Magdalena prison fire: Court convicts warden and official overseeing the operation

Twelve years after the fact, a criminal court convicted three officials from the Buenos Aires Penitentiary Service over the 33 deaths that occurred in a prison in the town of Magdalena.

After a trial lasting almost six months, the court handed down a verdict today over the fatal fire that took place in a prison in Magdalena, Buenos Aires province in 2005. It convicted the prison warden at that time, Daniel Oscar Tejeda; the shift supervisor and person responsible for the repressive operation related to the blaze, Reimundo Héctor Fernández; and prison official Rubén Alejandro Montes de Oca. The 5th Oral Criminal Court of La Plata also acquitted the other 14 defendants. The prison sentences and grounds for the convictions will be made public on March 9.

Since August 15, 2017, the prison officials had been on trial for the 33 deaths that occurred during a fire in Unit 28 of the Magdalena prison on the night of October 15, 2005. Over the course of the trial we were able to hear the testimony of more than 150 witnesses and weigh all the evidence, which laid out the crimes that the Public Prosecutor’s Office and plaintiffs’ lawyers accused the defendants of.

From early on in the case, there was resistance to profoundly investigating what had occurred that night. With the exception of the high-ranking officials, the rest of the accused had the charges temporarily dropped against them until an appeals court sustained the need to carry out the trial with all the people who had been involved in the incident.


César Javier Magallanes was 25 years old, the third of five children and the only son. Rufina Verón, his mother, visited him every week at Magdalena Prison Unit 28. On Sunday, October 16, they had planned to celebrate Mother’s Day, like the majority of the inmates. Javier was subject to pretrial detention for two-and-a-half years for an alleged robbery, and he was one of 58 people held in this pavilion for inmates who exhibited good behavior. In Pavilion 16 only two inmates had final convictions – the rest were held under pretrial detention.

Rufina had to travel five hours to reach Magdalena. In the middle of this journey she was told she had to go to La Plata (the capital of Buenos Aires province). They told her that her son would be there. In a human rights office, they gave her the news: Javier had been one of the first people to die during the fire. His body was still in Magdalena.

CELS represented Rufina in the trial. The Colectivo de Investigación y Acción Jurídica (CIAJ) and the Comisión Provincial por la Memoria (CPM) represented other victims’ relatives.

The facts

Twelve years ago, on the night of October 15, 2005, at least 15 officials from the Buenos Aires Penitentiary Service (SPB) entered Pavilion 16 shooting shotguns with riot control ammunition at point-blank range, in response to an argument between two inmates. The shots were fired from a shorter distance than what is permitted.

While this violent operation unfolded, they removed 23 inmates who had not been part of the altercation. During the trial, one of the accused said that this was to prevent inmates from hurting each other. In response to the actions of the prison guards, an inmate started a fire in the back of the pavilion. The flames began to spread while the Penitentiary Service guards continued with the shouting and repression. When they couldn’t endure the smoke and heat anymore, they retreated, blocking the only available exit. The inmates that were left inside the pavilion ran toward the front doors and found them locked shut. That’s when they knew that the guards had left them trapped in the blaze. This exit remained closed nearly the entire time. It was only opened a few minutes before the firefighters arrived, when the fire had extinguished by itself and nobody inside the pavilion remained alive.

When they discovered this door was locked, the inmates began calling for help. Their desperate screams reached nearby pavilions. The prison guards, instead of beginning rescue efforts, limited their intervention to looking for shotguns and ammunition to protect the perimeter of the Unit, and handcuffs to fasten on the inmates who wanted to help. The response to the emergency came from the detainees in other pavilions, who understood that their fellow inmates had been left to die. When they managed to free themselves, they ran to look for hoses and found that the fire hose cabinets had no water. So they formed a human chain to pass buckets filled with water from the bathrooms. Others found fire extinguishers, but they were empty, so they decided to use them as blunt objects to force open the doors, gouge holes in the walls and get out those who were trapped. With this method they were able to open the emergency door. Meanwhile, they entered the burning pavilion wherever they could, to remove bodies and take them to the infirmary. They did this several times.

Meanwhile, the prison guards did nothing and even failed to call the fire department promptly. The firefighters entered between 12:05 and 12:10 a.m. on October 16, when only a few bodies remained inside the pavilion and the holes in the walls had been made. The firefighters found themselves alone, inside the prison, with no instructions from prison personnel. They entered Pavilion 16 accompanied by inmates to finish removing the bodies that were still inside. At this point, nearly an hour had passed since smoke was first seen at the site.

The victims breathed air with a very low percentage of oxygen, inhaled toxic gases and were exposed to high temperatures. The structural deficiencies in the system to fight fires, the impossibility of escape and the time they remained inside the pavilion in these conditions led to this result: 33 people died that day.

Magdalena: paradigm of the Buenos Aires Penitentiary Service

The circumstances surrounding the death of 33 young people incarcerated under pretrial detention, in a pavilion for good behavior, are familiar in the Buenos Aires Penitentiary Service. These were not unforeseeable events, but rather the consequence of overcrowding and violence in this penitentiary system, as well as its disregard for human life. Nearly one year ago, this situation repeated itself in a police station in Pergamino, Buenos Aires province, leading to the death of seven detainees.

The penitentiary policies carried out by the provincial government maximize the emergency situation that the Penitentiary Service is undergoing, with a record number of detainees in prisons and transitory detention facilities, and more than 3,000 people held in police stations, even though this is prohibited. More than half of all the people incarcerated in the province have not been convicted of a crime but are being held under pretrial detention.

This trial highlighted practices and policies that have continued to today. Since 2005 the successive governments in Buenos Aires province have failed to comply with a Supreme Court ruling on detention conditions and numerous international commitments. The reigning penitentiary policies in the province harm the human rights of people who are deprived of liberty and are capable of provoking extreme situations like what occurred in Magdalena.