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ARGENTINA | 27-06-2024 18:14

‘All available resources’ deployed by Argentina in search for missing five-year-old Loan

Unsuccessful search for Loan Danilo Peña in Corrientes Province amid suspicions of child-trafficking; “Culprits” will pay, declares Patricia Bullrich as lead suspects are moved to jails in Salta and Chaco; President Milei meets Security minister for update on search.

President Javier Milei has ordered his Security Minister Patricia Bullrich to hold back nothing in the search for missing five-year-old Loan Danilo Peña, who went missing in Corrientes Province more than two weeks ago.

Milei met with Bullrich on Wednesday to learn details of the intense search operation the authorities have undertaken as they hunt for the youngster, who investigators fear may be in the hands of a transnational criminal organisation involved in human-trafficking.

“I met with the President Milei to give him a detailed update on the work we are carrying out in the search for Loan. During the meeting, I explained all the actions we have taken so far, highlighting the tireless efforts of our team and all the people involved,” said Bullrich in a post on social media.

“We are using all available resources to find Loan. The culprits are going to pay for this behind bars,” the minister after her meeting with the President.

Bullrich was dispatched by Milei to northern Argentina earlier this week as federal authorities took charge of a hunt that has captured the attention of the nation. 

Yet the case remained in limbo as the weekend approached. Federal prosecutor Mariano Guzmán had yet to rule if he believes a trafficking network is involved in the disappearance, a crucial step that would likely mean it passes into federal jurisdiction.

Loan was last seen on Thursday, June 13, close to the town of 9 de Julio, near the district of Goya, Corrientes. 

The youngster had travelled out to the countryside with family members before sharing a lunch at his grandmother’s home. It was his first time visiting the home.

After lunch, Loan went off walking to an orange grove with three adults (his uncle and two friends) and three other children (his cousins). With the child eager to return to his house and see his father, the group lost sight of him and when they arrived, he was nowhere to be seen.

A large search operation failed to turn up any sign of Loan. Investigators, who initially treated it as a missing persons case, are probing lines of investigation that hint he may have been abducted and trafficked across the border into Paraguay.

“We don’t rule it out … there have been many calls to [the government’s] 134 [telephone line] with hypotheses from Paraguay and they responded immediately,” he added.

Paraguayan authorities, however, have played down reports the child had crossed over into their territory. 

“Until today, we have not received any material evidence that the boy passed here,” Nimio Cardozo, the head of Paraguay’s anti-kidnapping department who this week met with Bullrich, told Cadena3.

 

Arrests

To date, six people have been arrested in connection with Loan’s disappearance. On Thursday, they were all transferred to federal prisons under heavy security, despite filing legal challenges against the move.

The main suspects, María Victoria Caillava and former Navy Captain Carlos Pérez – who stand accused as co-perpetrators of the crime of recruitment of persons for the purpose of exploitation – were taken to a federal institution in Salta. 

Mónica del Carmen Millapi, accused of being a primary participant, and Commissioner Walter Maciel, accused of accessory after the fact, were taken to the same prison.

Antonio Benítez, also accused of being a primary participant, and Daniel ‘Fierrito’ Ramírez, accused of being a primary participant, were transferred to jails in Chaco.

The prosecutor’s office has accused the detainees of aiding human-trafficking, as well as of making a plan to capture the minor, leaving the case in the hands of federal justice.

Catalina Peña, Loan’s grandmother, spoke Tuesday about the disappearance of her grandson after the lunch that took place in her house. She insisted that she did not “suspect” any of those who were at her home before the child disappeared.

“I don’t suspect anyone [who was] at the table, they are all people I trust,” the elderly grandmother told the TN news channel. 

A series of police raids took place throughout the week, with investigators keen on securing the mobile phones of all of those who were in attendance at the family lunch and cross-checking their communications from the window in which the child disappeared.

Caillava and Pérez were arrested after evidence indicated Loan had been in their personal vehicles. 

Subsequent searches indicate that they travelled to an apartment in Resistencia, Chaco Province, on the night after Loan disappeared.

According to a report by the Noticias Argentinas news agency, Pérez attempted suicide on Monday at the police station where he was being detained. Sources close to the case say he has asked to testify as part of a plea bargain.

 

Trafficking angle

Late Monday night it emerged that Bullrich had sent a message to all staff at her portfolio requesting that they not speak publicly about the case.

She has acknowledged human-trafficking and kidnapping are being investigated as possible causes for the boy’s disappearance. 

One hypothesis is that the child was taken to the neighbouring province of Chaco before entering into the trafficking circuit. Investigators believe the family meeting may have been staged and alibis prepared for those responsible. This would imply that provincial police officers and public officials in the region may have been co-opted by organised crime networks.

“Loan’s case concerns all Argentines and hopefully it has a happy ending, but it needs to clear up,” Bullrich told reporters Tuesday in the district of Goya on the Paraná river. 

“These are going to be difficult days because the investigation will be confidential, including hard sanctions to anyone who spreads information that can put the investigation in danger and above all, Loan’s life.” 

Bullrich had three meetings in Corrientes,: one with federal and provincial forces, a second with the judge who looks set to the investigation, and another with the provincial prosecutors leading the case.

Loan’s disappearance has captured Argentines’ attention with wall-to-wall media coverage, endless speculation about potential hypotheses and brought a sobering debate to the surface about human-trafficking in the region. 

Corrientes is in the poorest region of Argentina where over 48 percent of the population lives in poverty, according to government data. Known for the Ibera National Park, Corrientes shares parts of its borders with Brazil, Uruguay and Paraguay.  

Corrientes Province Governor Gustavo Valdés held a press conference On Monday, at which he reiterated that a massive search effort had failed to turn up any sign of the child.

“We believe we should be talking of a possible trafficking case, to investigate where the minor is and to continue working jointly,” he underlined, backing Bullrich’s theory.

“We won’t take this lying down, and we will continue to investigate to get to the truth, and to know what happened to this missing child,” said Valdés, who said that drones, night-vision cameras, planes and paragliders had been deployed as part of “the biggest” search “in the province’s recent history.”

“We will make all our resources available … we can’t give up,” he added. “We will remain at the disposal of the courts, both provincial and federal.”

President Milei is said to be taking a close interest in the case. During last year’s election campaign, he warned about transnational mafias that have contacts locally.

He also signed a declaration vowing to tackle child-trafficking organ-trafficking organised by the ‘anti-woke’ filmmaker Eduardo Verástegui.

 

– TIMES/NA/PERFIL/BLOOMBERG

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