Repressors sentenced to life in infamous ‘Casa de Belén’ case

Former police officers and government officials were found guilty of child abuse and murder during Argentina’s last dictatorship

Content note: this story mentions sexual violence against minors

The Federal Oral Court 1 in La Plata gave a former government official and six former police officers life sentences yesterday in the case known as “‘Belén’s House’ Foster Home” (Hogar Casa de Belén in Spanish) for crimes committed during the last military dictatorship.

 “Belen´s House” was a supposed foster home where three young siblings — Carlos, Alejandro and María Ester Ramírez— were imprisoned and tortured for six years, from 1977 to 1983. They had been abducted after their mother was killed by the military in their home.

40 years on from the horrors they experienced, only one of their tormentors lived long enough to stand trial — former justice official Nora Susana Pellicer, accused of having participated in sending the kids to the foster home and in altering their identities. She received a five-year sentence and said in her comments that she was innocent and had nothing to do with the charges.

In the case of their mother’s murder, seven people were sentenced to life in prison today — former Buenos Aires Chief of Staff Jaime Smart, ex police commissioner and head of the Pozo de Banfield detention center Juan Miguel Wolk and five former Buenos Aires police officers — Roberto Guillermo Catinari, Héctor Raúl Francescangeli, Armando Antonio Calabró, Rubén Carlos Chávez and José Augusto López.

The investigation into the Ramirez’s abuse in foster care — known simply as Casa de Belén in Spanish — began in 2010 while the case regarding murder of their mother was opened in 2013. The cases were merged in 2017.

“What we have gone through, our history was acknowledged. It is very important, not only for us, so that we can move on and close this chapter,” María Ester said after the verdict to the Pulso Noticias website. “It is also a piece of history that belongs to the Argentine people.”

“It was hell on earth”

Carlos (5), Alejandro (2), and María Ester Ramírez (4) were found by a neighbor after their house was riddled with bullets and their mother, Vicenta Orrego Meza, was executed by police forces during a repressive raid against activists on the night of March 15 1977 in Rafael Calzada in the Province of Buenos Aires. Their neighbor took care of them for a few days and took them to a police station, where he hoped they’d help them. Instead, the three children were taken to Casa de Belén by order of the juvenile justice court of Lomas de Zamora. They made no attempt to locate their family. 

The three siblings, who are now more than 40 years old, testified that they underwent multiple forms of abuse and humiliation during the six years that they were held captive in the institution, which was led by a couple: Dominga Vera and Manuel Maciel. They had been assigned to work there by a priest called Oscar Armando Delgado Carrizo. However, the couple was excused from the judicial process due to health reasons. 

Juan Martín Nogueira, the assistant prosecutor, told Télam that the crimes against the siblings “damaged their right to have a life project, which they had with their mother and father — this was denied to them by an unbearably unfair system.”

“They were subjected to inhumane living conditions [while they] systematically and progressively suffered physical, moral and psychological mistreatment and sexual abuse,” the sentence read.

At the end of the dictatorship in 1982, the Supreme Court ordered that the children should be given to their father, Julio, who was then living in exile in Sweden. The three siblings have lived there ever since. Ramírez had been a political prisoner in 1974 and was released afterward, leaving for exile shortly after. In the trial, prosecutors said Ramírez didn’t hear from his children over the following years, which led him to “desperation”. 

During the trial, six Buenos Aires province policemen and the former Minister of Government of Buenos Aires were tried for the raid where Meza and two other activists — ​​Florencia Ruival and José Luis Alvarenga —were murdered, and another that happened on the following day, where three other political activists— Pedro Juan Berger, Narcisa Adelaida Encinas, and Andrés Steketee – were also killed. 

The infamous dictatorship torturer Miguel Etchecolatz has also been charged for the crimes carried out over those two days but died before trial in prison on July 2, 2022.

Smart, who took part in the audience via Zoom, said during his comments that he had nothing to do with the case. He has already been sentenced for other crimes against humanity.

The courthouse also ordered to send a copy of the sentence to the Clarín, La Nación, La Unión, Crónica, and La Prensa newspapers, which were found to have failed to report the murders as such at the time. The verdict also approved the prosecution’s recommendation that the Casa de Belén, which remains open to this day, be shut down and turned into a “memory site” in which the siblings can participate.

“It is what I wanted,” María Ester said. “It was hell on earth, it should be closed.” 

María Ester, who is now an artist and says her paintings allowed her to speak about her past, will donate some of her artwork to the memory site.

“Love defeated hate.”

—with information from Télam


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