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OPINION AND ANALYSIS | 11-02-2023 07:00

Candles in the wind

Perhaps it is the frequency of savage crimes which creates the need to single one out in order to restore inhumanity to human dimensions.

How very timely that former Catamarca governor Ramón Saadi (who turned 74 on the day of the Fernando Báez Sosa trial sentencing) should die in the past week because his name immediately evokes perhaps the closest parallel to the biggest story of this infant year for most people – the murder of the schoolgirl María Soledad Morales (even younger than the law student Báez Sosa) in 1990. One bridge spanning the three decades since then is the Carmelite nun Martha Pelloni (now 81), who first started organising the candlelit marches of silence demanding justice for her pupil María Soledad, eventually leading to both Saadi’s downfall and the identification of those members of Catamarca’s jeunesse dorée guilty of her murder. Last month Pelloni travelled to Dolores for the Báez Sosa trial and lent her voice to the general outcry, calling for “exemplary justice.”

Without detracting from the vicious brutality of the crime, the sheer volume of media coverage of the Dolores trial (apparently reflecting public interest) is singular – more than double of the in many ways more horrific and pathetic killing of five-year-old Lucio Dupuy being tried almost simultaneously and infinitely exceeding the actual Villa Gesell slaying of Fernando Báez Sosa just over three years ago. Why so much focus on an octet of rugby louts (the same number as a scrum) bashing to death a youth following a nightclub brawl, a news category normally buried deep inside newspapers, the fate of virtually all the 233 femicides last year?

Perhaps it is the frequency of these savage crimes which creates the need to single one out in order to restore inhumanity to human dimensions – or the insecurity of modern life being compounded by the monstrous disproportion between this arbitrary death sentence and its apparent cause of a drink spilled on a shirt. This columnist prefers these more existential aspects over the attempts to politicise this case – underlining the racism (with the victim’s Paraguayan parentage) or a backlash against meritocracy with an undue emphasis on the rugby element as the élite sport of a few thousand Argentines (while the murderous assailants did indeed all play rugby, they also had the common denominator of being male so it would be as logical to blame all men as all rugby-players). This primitive crime does not merit political analysis – as the only point on which this column would differ from the Dolores court sentence, the planning here would seem at the same level as Fernando Sabag Montiel and the candy floss gang against Vice-President Cristina Fernández de Kirchner with mindless brutality its driving-force.

So much has been written on this trial that this column will not presume to write more – instead we will shift the scene some 1,350 kilometres from Dolores to Catamarca.

The María Soledad Morales case is interesting within this context not only because of the tragic schoolgirl as an erstwhile Fernando Báez Sosa but also with the Saadi dynasty in the role of the assailant bullies. In addition to being a prototype of the provincial politics still dominating much of inland Argentina, this dynasty is especially interesting because of its founder, Vicente Léonides Saadi, the son of a Lebanese immigrant. Although only governor for a few months (for five months of 1949 and the last eight months of his life until dying in mid-1988 at the age of 74 like his son) while a three-term senator and always the defining figure of Catamarca Peronism, Saadi was a precursor of Kirchnerism in combining a feudal approach to governance with progressive poses. This columnist remembers him from his first days in the Buenos Aires Herald newsroom in 1983 as perhaps the most strident voice within a defeated and demoralised Peronism as the editor of the leftist newspaper La Voz, virtually a Montonero mouthpiece – in 1985 he headed the nationalist opposition to the Beagle Treaty with Chile, debating then Foreign Minister Dante Caputo.  

But it was his son Ramón running Catamarca when 17-year-old María Soledad was murdered in September, 1990. The victim’s boyfriend Luis Tula lured her to a wild party hosted by Guillermo Luque (son of a national deputy) whose guests included the governor’s cousin Arnoldo Saadi, Diego Jalil (son of the mayor of the provincial capital at the time and from the same family as current Catamarca Governor Raúl Jalil, also of Lebanese origin) and Miguel Ferreyra (son of the provincial police chief). They had their wicked way with her, injecting her with a lethal dose of cocaine to make her more docile, dumping her body seven kilometres out of town while the provincial police washed her disfigured body of all evidence on Ferreyra’s behalf.

The case was not even investigated for two months but some 90 candlelit marches of silence by an indignant citizenry patiently maintained by María Soledad’s teacher Sister Pelloni eventually placed the crime on the national radar and then-President Carlos Menem still coming to grips with a pre-convertibility Argentina had no choice but to replace his fellow-Peronist Ramón Saadi of similar Levantine origins with a federal trusteeship by April, 1991. The governor thus paid the price within seven months but the impunity of the killers lasted rather longer. There was no trial until 1996 when the judge went out of his way to turn the proceedings into a mistrial, causing their collapse. This scandal led to a new trial with party host Luque taking a solitary rap for the gang rape, being sentenced to 21 years in prison in 1998, while Tula was given nine years for leading the schoolgirl to her death – everybody else walked free.

The María Soledad case banished Peronism from Catamarca for two decades but it returned in 2011 in the person of Saadi’s cousin Lucia Corpacci, who served two terms to be followed by a Jalil. Five of Fernando Báez Sosa’s killers were sentenced to life last Monday but is there any happy ending?

Michael Soltys

Michael Soltys

Michael Soltys, who first entered the Buenos Aires Herald in 1983, held various editorial posts at the newspaper from 1990 and was the lead writer of the publication’s editorials from 1987 until 2017.

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