A federal court in Mar del Plata is preparing to air the disturbing details of what prosecutors and activists in the popular resort town have labelled “neo-Nazi” crimes.
The unprecedented public trial — set to begin in early March and which will see eight men aged between 18 and 28 in the dock — is the culmination of a 12-month battle to qualify a series of violent attacks against the local LGBT and Bolivian communities, as well as a wave of racist and anti-Semitic graffiti, as ideologically motivated. It is the first time that a gang with explicit neo-Nazi traits has faced trial in Argentina.
The attacks in Mar del Plata began in July 2013 and continued throughout 2015. One of the trial’s key witnesses is Javier Moreno Iglesias, a local activist who began raising public awareness about an outbreak of apparent neo-Nazi violence against the city’s transgender sex workers in 2013.
“They had beaten one trans girl to a pulp, she was hospitalised. We took photos of the victims and ended up on television. That was what set things in motion,” Moreno Iglesias told the Times in an interview this week.
Soon after, a group of neo-Nazis identified Moreno Iglesias in the streets, seeminly recognising him from his public appearance. They began threatening him.
“They targeted my place of work with Nazi graffiti like ‘Sieg Heil’ and ‘fag Jew.’ They came and sang songs to me in German,” he recalls.
Moreno Iglesias was given police protection but the violence, vandalism and hate crimes in the city continued.
“We documented other cases of violence and at one point practically the entire city was covered with graffitied swastikas,” the young man remembers.
Two cases of threatening behaviour against Moreno Iglesias — who is part of an activist group called the Mar del Plata Association of Equal Rights (AMADI) — and similar incidents of threats, beatings and vandalism, constitute 12 of the 13 crimes that Mar del Plata’s Federal Court 1 will assess from March 6.
Prosecutors have gathered over 100 pieces of evidence in total for the upcoming trial.
“An investigation of this nature must always move forward with evidence. The prosecution has worked very professionally in this sense,” the city’s chief prosecutor Daniel Adler told the Times.
Adler was part of a team of prosecutors who spearheaded the investigation, with the support of former attorney general Alejandra Gils Carbó. The process has enjoyed broad consensus among local human rights groups and Jewish community organisations like the DAIA (Delegation of Argentine-Israeli Associations).
In formal declarations before the courts in 2017, the chief prosecutor highlighted how local neo-Nazi “groups head out at night to hunt people, like the SS did in the 1940s.”
It is the neo-Nazi connection that makes the trial so groundbreaking. Crucially, the eight men who will stand trial face an additional charge of “belonging to a group that seeks to impose its ideas by force… and to promote theories of racial superiority.”
“The turning point was when the case was elevated to federal jurisdiction,” Dr. Ariel Gelblung, the director of the Latin American office of the Simon Wiesenthal Center, told the Times in an interview.
The organisation, known historically for its work in locating and prosecuting Nazi criminals, campaigned for the crimes in Mar del Plata to be qualified as ideologically motivated, a key condition that ensured the trial would be carried out before an oral tribunal.
“We were concerned that the federal prosecutor (Juan Manuel Pettigiani) wanted to simplify the investigation by removing the charge of belonging to a criminal organisation,” Dr. Gelblung said. “But the judges understood otherwise and saw that the investigation had to ascend to a public trial.”
The men accused are Gonzalo Paniagua, Nicolás Caputo, Alan Olea (the alleged gang leader), Oleksandr Levchenko, Marcos Caputo, Franco Martín Pozas and Giordano Spagnolo.
The prosecution will argue that they operated in groups of three or more and used weapons that included PVC pipes filled with concrete, sticks with nails, boxing gloves, rubble and wooden vegetable crates to launch attacks. In separate incidents, they are also accused of having sprayed graffiti on local monuments and private property, drawing swastikas and drawing Nazi slogans.
The success of prosecutors and activists in bringing the eight men to trial and the neo-Nazi connection has prompted some unusual media interest in Mar del Plata, casting a shadow over the city’s reputation as a seaside holiday resort. Yet Adler rejects the suggestion that the city is unique when it came to hate crimes of this nature.
“We are seeing a global trend toward deep intolerance of others. These groups oppose plural and democratic ways of life,” he argued.
Adler expressed confidence that the investigation and upcoming trial were already producing positive outcomes in terms of community safety.
“What’s certain is that this trend in Mar del Plata has been curtailed because of the work of the justice system. It means that when there is an efficient institutional response, it can be stopped,” he said.
Local human rights organisations, however, remain on alert.
“The people of Mar del Plata do not want these expressions of xenophobia and discrimination in our city,” Yamilia Zavala Rodríguez, a local human rights lawyer, told the Times.
“It’s unthinkable that we would see neo-Nazis at this point in history but unfortunately we have,” she added.
Rights groups have noted how city’s strong ties to the Armed Forces and the 1976-1983 military dictatorship have encouraged particular expressions of hate toward dictatorship survivors, relatives of the disappeared, and activists. Neo-Nazi groups have attacked memorial sites and publicly vindicated controversial figures like the fallen Malvinas War soldier Pedro Giachino, who human rights group believe was a torturer during the dictatorship.
For the most part, however, residents and activists in the coastal city appear to be mobilising increasingly against the prospect of their city turning into a sanctuary for hate. Many will be closely watching the March trial – and the eight individuals sitting in the dock.
“The community came out to repudiate this behaviour which is partly why we have been able to move forward in prosecuting the case against this gang,” Javier Moreno Iglesias said.
Such sentiments were on full public display again just three weeks ago, thousands of people turned out to decry the release of convicted dictatorship-era criminal Miguel Etchecolatz into house arrest the neighbourhood of Bosques Peralta Ramos.
Etchecolatz, 88, was the second-in-command of the Buenos Aires provincial police during the military dictatorship. He ran at least 21 torture and dentention centres over that period and has been given six life sentences by the courts for crimes including torture, murder and the kidnapping of babies born to detained individuals.
In total, 15 individuals found guilty of crimes against humanity from that period currently live in Mar del Plata under house arrest.
Accompanying story: MAYOR CARLOS FERNANDO ARROYO UNDER SCRUTINY
Activists and watchdogs are beginning to ask questions about the past behaviour of Carlos Fernando Arroyo, the mayor of General Pueyrredon (a municipality that includes Mar del Plata).
Local human rights groups say they have tied Arroyo to the 1976-1983 military dictatorship, pointing to his appointment as comptroller of a local taxi-drivers union in 1977. Previously, Arroyo has also been accused of anti-Semitism, explicitly by the DAIA Jewish organisation in 1994, when he was a sub-secretary in the same municipality. Adding to his chequered history, in 2015 Arroyo was charged with “xenophobic and discriminatory remarks” by the INADI anti-discrimination body for comments he made on a local television programme against members of the Bolivian community.
“In the two years that he’s been in charge of the municipality, he has not made any statements linked to the ideology associated with him,” Ariel Gelblung, head of the Simon Wiesenthal Center in Latin America, told the Times. “We can’t and won’t persecute him for his background, but it does mean that we are more alert.”
Local activist Javier Moreno Iglesias said the municipality had ignored the phenomenon of neo-Nazi violence in the city, at least until the general public began to take notice and call for action.
“The mayor had said he wasn’t aware of any of this, despite the evidence we had. We have not seen any concrete policies except on the part of the Human Rights Secretariat, which did respond to our requests for meetings and which has since carried out awareness campaigns,” Moreno Igliesias said in an interview.
In April last year, Mayor Arroyo attended a commemorative event for the first fallen soldier in the Malvinas War, Pedro Giachino, who human rights groups allege was a torturer during the 1976-1983 military dictatorship.
Questioned by a local reporter (the press was not invited to the event) about his presence at the event, Arroyo said: “I’m paying homage to a man who gave his life, which was everything he had — his future, his dreams — to try to recover what is ours.”
Some neo-Nazi groups in Mar del Plata, where Giachino is buried, have praised the slain officer, who is accused of having commanded death squads in northern Buenos Aires prior to his deployment to the Malvinas conflict. Mayor Arroyo has also been quoted in the past as saying “we were better off” during the dictatorship.