Early on October 16, 2005, 33 people held in state custody died in a fire in the Magdalena prison in the province of Buenos Aires. More than 17 years later, on March 9 the Argentine State acknowledged before the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights its international responsibility for the incident and committed to put a series of measures in place to prevent such cruel deaths from ever happening again. CELS and the Colectivo de Investigación y Acción Jurídica (CIAJ) took part in the hearing as representatives of the families of Juan Ariel Campos, Omar Abel Pereyra and César Javier Magallanes.
“The Magdalena Massacre, as it is known in Argentina, shows the disdain for the life and dignity of people deprived of their liberty. The fire and deaths were the result of a hardline policy that produced exploding prison populations, mainly in detainees being held without sentencing in inhuman conditions of overcrowding. To tackle the problem, the province opted for rushed, unsafe construction of modules that did not comply with the minimum international standards. Since 2005 other fires have broken out in penitentiaries and police jails, also overpopulated, which shows the ongoing nature of this situation,” Paula Litvachky, CELS executive director, began her opening argument. This crisis continues, with nearly 100% prison overpopulation and 4,400 people held in police jails.
After describing in detail the events that led to the deaths, Paula Litvachky also highlighted the human rights commitments that countries must have with people deprived of their liberty: “The construction of a democratic society requires that the State have a security agenda that seeks, on one hand, the strategic prosecution of criminal conduct, but, on the other, guarantees the dignity of the punishment and does not dehumanize inmates and turn this punishment into cruel vengeance.” “The defense of human rights at the regional and national level demands that there cannot be any more overcrowding of detainees, or inadequate conditions of incarceration, or fear that they may be the next victims of a fire, disproportionate repression or lack of safeguards,” she added.
Nicolás Rapetti, chief of staff of the National Secretariat of Human Rights, represented the State, accompanied by Julio Alak, Minister of Justice and Human Rights for the province of Buenos Aires. “This lamentable incident has led the provincial government to assume responsibility for the death of the 33 detainees and two injured,” said Alak. The minister also announced a series of reparative measures that include the creation of a firefighting department and brigades for the provincial penitentiary system.
Commissioner Julissa Mantilla Falcón, Rapporteur for Argentina, then underscored the State’s acknowledgement of its responsibility. “This is a message for this case, for Argentina and for the region. To make it clear that people deprived of liberty cannot be treated as second-class citizens nor be deprived of their dignity.”
How the massacre occurred
The incident started that night in 2005 when an argument broke out between two inmates. In a disproportionate operation, fifteen agents of the provincial penitentiary service entered the pavilion to suppress the conflict. These agents fired at least 21 rubber bullets inside the closed space. The brutality of the armed intervention led one inmate to start a fire in protest. The facility was completely overpopulated. The smoke spread quickly. The mattresses were made of polyurethane foam, a highly flammable substance that puts out lethally toxic smoke. The firefighting system did not work. The penitentiary agents decided to lock the doors, turning the flaming facility into a death trap.
Of the 35 people held in the facility at the time of the fire, only two survived thanks to rescue efforts by other inmates held in the same unit.
In February 2018, nearly 13 years later, Criminal Oral Court No. 5 of La Plata convicted the prison director, the warden on duty and responsible for the repressive operation, and one penitentiary agent. The Court of Appeals then revoked the acquittal of the second-in-command of external security. Criminal and administrative proceedings to assign responsibility in the construction bid, approval and functioning of the pavilion are pending.