Argentina’s ongoing problem with gender violence was once again pushed to the forefront of national conversation this week, after the brutal murder of a 19-year-old woman by her police officer former boyfriend shocked the nation.
Demonstrators and campaigners held rallies across the country to demand justice in the wake of Ursula Bahillo’s slaying in the small Buenos Aires Province town of Rojas.
Bahillo, 19, was found dead in a rural area near Rojas last Monday night. She has suffered at least 30 stab wounds and severe injuries to her neck, back and torso, according to reports.
The teenager’s former boyfriend, 25-year-old Buenos Aires provincial policeman Matías Ezequiel Martínez, was arrested soon after. It quickly emerged that Bahillo had reported her former partner to the authorities for gender violence on multiple occasions, most recently just two days before her slaying.
According to reports, Martínez was made aware of the latest allegations just hours before the victim was found dead and was subject to a restraining order preventing him from approaching her.
That news, as well as the leaking of messages Bahillo had sent to friends expressing fears for her safety, prompted an immediate outcry for justice from citizens across the country this week.
According to the Observatorio Lucía Pérez gender violence NGO, Argentina suffered more than one femicide a day in January, with 37 in the first month of the year alone.
"We must end these events definitively in Argentina. We must be inflexible with the perpetrators of these cases," President Alberto Fernández said on Wednesday, in a statement published by the Militancia Feminista organisation.
Bahillo’s brutal slaying has shaken up the small town of Rojas in the northwest of Argentina’s most populous province, where the victim’s father is well-known as a local restaurant owner.
The victim’s body was found with at least 30 stab wounds to her torso, neck and back on Monday in the rural zone of Guido Spano, where the suspected killer Martínez had driven her. It was unclear whether he had forced her into his car or deceived her in some way, prosecutors said, though they believe she was attempting to escape.
The accused policeman was stationed in the Delta town of San Nicolás, over 100 kilometres away, but had been on medical leave on psychiatric grounds since last September.
The circumstances of his arrest remain unclear. According to reports in local media, the policeman had been apprehended while committing the crime and had tried to take his own life, being rushed to the local hospital due to his wounds and later Junín, where he was declared out of danger. Other outlets, however, said he had been arrested in his car, while others said he was captured while trying to flee on foot.
Via the social networks under the hashtag ‘#JusticiaporUrsula,’ Rojas locals revealed that Martínez had previously been denounced for gender violence and that the victim had a restraining order ruled on her behalf since February 5. Just last weekend Bahillo reportedly went to the precinct to denounce Martínez again to a policewoman, who declined to file the report because it was not a weekday.
Prosecutor Sergio Terrón, who is in charge of the femicide investigation, said that a lawsuit for gender violence had been lodged against Martínez which was due to go to trial on April 18, while Ursula Bahillo had a court hearing fixed for February 17 to attend a charge of gender violence, one of 16 filed against her former boy-friend.
Terrón also told the TN television news channel that Martínez had been summoned last Monday to be notified of the restraining order, just hours before he allegedly attacked her.
Later in the week, heartbreaking messages that Bahillo had sent to friends via WhatsApp expressing fears for her safety had leaked to the press.
“He’s threatened me with death, that’s why I’m scared, friend,” she told one friend in November, 2020, later adding: “Seven months ago he beat me up and I kept quiet until I thought I was going to die, that’s why I denounced him.”
Anguish and anger
Members of Bahillo’s family expressed anguish and anger at the murder, while demonstrations quickly spread to other cities across the country, with a rally staged at the Plaza de Mayo on Wednesday.
The victim’s mother, Patricia Nassutti, demanded justice for her late daughter and strongly criticised the authorities for failing to take action prior to the killing.
She even called for the removal of Buenos Aires Province’s controversial Security Minister Sergio Berni, who had said in the aftermath that Martínez was not an active member of the provincial police, given that he was on leave.
Nassutti, who eventually met with Berni on Tuesday, also charged that she had been handcuffed and treated like a criminal during a demonstration outside the Rojas police station on Monday night that was gripped by tension. Stones and bricks were hurled at the building, while police officers responded with tear gas and rubber bullets. On shot hit a youth full in the face, a moment recorded on video and posted on Twitter accompanied by accusations of police brutality. A patrol car was also torched.
In Rojas, home to some 18,000 inhabitants, citizens have thrown their support behind the family. In the town’s main square, images of Úrsula have been stuck up on the walls. Slogans calling for justice compete for attention with bouquets of flowers laid in her honour.
The surrounding streets also feature another face – posters bearing that of the accused, dressed in police uniform, with the legend "murderer" written underneath.
On Wednesday, huge crowds turned out in Rojas to pay tribute to the slain teenager as her funeral got underway. The ceremony, which was carried out in near silence, ended with applause from those gathered.
Úrsula’s mother, speaking to reporters, vowed to put her daughter’s killer behind bars.
"In memory of my daughter, I promise her that I will get justice for her," said Nasutti, who said she was moved by the support of those who turned out to accompany the family.
"Today it was Úrsula, but tomorrow it could be another," said Juan Manuel Nicussi, a young friend of the slain teenager, who was one of hundreds of residents in attendance.
The Observatorio Lucía Pérez recorded 37 femicides nationwide in January, with gender violence on the rise since quarantine began last year with the enforced cohabitation of women with their tormenters – the only crime which has not been lowered by the pandemic.
In the first seven months of 2020, there were 160 femicides in Argentina, 97 of them while the quarantine was in effect, reports the regional NGO MundoSur.
Women, Gender and Diversity Minister Elizabeth Gómez Alcorta, said Tuesday that indignation was “not enough."
“There is no doubt that for the justice system and for the security forces, when a woman denounces an act of violence it is a minor issue. What is at stake is the lives of women. It seems that, despite all that we have advanced, women's lives are not worth the same as other lives," she said.
Over the past 12 years, there have been 3,251 deaths of women, girls and trans-women in Argentina, according to the Casa del Encuentro NGO.
"Every day we have cases and situations related to extreme violence, femicide or transvesticide. Úrsula's case is the rule, not the exception," lamented Gómez Alcorta.