On April 7, the trial will begin over the torture and murder of Patricio Barros Cisneros inside a prison in Buenos Aires province, where nearly half of all detainees in Argentina are incarcerated. Six prison officials are being tried for these crimes, and a seventh defendant is a fugitive of justice.
On January 28, 2012, Patricio Barros Cisneros, 26, was expecting a visit from his girlfriend. Because it was very hot and she had been waiting nearly three hours to enter the prison complex, the young man asked to visit with her in a cool place. The guards refused and an argument ensued. Between seven and ten prison officials handcuffed him, sprayed him with pepper gas and began to beat him. His body was kicked and punched all over. One blow sunk his eyeball inside his skull. An official jumped on his chest with both feet. This thrashing happened in the corridor, in front of other staff members of the Buenos Aires Penitentiary Service (SPB), visitors and detainees. Patricio died in plain sight of them all.
The Penitentiary Service promptly released an official version of events, sustaining that Barros Cisneros had repeatedly banged his head against the bars. The detainees that witnessed the incident were pressured to sign the SPB’s version but once their transfers to federal prisons had been assured, they revealed the details of the brutal beating. Based on these accounts, the testimony of Patricio’s girlfriend, and the autopsy—which showed more than 30 injuries to his body—the prosecutor ordered the detention of the suspected officials. However, just a day before, several of them had fled. The cycle of impunity was broken thanks to the family’s efforts and to collaboration from human rights organizations and some judicial officials who were committed to uncovering the truth.
Torture, abuse, violence and problems in access to health care and other basic services are a reality in Argentina’s places of confinement. What happened to Patricio Barros Cisneros was not an isolated case but rather the consequence of practices that are repeated throughout the penitentiary system, and often condoned by political and judicial officials.
According to figures from the public prosecutors’ office in Buenos Aires Province, 67% of cases related to torture or illegal harassment between 2000 and 2011 were closed, and just 1% of them went to trial. These figures show the judicial branch’s reluctance to investigate and sanction cases of torture in prison. The Barros Cisneros trial will not only serve to shed light on torture practices and violent deaths in places of confinement; it will also underscore the problematic state response to these cases.
CELS represents the family of Patricio Barros Cisneros in this trial, which is transcendent in terms of the fight against impunity and human rights in Argentina.