican system. “We will claim for the intervention of the Inter-American legal system, but it’s slow, which is worrying: her health has deteriorated,” said Gómez Alcorta.
This would not be the first time Sala’s defense has turned to the Inter-American system. In 2017, the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights ordered the Jujuy court system to grant her house arrest due to her health. The local authorities refused to comply with the order, so the Inter-American Human Rights Court intervened. The Jujuy judiciary finally allowed her to go into house arrest in December 2018.
In detention, Sala’s health has deteriorated, and she has spent several weeks in the hospital. More recently, she has been diagnosed with blood clots in one of her legs that could disable or kill her. “Her health is at a great risk,” said Gómez Alcorta. “The clot can move to the heart or the lungs at any point,” she added.
Despite her condition, police have frequently refused to let her go to the doctor’s for medical treatment and behaved aggressively to her when she’s in hospital.
President Alberto Fernández visited Sala when she was admitted to a clinic in June 2022. Upon seeing her, the president declared that a “clear persecution system” was in place against her.
Since the Supreme Court ruling, Governor Morales has been calling for her to serve the remaining five years of her sentence in jail. His requests only stopped when high-rank officials asked to de-escalate the conflict during budget negotiations, as off the record sources told The Buenos Aires Herald.
“It’s a part of their show,” said Marcos Aldazábal, one of her lawyers. “No matter what happens, they [Jujuy’s government and judiciary] will always try to send her to jail.”
Calls for a pardon
In December, Tupac Amaru, unions, and social organizations camped for three days in Plaza de Mayo to demand that Alberto Fernández pardons Sala in the Pibes Villeros case. On December 23, they met with him in Casa Rosada.
Late last week, an open letter by the Freedom for Milagro Sala committee was sent to the president, with signatures from Congressmembers and relevant political leaders. “On behalf of institutional quality and proper application of the law, you’ve accompanied Sala in the serious circumstances she’s been under,” says the document. “Now, we’re asking you to commit to her immediate freedom as the President of Argentina.”
Alberto Fernández, however, stated that although he supports Sala, he can’t pardon her as it would be unconstitutional.
Now, Sala’s defenders will take her case to the Inter-American system, particularly the irregularities from the Jujuy courts that the Supreme Court declined to review – but the system typically takes years to process cases. By law, Sala can ask for parole and probation after serving two thirds of her sentence, which would be in less than two years.
“We will continue to demand a fair process,” said Gómez Alcorta. “They’re going after Milagro because they’re going after social movements: it’s a dark scenario.”