Chaos erupted Tuesday evening in the small Argentinean city of San Miguel de Tucuman, after a panel of three judges read aloud their verdict in the case of Maria de Los Angeles Veron, known commonly as Marita.
Citing a lack of evidence, the judges said there was no way to prove that Marita, a 23-year-old mother and wife who vanished on her way to a hospital visit on April 3, 2002, was kidnapped and forced into a prostitution ring in the nearby city of La Rioja. The 13 men and women on trial for Marita’s disappearance broke into tears, hugged each other, and smiled when the verdict was read.
For the last decade Marita’s mother, Susana Trimarco, has waged an uphill battle to secure justice for the people she believed were responsible for her daughter’s disappearance into the netherworld of human trafficking. In the process, Trimarco almost single-handedly changed the way that human trafficking is viewed in Argentina and across much of Latin America.
Trimarco sat grim-faced and shook her head Tuesday as the verdict was read. Later on, there was “silence,” according to one Twitter user, at the Maria de los Angeles Foundation, where Trimarco directs her work helping to rescue trafficked girls.
Social-media sites erupted with anger and frustration. “Shame, shame, shame,” wrote one supporter. “This is a dark and shameful day for all Argentineans,” wrote another.
Attorneys for the defendants were clearly pleased. “This was a political trial, and the judges gave a judicial verdict,” Carlos Posse, a lawyer for Irma Lidia Medina, one of the alleged ringleaders, told a local newspaper, La Gaceta.
In the years since Marita’s disappearance, Trimarco has become something of a celebrity in Argentina. Last week Argentina’s president Christina Kirchner awarded Trimarco the Azucena Villaflor de Devincenti Prize in front of tens of thousands of supporters.
Twitter and Facebook lit up with news about the case throughout the day Tuesday as the judges heard final pleas from the defendants and a crowd of hundreds gathered outside the gates of the Palacio de Justicia. Thousands of supporters lent their support to Trimarco via short messages. “We are all Marita Veron,” went a particularly popular meme throughout the day.
“I hope they get taken to jail,” tweeted Sol Micaela on Tuesday.
The three judges, Alberto Piedrabuena, Emilio Herrera Molina, and Eduardo Romero Lascano had been listening to both sides battle it out for more than 10 months, when charges were first brought last February. It was the longest case this small Argentine town, known chiefly as the spot where the country’s independence was signed, had ever seen. A special press room was established for its coverage, with Wi-Fi, telephone lines, and a special “acoustic ring” to improve sound in the courtroom. Several national dignitaries, including Argentina’s secretary for human rights, attended Tuesday’s session.
A specialized bomb-squad unit was dispatched to the Palacio de Justicia to check for explosives and secured several floors of the building. The sentencing was transmitted live on a local television channel. Several human-rights groups were in attendance as well, lending their support to Trimarco and her granddaughter—Marita’s daughter—Sol Micaela, now 13, who has stood by her grandmother throughout the proceedings.
Hours before the verdict was read, Trimarco, a slight but intense dark-haired woman who has a reputation among those who know her as being exceedingly persistent, even tough, said: “I’m going to keep on looking for Marita. I’m not going to sit down and cry.”
She added, “I shed so many tears already.”
Speaking to the panel of judges one last time before they retired for sentencing, one of the defendants, Irma Lidiana Medina, a large woman who during the last few months was often seen around the Palacio de Justicia, made a last-ditch appeal to the judge.“Look me in the eyes, prosecutor. You haven’t searched. I started prostitution when I was 13. It wasn’t the best thing that God gave me in life.”
Medina was unrepentant: “The prosecutor today or tomorrow is going to have a lot to ask God. He judged people that don’t have anything to do with the disappearance.”
Another defendant, Jose Fernando Gomez, proclaimed his innocence until the last moment. “I’m sorry that I don’t know anything about Marita, I wish I could go and tell Trimarco, ‘There she is.’ But I never saw her. I never knew her.”
“I’m suffering for the guilt of a failed woman,” said Maria Azucena Marquez, accused of being in charge of a whiskey bar called El Desafio, where prosecutors say Marita was taken at one point, “A failure as a woman, as a mother, as a grandmother.”
Trimarco, surrounded by supporters and family, vowed to continue her struggle and said she suspected corruption at the highest levels. “I will never give up looking for Marita,” she said.
DEFENDANTS AND SENTENCES
Daniela Natalia Milhein, accused of kidnapping. Acquitted.
Carlos Alberto Luna, rented El Desafio house of prostitution in La Rioja where Marita was alleged to have been held. Acquitted.
Cinthia Paolo Gaitan, wife of Luna, accused of being an administrator for the bordellos. Acquitted.
Domingo Pascual Andrada, ex-cop, accused of taking Marita from Tucuman to La Rioja. Acquitted.
Humberto Juan Derobertis, worked in El Desafio. Acquitted.
Gonzalo Jose Gomez, accused of being the manager of the bordellos in La Rioja. Acquitted.
Jose Fernando “Chenga” Gomez, accused of paying for Marita and forcing her to work as a prostitute. Acquitted.
Irma Lidia Medina, mother of Chenga and Gonzalo, accused of being the head of everything, owned the bordellos. Acquitted.
Maria Azucena Marquez, accused of being the woman in charge of El Desafio. Acquitted.
Maria Jesus Rivero, accused of kidnapping, apparently told a witness she had helped with the kidnapping. Acquitted.
Victor Angel Rivero, Maria’s brother, accused of carrying out the kidnapping. Acquitted.
Mariana Natalia Bustos, wife of Chenga, said she used to run prostitutes, but no more, and that she rented a series of bars to Luna. Acquitted.
Andres Alejandro Gonzalez, same charges as Milhein, his wife. Acquitted.