The suspected femicide of 28-year-old women in the northeastern province of Chaco has shaken up regional and national politics on the eve of a key primary election.
Cecilia Strzyzowski was last seen on June 1 in the provincial capital of Resistencia and police are scrambling to discover the truth behind her mysterious disappearance, which investigators are probing as a femicide.
The arrest of a number of members of a powerful family, linked to local politics and the current provincial executive, has raised the stakes. Thousands of protesters took to the streets on Wednesday to seek justice for the missing woman and pressure on Governor Jorge Capitanich is building ahead of Sunday’s vote.
The prime suspect is Strzyzowski’s former husband, César Sena, the son of local social leaders and picketers Emerenciano Sena and Marcela Acuña.
All three have been arrested, with four others individuals also being held in custody, two of whom have agreed to testify before the courts.
Ass the investigation continues, a series of searches and raids have taken place at properties belonging to the Sena family. The evidence gathered was sufficient for prosecutors to charge the main three suspects with "aggravated homicide by the premeditated concurrence of two or more persons," with the parents for now considered "necessary participants."
Operations were continuing in Resistencia and its surroundings on Thursday as police stepped up efforts to find the missing woman. Sources close to the case admit that they are now looking for her remains and do not expect to find her alive. Specialist units and sniffer dogs have been deployed.
Nelia Velázquez, one of the three prosecutors assigned to the investigation, said officers are "collating data and reports – it is a very complex case, there is a lot of evidence, mobile phones have been seized, phone calls, GPS locations, all of which must be analysed and put together in order to generate a hypothesis."
She added: "We are looking for Cecilia, alive or dead."
Police are expected to search for traces of the missing woman in a huge rubbish dump located 50 kilometres from Resistencia over the weekend after Gustavo Melgarejo, the landlord of the Sena's house, who is currently in custody, expanded on his testimony.
"I saw her gagged, alive, in the back seat of a van," he had told prosecutors days earlier. On Thursday he reportedly added that "they took the body to a rubbish dump."
In a shock twist, César Sena requested permission to testify again on Thursday after his lawyer resigned from the case, declaring that he "could not take charge of a criminal investigation.” Proceedings are expected to be delayed while new legal representation is sought.
Clues and evidence
The last image of Strzyzowski comes from CCTV footage, in which she is seen entering Emerenciano Sena’s home. There are no images of her departing the property.
Local reporting on the case across various media outlets say that witnesses also claim to have seen Strzyzowski entering the Sena family home.
Days prior to her vanishing, the 28-year-old had told her parents that she was planning a trip to Tierra del Fuego with her former lover and family members saw her on June 1. Later that evening, she made a video call to her mother and said she was packing for a trip to Ushuaia.
Cecilia and her husband, César, 19, met in 2021 through the Tinder dating app and married quickly last year in a civil registry ceremony not attended by the woman’s in-laws – a fact reportedly not welcomed in the Sena household, not least due to the age gap of almost a decade between the couple.
The Sena family are well-known locally and are politically close to Capitanich, Chaco’s current governor who has dominated provincial politics since 2007.
Apart from the Sena family, the couples of Fabiana González and Gustavo Obregón and Gustavo Melgarejo and Griselda Reynoso – all assistants of the picket leader – have also been arrested.
Four cars, some six million pesos in cash, firearms and ammunition were found at their homes in the course of court raids.
Strzyzowski’s mother, Gloria Romero, said that her daughter always told her not to get mixed up with her family because "they terrified her," using words like “toxic” and “possessive” to describe the Senas.
She also remarked on the Sena family lawyer’s resignation, alleging that the decision to step down was a result of the “overwhelming proof" in the casefile.
"We are sure that she is no longer here, that she is dead," Romero said at the rally on Wednesday night in Resistencia.
"It was premeditated, it was a trap," she said, pointing the finger at the Sena family.
She acknowledged that Governor Capitanich "had repudiated the case, calling for justice" and said his help in discovering the truth would be appreciated.
Local residents have been outraged by the recent turn of events. A huge crowd marched through Resistencia on Wednesday evening to demand justice for Strzyzowski.
The uproar prompted President Alberto Fernández to telephone Capitanich.
Speaking at a campaign rally in Roque Sáenz Peña this week, the governor acknowledged the investigation and the “profound grief” it had caused for “our community and our people.”
“We repudiate this aberrant deed, calling for it to be clarified and for those responsible to be sent to prison with all the weight of the law,” he said.
Taking aim at criticism of his administration, the veteran politician said he was “horrified by the campaigns of fake news when the [provincial] government has acted with absolute consistency and commitment.”
Responding to the media firestorm, Chaco’s Security Minister Gloria Zalazar said Thursday that those accused of being involved in the alleged femicide had been excluded from party lists for the PASOs.
Both Emerenciano Sena and Acuña were due to run for office, with the former seeking a seat as a provincial deputy and the latter in the Resistencia mayoral race.
Asked by reporters about the relationship between Sena and Capitanich, Zalazar said: "I cannot answer in special terms what the relationship is. There is a relationship with social movements with a lot of participation, and in this case it is a movement with a lot of participation in the public arena."
When asked about the six million pesos allegedly found at Sena's house, the official said that "the public prosecutor will have to answer for that and whether or not he has to investigate it.”
The provincial furore soon rose up the national agenda. Two opposition presidential hopefuls, Horacio Rodríguez Larreta and Patricia Bullrich, came out to call for a full and frank investigation while criticising social leaders.
"The Chaco case suggests something very strong to me, for a long time we have been seeing the movements of that school and those leaders with an authoritarian ideology, with schools which taught more or less a guerrilla army," remarked Bullrich in an interview with Radio Rivadavia.
She accused local political leaders of exercising “total domination over people" in the province.
"This situation [in reference to Strzyzowski's potential femicide] is an extension of a model of submission, of authoritarianism, of using people as if they were things," she diagnosed.
Rodríguez Larreta agreed, calling for judicial intervention "without political interference."
Responding to the crisis, Presidential spokesperson Gabriela Cerruti posted on Twitter calling for a full investigation.
"Where is Cecilia Strzyzowksi? It is essential to know quickly what happened and for the law and justice to act with all its might," she wrote.
"Cecilia's story must mark a before and after in the fight against gender-based violence. We will not allow impunity in the name of any of the women we are missing," stressed the spokesperson.