In the small hours of May 26, 2013, Claudio ‘Pájaro’ Cantero was standing in front of the Infinity Night discotheque. He was just a few steps clear from the three youths alongside him when a volley of five gunshots rang out from a passing car. The life of the Los Monos drug-trafficking gang leader was brought to an abrupt end – and a cycle of violence that was to grip the streets of Rosario for nine years and counting had only just begun.
Since that year, homicides in the department of Rosario have not ceased to increase. Deaths have multiplied on the streets of the city, while the rattle of gunfire is almost constant. In 2012, 164 homicides were registered, while a sequence of vendetta killings after the slaying of Pájaro led to 2013 closing with 264 – 71 percent more than in the previous year.
Four people were gunned down in less than a week following the murder. Los Monos pinpointed Luis ‘Pollo’ Bassi as the mastermind of Cantero’s homicide and went for his men. One of the victims was nightclub owner Diego ‘Tarta’ Demarre, who had betrayed Pájaro in the eyes of the Cantero clan.
Then Los Monos emptied their weapons into the car in which Nahuel César, his mother Norma and Marcelo Alomar, were travelling. They were relatives of Milton César, who was initially the prime suspect but they had got the wrong person. Milton Damario was subsequently prosecuted as one of the hitmen though he was to be acquitted years later.
The clan had first begun to be investigated by the Rosario courts in 2012 after the murder of Luis ‘Fantasma’ Paz, Pájaro’s brother-in-law, with the victim’s father holding the Cantero family responsible and later entering the witness protection progamme within the so-called ‘Los Monos mega-case.’ A while later Luis Paz Senior was arrested for coordinating a drug-trafficking ring.
“Nine years after the murder of Pájaro Cantero, a crime bisecting the criminal history of Greater Rosario, neither its material nor intellectual authors have been found guilty, but the bloodshed in the streets since that moment is proof that behind his figure are interests which still enjoy impunity, firepower and also economic clout. As we always say, the year 2013 never ended in Greater Rosario,” reflects journalist and provincial deputy Carlos Del Frade.
And so it was. The killers of Cantero remain unknown. Bassi was tried as the instigator of the crime, along with Damario and Facundo Muñoz as the accomplices carrying out his orders. According to the investigation, the Cantero clan “started a manhunt” against the presumed murderers of Pájaro, launching a bloody war between the two families.
Two of Bassi’s brothers were murdered a few months later and then his father. But the judges trying Bassi and the other two accused in 2017 decided to extend the benefit of the doubt and acquit them. The prosecutor in the case, Cristina Herrera, appealed but the next year the Criminal Appeals Court ratified the acquittal on the grounds of “insufficient proof.” Bassi remains in prison due to other cases.
Pájaro’s murder was not resolved in court but on the streets of Rosario. Violence had been installed and it would not leave. Over the last nine years the homicide total has yet to fall back below the numbers registered beforehand.
Last year there were 241 murders, representing the highest homicide rate in the last six years, according to an annual report published by the Santa Fe provincial government. Almost 90 percent of these victims were attacked with firearms.
“The presence of this means was amply superior (85.5 percent) to that observed in all the previous years,” the report details, since that number oscillated between 70 and 78 percent.
But perhaps also revealed by the report is an alarming figure explaining the escalation of violence that began with Pájaro’s murder. Over the years it has deepened into the modus operandi of different local gangs, with 60 percent of these murders linked to “the illegal economy or organised crime” and only four percent to armed robbery.
According to the courts, 76 percent of those murders were previously planned while in 47 percent of last year’s 241 murders, underage youths were identified as the designated hitmen.
The image of Pájaro was sketched in various murals in the low-income neighbourhoods of Rosario, coming to be venerated after his murder. But the crime has also triggered abundant bloodshed and a logic of violence which seeks to intimidate and questions at gunpoint, a logic which the passage of time has not detained.
The clan, in prison
At the time of his death Pájaro Cantero was 29 and the leader of the Los Monos organisation, along with his brothers Máximo ‘Guille’ Cantero and Ramón ‘Monchi’ Machuca (who was adopted by the family). Both are jailed as gang ringleaders.
Clad in bulletproof vests and surrounded by tight security, Guille Cantero was in 2018 sentenced to 22 years in prison and Machuca to 37 years as the leaders of an illegal organisation, with six years for the historic founder (but supposedly already in retirement) and paterfamilias of the clan, Ariel ‘el Viejo’ Cantero. The latter returned to prison early last month, accused of commanding along with his wife an extortion gang operating via gunfire and threats, among other crimes.
Meanwhile, Guille has continued operations, heading the organisation from inside the various provincial and federal penitentiaries where he has been lodged. He has accumulated eight prison sentences and a cumulative total of 100 years in prison if all his sentences are counted individually (in practice not more than 50 years). Among these sentences were intimidatory blasts of gunfire at the houses of magistrates and court officials, threats against a judge who denied a transfer, kidnap for ransom, homicide and drug-trafficking, among other crimes.
Rosario continues to suffer at their hands.