Thousands of documents, boxes full to the brim, the details of lost lives and four naval officers singled out as responsible for the sinking of the ARA San Juan submarine and the loss of 44 lives – five years on, this is the state of the investigation being carried out by a federal courtroom of Caleta Olivia into one of the most shocking and unforgettable incidents in recent Argentine history.
The disaster of November 15, 2017 cost the lives of all 44 crew members. Four naval officers have been arraigned. It still remains to be determined whether the court advances will extend further and whether there will be forensic analysis of images taken from the vessel at the scene of the disaster. Those are some of the characteristics of the judicial panorama facing the families of the victims of the tragedy half-a-decade on.
The case probing the sinking provoking the death of the 43 men and one woman aboard the submarine is numbered 17,379/17 and is being investigated by Judge Marta Yáñez at a federal courtroom based in Caleta Olivia, Santa Cruz Province.
Apart from Macri, who led Argentina as head of state between 2015 and 2019, it remains to be defined whether there will be criminal proceedings against his then defence minister Oscar Aguad and then Navy chief-of-staff Marcelo Srur, as has been requested by a Comodoro Rivadavia Federal Appeals Court, with the judge’s decision still pending.
Also on trial for charges of malfeasance and destruction due to negligence are officers Luis Enrique López Mazzeo (Training and Recruitment Command), Claudio Villamide (Submarine Command), Héctor Alonso (Submarine Command chief-of-staff and Recruitment Officer) and Hugo Correa (Chief of Operations). The Comodoro Rivadavia Federal Appeals Court decided against the trials of other individuals.
The main hypothesis for the sinking was that it was the consequence of the lack of submarine maintenance.
While the initial investigation was very active, carrying out raids at key locations like the Mar del Plata and Puerto Belgrano naval bases and the Edificio Libertad naval headquarters, it is a different panorama now. The families of the victims (plaintiffs in most cases) are dissatisfied and, in some cases, resigned. They do not think that there will be many more advances – one of the main reasons is the inability to go to the bottom of the sea for forensic explorations.
Forensic analysis of the images taken of the remains of the submarine at the bottom of the sea is also being sought. Five years after the tragedy, these are the points which most worry the families.
One of the main areas of questioning has been the level of compliance with an order by the Comodoro Rivadavia Federal Appeals Court, whose judges Javier Leal de Ibarra, Aldo Enrico Suárez and Hebe Lilia Corchuelo de Huberman in 2020 ruled for the investigation of ex-president Macri as the then commander–in-chief of the Armed Forces, as well as former national government officials.
Regarding Macri and the other ex-officials of his government, the claim of the families is that they must have been aware of the state of the vessel as the result of budget cuts and the risk thus implied in its navigation. Indeed, both Aguad and Srur have testified in the case as witnesses.
Another point to investigate is the presumed concealment of all information posterior to the accident from the families of the victims.
An extensive ruling of the Comodoro Rivadavia Federal Appeals Court also ordered technical and computer forensic analysis of the images taken of the finding of the ARA San Juan submarine. Yet the study remains pending and the court seeks to determine if images of that finding were destroyed by the Navy. Early this month the official forensic expert in the case demanded that the Council of Magistrates provide the funds to carry out the study, stating that was the reason why it is still pending.
Judge Yáñez has still to determine whether she will move ahead with Macri’s political responsibilities in compliance with the order of the Federal Appeals Court. She has been receiving the testimony of former officials enjoying the maximum confidence of the ex-president such as his Legal and Technical Secretary Pablo Clusellas and Senator José Torello, among others.
A separate chapter is also to define whether Macri was aware of the alleged espionage on the families of the victims of the sunken submarine or even ordered it himself. Dolores Federal Judge Martín Bava had placed the ex-president on trial but in midyear the City Federal Appeals Court overturned the proceedings after its judges – Pablo Bertuzzi, Leopoldo Bruglia and Mariano Llorens – ruled that the approaches by Macri’s security staff and checks on the families’ activities did not go beyond ensuring the presidential safety.
But that is also still pending because it was appealed by the families of the victims to the Federal Criminal Cassation Court, which will determine the future of the Macri case, as well as that of the AFI (Agencia Federal de Inteligencia) helm of Gustavo Arribas and Silvia Majdalani at that time.
The ARA San Juan went down with 44 people aboard. It has since become known with the passage of time that it exploded at a depth of 907 metres and 500 kilometres offshore. A water leak was presumably the cause of a fire in the zone of the batteries – that much was communicated from the submarine to ground control.
The first alert was sounded just before midnight on November 15, 2017. Seven hours later its last position was communicated, submerged and en route to Mar del Plata, and minutes before 11am, an explosion was detected.
As a result of that the material remained scattered for several metres around, as could be confirmed by the Ocean Infinity mission which submerged to take images of the location of the remains. Those images were visualised by officials and the families but forensic studies have still not been possible. According to what has been leaked, the lack of technological inputs is one of the problems.
"Last November 7 a very annoyed official forensic expert Marcelo Torok wrote out in capital letters the tools needed to do the job. They gave him a family computer for such a high-level study; he asked for three hard disks and they gave him one," plaintiff Valeria Carreras told Radio 10, criticising the Council of Magistrates for not helping out judge Yáñez.
“We haven’t stopped working a single day and many things took plenty of time. In 2021 there was still the tail end of the pandemic and we had to take the testimony of serving and retired naval officers via Zoom,” Judge Yáñez told La Nación.
A national public holiday?
In the week of the fifth anniversary of the sinking of the ARA San Juan, the families of the victims are again calling for November 15 to be declared a national public holiday to remember the 44 crew-members of the submarine. Even if such petitions go back to 2020, there has been no advance until now at either provincial (Buenos Aires) or national level.
"We need the people to accompany us and not forget the 44 people aboard the ARA San Juan. We therefore repeat our appeal for every November 15 be a national public holiday so that on that day we Argentines can unite in their memory and give perpetuity to their sacrifice," Luis Tagliapietra, father of one of the 44 dead sailors, told a radio station, adding: "Between us all we must keep alive their memory, their values and their principles, which, like them, make this nation great, as requested by the families of the crew members."
In October, 2020, families of the victims posted a petition on Change.org, which drew over 19,000 signatures.
Tagliapietra further commented that while every day is difficult, "certain dates become much harder. I could not mourn, it’s very difficult when you have no certainty, no answers, no support and contention. If in addition they attack, persecute and mistreat you, spying on you, it is still more complicated."
On November 15, 2017, the submarine was in South Atlantic waters and, after an implosion, was found just over a year later (in the small hours of November 17, 2018) at the latitude of San Jorge gulf 597 kilometres off the city of Comodoro Rivadavia.