‘Maybe they felt superior’: family, activists highlight racism in Baez Sosa murder

Three years after his killing, anti-racism campaigners warn of link between racism and impunity

Relatives, campaign groups and government officials say racism was a factor in the murder of Fernando Báez Sosa, the 18-year-old who was beaten to death outside a nightclub in the resort town of Villa Gesell three years ago today.

During the trial, which started on January 2, several witnesses testified that some of the eight rugby players accused of his murder called Báez Sosa racist slurs while they kicked him on the floor. 

“They showed no mercy,” said Graciela Sosa Osorio, his mother. “Fernando was a human being, and they called him negro, how can someone discriminate like this?”

In Argentina, the term negro – literally, “black” – doesn’t refer exclusively to people of African descent, and is often used to refer to darker-skinned or Indigenous people. While it can be a term of endearment depending on context, it can also be used as a racist slur.

Baez Sosa was the son of two working-class immigrants from the town of Carapeguá, Paraguay. Before his murder, he was about to start studying law. Had he graduated, he would have become the first university graduate in his family. 

The defendants are charged with homicide, doubly aggravated on the grounds that it was premeditated and carried out by a group of people. Race is not included as an aggravating circumstance. Nonetheless, as the trial proceeds, anti-racism activists are highlighting a point Argentine society has thus far ignored: the role Fernando’s ethnicity played in his killing.

January 18, 2020 

The sequence of events that night in Le Brique nightclub in Villa Gesell started like crowded parties everywhere: on a packed dance floor, Fernando and his friends knocked into a group of rugby players from the city of Zárate, to the north of Buenos Aires. What started out as an altercation descended into a fight, and both groups were thrown out by the bouncers.

Outside the club, instead of calling it quits, the rugby players turned on Fernando, knocking him to the floor and beating him savagely, according to witnesses and CCTV footage. Within minutes, he was dead. 

After three years in pre-trial detention, the eight rugby players charged with his murder — Máximo Thomsen, Enzo Comelli, Matías Benicelli, Blas Cinalli, Ayrton Viollaz, Luciano Pertossi, Ciro Pertossi and Lucas Pertossi – are sitting in the dock in the Dolores Court 1, where a verdict is expected by the end of the month.

So far, dozens of witnesses have testified before the Court, and three of the accused have given statements: Luciano Pertossi, Máximo Thomsen and Ciro Pertossi. Two final witnesses spoke today, and the court will adjourn until next week, when the accused will enter their pleas. 

“Impunity is a part of racism”

“My son was beaten for racist reasons,” wrote Fernando’s father, Silvino Báez, a few days before the trial started. “It was hate. Maybe they felt superior because they’re blond and Fernando had dark skin.” 

In his text, Báez called for an urgent debate about racism in sport, to eradicate violence against kids like his son. Campaign groups have echoed his call.

“Like Fernando, we are those who are easily forgotten if we don’t speak out against rights violations against us,” anti-racist movement Identidad Marrón (Brown Identity) wrote in a statement. “Impunity is a part of racism: attacks against brown bodies are constant, and it’s hard to talk about racism, especially within the justice system and the media.”

The National Institute Against Discrimination, Racism and Xenophobia (INADI) said in a statement: “Even when racist hate is not contemplated in the charges, it was clearly a racist attack. […] Racism in Argentina exists, and it kills.” 

Despite a historic commitment to human rights, anti-racism campaigners feel Argentine society is falling behind in the global conversation around racism and discrimination. Now, they hope the Báez Sosa trial could spark a broader debate on the issue.

“We need to see that this is just not a matter of class: saying ‘negro de m****a’ in Argentina has an ethnic component: he had Indigenous features, brown skin – recognizing that is a great responsibility, because this can’t happen ever again, it’s key to really achieve justice for Fernando,” Melisa Yaleva of Identidad Marrón told The Herald.

According to Aymara Choque, a lawyer at Identidad Marrón, the evidence presented during the trial demonstrates racism in the rugby players’ actions regardless of each individual’s responsibility. “The racist comments the eight accused made, such as ‘we’re taking this negro as a prize’, are neither deliberate nor metaphorical,” she said.

Entering pleas

Only three defendants have spoken during the trial, briefly commenting on the evidence presented to the judges, but they have not given statements saying what happened that night. The last was Ciro Pertossi, who claimed that he was not the one who could be seen kicking Báez Sosa in a video of the attack. When the prosecutor attempted to ask further questions, he refused to reply.

The defendants’ lawyers argue that they are not being guaranteed a fair trial, and that media bias against them is hindering their right to defend themselves. The plea stage is scheduled for January 23-24. 

A verdict by the three judges is expected on January 31. Fernando Burlando, the Baez Sosa family’s lawyer, will seek to prove that the group killed the boy intentionally. The accused have not yet entered a plea.

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