A protected witness has been killed by hitmen in Rosario, prompting renewed debate about security and drug-related crime in Argentina.
Gunned down from a passing car, protected witness Carlos Héctor Argüelles was the former right-hand man of drug kingpin Esteban Alvarado, against whom the late witness had ended up testifying.
Argüelles was attacked in front of his wife and children on Monday at a service station he owned in Rosario’s West End (Av. Garay 3500), taking two bullets to the head and one in his right buttock.
According to the local newspaper La Capital, he was rushed in critical condition to the emergency ward of the Hospital de Emergencias Clemente Álvarez where he died at 6.50pm.
The attack, according to witnesses, was committed by two men and a woman riding a red Volkswagen Fox, from which multiple shots were fired.
Argüelles had already been the victim of a gunfire attack last January 28 when driving a Ford Ecosport with his wife and two of his children. According to the police, on that occasion he was intercepted by a grey car and a motorcycle which fired several shots at him.
Some days later he told La Capital that this had been the third gunfire attack against him.
“When I decided to testify in the future trial of Alvarado, I knew what I was risking, but I believe that it’s justice and that God will protect me. I was with Alvarado for many years and there’s no sinister story behind me – I’m man who has made mistakes and I am ready to face up to them, placing myself at the total disposal of justice. I fear for my life but this time they attacked my family and that has upset a lot of people," he told the newspaper.
"I know that the Prosecutor’s Office will be taking more measures to look after me,” he said at the time. “The important thing is that I can be calm with my family in peace. There are not many men who have made my decision and I’m doing this because there came a time when I said to myself that I wanted to leave behind me here on earth the burden [on my conscience] of having witnessed some of the things I’ve seen.”
Five men have been indicted for that attack – in April, two of the hitmen were identified, Gabriel González and taxi-driver Jorge Inocencio Ojeda, who had reportedly shadowed Argüelles as from last October, months before the attack, in order to mark out for the assailants where they could ambush him.
Alejandro Isaías ‘Chucky Monedita’ Núñez, accused of instigating the attack from jail, Jonatan Ribles and Andrés Bladimir ‘Colo’ Navarro were indicted in August.
Argüelles, 46, had been in jail accused of the murder of a man who had denounced him for robbing his motorbike. Back in June, 2016, he had already been singled out by Matías Edery and Luis Schiappa Pietra, prosecutors specialising in organised crime, as a front for Alvarado.
Argüelles was a mechanic who fixed up cars for Alvarado. Previously remanded in custody awaiting trial, he was allowed to circulate freely as from mid-2019.
News of the murder gripped Argentina’s frontpages this week, with crime and security also a hot topic on the campaign trail. The country goes to the ballot boxes for the PASO primaries on Sunday, with midterm elections due in November.
Responding to claims of an upsurge in drug violence in Rosario and opposition calls to increase security presence in the region, Security Minister Sabina Frederic responded by saying homicides were on the rise in Buenos Aires City.
"In the City of Buenos Aires the increase in the homicide rate was 22 percent in 2020 – it grew more than in the province of Santa Fe," she said.
“The City [government] hides a lot of information about things that work very badly in terms of security, despite the huge investment they have made in cameras and police personnel. They have the largest police force per inhabitant in the country, ” said the head of the security portfolio.
When it was put to the minister that six people alone had been murdered in drug-related killings over the past week in Rosario, including the slaying of a protected witness, Frederic implied that a rise in violence before the election was not expected.
“We know that in Argentina there are conflicts that are intensifying in the run-up to the elections,” she said.
“Since the beginning of [President] Alberto Fernández's administration, we have been working together with the province of Santa Fe. We deployed 160 more troops in recent days and doubled the number of federal forces that were in Santa Fe. Most of it is concentrated in Rosario," she explained.