Argentina’s Armed Forces have been plunged into scandal after it emerged that at least one young soldier died following a so-called “baptism” event, while another is in a critical condition after suffering serious spinal injuries during a similar initiation ceremony.
The serious incidents have prompted a dramatic decision by Army Chief-of-Staff, Major-General Guillermo Pereda: the consumption of alcohol in barracks has been prohibited outright.
The booze ban includes off-duty activities in Army messes and clubs, local outlets reported this week. The abundance of alcoholic intake within initiation ceremonies is under the spotlight after a string of incidents at welcome parties for military personnel in new postings.
The unprecedented order stems from two tragedies in the past three weeks which have shaken both society and the force.
Army corporal Michael Natanael Verón, 25, suffered extreme spinal injuries during his “baptism” to celebrate his promotion following an overly liquid lunch at the Army Non-Commissioned Officers Club in Apóstoles, Misiones.
According to reports, the initiation last July 8 included tossing the youth into a swimming-pool without water. He has remained paralysed and been unable to walk since.
The Verón case came shortly after the death of Second Lieutenant Matías Ezequiel Chirino during an “initiation” ceremony at his regiment stationed in Paso de los Libres, Corrientes. Chirino, 22, was found unconscious in his room and rushed to hospital where he died on June 19 after having choked on his own vomit.
The Army officer had been transferred only a few days previously to the Paso de los Libres barracks where he was to spend the next six months completing his training as an officer.
Upon hearing of the case, the Army suspended the 11 officers involved in the initiation party. The institution then placed itself at the disposal of the courts to supply “all the information required.”
Verón’s tragic ‘baptism’ was shared with five other military academy graduates joining the 30th Monte (Jungle) Regiment stationed at Apóstoles, Misiones.
A total of 25 people attended the party, including the regimental commander, according to Mónica, the mother of Verón (her eldest son) and grandmother of his five-year-old child. The woman went to the Federal Police headquarters in the Misiones provincial capital of Posadas to demand justice.
The injured NCO's mother charged that the corporal “was humiliated and made to dance and mix alcoholic drinks of all kinds.” She pointed out that “they forced him to make an asado [barbecue] but they did not let him eat and then they forced him to drink white wine laced with chimichurri, lemon and pure alcohol.”
Her son was “fighting for his life” and would probably “remain in a wheelchair,” she told local media outlets.
Commander of the 12th Monte (Jungle) Brigade, Sergio Jurczyszyn, said that military trustees had taken over the regiment and were interviewing witnesses prior to a possible court-martial for grave disciplinary lapses and presumed abuse of authority, also saying that he himself would go to a federal courthouse to press charges.
The Army Secretariat said in a statement: “Two officers and 13 non-commissioned officers of different ranks have been suspended from the service in conformity with the Armed Forces Disciplinary Code. Such behaviour is far removed from the norms established by legal precepts and military regulations alike, constituting potential misbehaviour typified as crime under the Criminal Code of the Nation.”
‘Harshly and firmly’
Defence Minister Jorge Taiana told Radio 10 that such “baptisms” could “go on no longer,” adding that officers would be both punished and cashiered and that he was “very upset with what happened to the soldier.”
“There is a huge movement rejecting these baptisms, commanding officers will be punished and cashiered. That’s something clearly forbidden and there was disobedience. The senior officers of that unit will be cashiered,” said the minister, assuring: “We will act harshly and firmly.”
In the investigation into the death of Córdoba-born second lieutenant Chirino at the 3rd Jungle Artillery Group in Paso de los Libres, the family’s lawyers last Tuesday incorporated into the evidence two eyewitness statements they considered “crucial.”
Last week the lawyers of the Chirino family asked that the case be defined as “homicide due to functional dominance of the facts” and “military malfeasance.” They also asked for a new autopsy in Córdoba and an examination of the victim’s mobile telephone.
Ezequiel Chirino, the victim’s father, was contacted by somebody close to Michael Natanael Verón. The man recounted that he received a message from “a lady who is a friend of this lad who had the same problem as Matías.”
“The only thing I could say to her is that I could not give her any solace,” he said.
“I do not have any words even to sustain my own family. An impressive future was snatched away from Matías by negligence and abuse of authority. These scoundrels have been separated from their posts to lead a normal life,” he charged.