Bahía Blanca Federal Judge María Gabriela Marrón confirmed Wednesday that the remains of a skeleton found earlier this month in a rural part of Buenos Aires Province belong to missing 22-year-old Facundo Astudillo Castro.
Confirmation came from DNA tests carried out on the remains, which were discovered by fishermen in the lagoon zone of Villarino Viejo on August 15.
The skeletal remains, which were described as “incomplete” (i.e. not a full body), were discovered at a location between the Buenos Aires Province towns of General Daniel Cerri and Villarino, around 10 kilometres from Bahía Blanca and two kilometres from a disused railroad track.According to reports, the remains 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 and was last seen alive at a police checkpoint, leaked to the press on Monday. The news heaps further pressure on both the national and provincial government to provide answers about what happened to the young man.
The tests were 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.
While the remains have now been identified, the date and cause of death are still yet to be established and will require more time, according to the judge, who said results would be ready in around a month.
The late youth’s family believe 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 his former partner. 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, 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. Other witnesses, however, say Facundo was put into a patrol car and taken away. A livestock farmer from the region later came forward to say they had given the youngster a lift in the direction of Bahía Blanca, dropping him off along the way.
Cristina Castro, Facundo’s mother, last spoke to her son at around 1pm, she says. Facundo, who had sent messages to a friend saying he was running out of battery, then told her: "Mum, you have no idea where I am, you’ll never see me again,” before the line cut off.
‘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.
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 said 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 two 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 justice system is 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.”