For more than 100 days, Argentines across the country have been asking a simple question: “Where is Facundo Astudillo Castro?” This week, an answer – the worst possible one – arrived.
On Wednesday, Bahía Blanca Federal Judge María Gabriela Marrón confirmed that the remains of a skeleton found earlier this month in a rural part of Buenos Aires Province belonged to the missing 22-year-old, who was last seen on April 30, at a police checkpoint.
The news reignited speculation as to the cause of Facundo’s disappearance. Many in Argentina – most vocally Castro’s relatives – believe that members of the provincial police service were involved in his death.
On Friday, prosecutors investigating the case said that the probe had entered “a new stage,” as they shifted attention towards the 22-year-old’s last known movements.
The late young man’s girlfriend, Dayana González, and at least two other friends who communicated with him on the day of his disappearance have been called to testify, among others, next week.
Confirmation of Facundo’s demise arrived in the form of DNA tests conducted as part of an autopsy led by experts from the prestigious Argentine Forensic Anthropology Team (EAAF), which took place at their laboratory in the capital last week.
The skeletal remains, which were described as “incomplete” (i.e. not a full corpse), were discovered at a location between the Buenos Aires Province towns of General Daniel Cerri and Villarino, around 10 kilometres from Bahía Blanca and a few kilometres from a disused railroad track.
According to reports, the remains – found by fishermen in the lagoon zone of Villarino Viejo – were found half-buried and in an advanced state of decomposition. A shoe, believed to belong to Facundo, was also found nearby, within 30 metres.
Confirmation that the remains belonged to Castro, who disappeared more than four months ago, leaked to the press on Monday. While the remains have now been identified, the date and cause of death are still yet to be established and will require more time, said the judge overseeing the case, who said results would be ready in around a month.
However, on Friday, forensic specialist Virginia Creimer claimed that preliminary autopsy results had shown that Castro's death was "violent" and a result of “asphyxia.”
The coroner, speaking during an interview with AM 550, said the DNA tests had been incredibly quick, though she cautioned that final conclusions would take "between one and two months."
“The death was violent and due to asphyxia," said the specialist. “What must be determined now is whether Facundo's death was due to violent restraint of the airways, or due to drowning."
"Given the violence with which this event occurs, we are talking about violent death at the hands of third parties, we are not talking about an accident In this case. Suicide is ruled out, an accident in these conditions is ruled out – we have many elements to rule it out – and homicide remains,” she added.
The late youth’s family and their legal team have maintained their relative died at the hands of the police and that the location where the remains was found – around five kilometres from the route he was taking – was not where the death took place.
"There is no doubt that Facundo was disappeared by the police of Buenos Aires Province," said Leandro Aparicio, a lawyer for the family, on Wednesday.
Facundo Astudillo Castro was last seen alive on April 30 in Villarino. He had departed from his home in Pedro Luro and was reportedly hitchhiking on his way to Bahía Blanca, around 100 kilometres away, to see González, his former girlfriend. He never arrived at his destination.
According to the police, Castro was intercepted twice along his route to the provincial city, with one stop involving officers from the Mayor Buratovich police station, who had detained him for breaching the government’s coronavirus lockdown.
It was at this time that the last photographs of Castro taken alive were taken. Found on a police officer’s mobile phone (after being erased, according to reports), they show the young man handcuffed and standing next to a patrol truck.
It is unclear what happened to Castro after that. According to testimony from the officers, he was cautioned, and then allowed to continue along his way. Police have pushed the idea that the young man may have died accidentally in the region where his body was discovered.
Other witnesses, however, say Facundo was put into a patrol car and taken away. A livestock farmer from the region also came forward later to say they had given the youngster a lift in the direction of Bahía Blanca, dropping him off along the way. That individual is expected to testify before prosecutors next week. The family alleges that testimony is part of an attempt to clear the name of the officers involved.
Cristina Castro, Facundo’s mother, last spoke to her son at around 1pm. Facundo, who had allegedly sent messages to a friend saying he was running out of battery, told her: "Mum, you have no idea where I am, you’ll never see me again.”
As well as the family, human rights organisations also believe Castro to be another victim of Argentina’s long history of institutional violence and police brutality.
“We are facing a sad crime of memory, a new forced disappearance followed by death. That is why we reaffirm that the State and the government are responsible,” said a document read out by protesters as they marched in Buenos Aires on Thursday to demand justice.
According to the organisers of Thursday's march, 102 homicides have been committed by police forces during the quarantine. The Security Ministry acknowledges that it is investigating some 40 cases of institutional violence.
‘Knowing the truth’
Cristina Castro has repeatedly said that she believes police officers played a role in her son’s death and, during meetings with President Alberto Fernández and Buenos Aires Province Governor Axel Kicillof, has called for the removal of Buenos Aires Province Security Minister Sergio Berni, who initially backed the provincial police.
In a post on social networks on Wednesday, shared via La Garganta Poderosa, the grieving mother responded to Wednesday’s news by writing that it was time for her son to "fly away high from so much evil."
She vowed to fight for justice, but admitted the news was a devastating blow. “It is one thing to say that I felt that it was Facundo, it is another to take it in. I had been preparing myself for this situation, but it is a very strong blow in life,” she wrote.
President Alberto Fernández expressed his condolences to the family, promising them the truth would come to light.
“Facundo’s mother called me and told me the sad news that the body found was Facundo. I want to tell Cristina publicly that she can count on me, and count on Axel [Kicillof], that we both are committed to knowing the truth,” said the Peronist leader.
The investigation into the young man’s disappearance has been fiercely criticised by the family and their legal team. The federal courts now in charge of the case, after a local judge was removed.
The United Nations and Amnesty International have both issued statements calling on the Argentine government to deliver an effective and independent investigation. Human rights organisations have called a rally for Thursday to demand justice for the late 22-year-old.
Luciano Peretto, a lawyer for Cristina Castro, said Wednesday that the family had again requested the arrest of four officers involved in the case, and that they were fighting to “dismantle a network” of “cover-ups.”
Speaking in an interview with the TN news channel, Peretto also confirmed that additional remains had been found. He complained that the family had not been notified beforehand, nor were they present during searches of the area. The area in which the remains were found had been previously searched by police officers before the fisherman’s discovery, though the provincial police say the region is difficult to search thoroughly.
Peretto argued that confirmation of Castro’s death “confirms the hypothesis of a violent encounter with the Buenos Aires Police Force and now we are facing a [case of] a forced disappearance followed by a death.”