April 1st 2021
The criminal procedure confronted by Reina Meraz, a Bolivian immigrant woman, exposes a double issue of the Argentinian judicial system: the need to train judicial officers in both gender perspective and interculturalism. Reina was subjected to a procedure that neglected her native tongue, Quechua, and was condemned to a life sentence on the back of a defective argumentation that disregarded the dynamics of gender violence. Ultimately, Reina was absolved amid a context of popular and feminist mobilizations, and concerted efforts between State agencies, non-governmental organizations and social movements.
Reina Meraz Bejarano was accused of being an accomplice in the homicide of her husband, Limber Santos Vilca, who was murdered in November 2010, in the Florencia Varela partido (an administrative division in the south of the Buenos Aires Province). According to the prosecutor’s version, which was accepted by the court, she had collaborated with her neighbor, Tito Vilco Ortiz, who was also presumed to be her lover. The motive of the crime was the theft of a thousand pesos, an amount of money that is not significant in Argentina. Two days after joining her father-in-law to denounce the disappearance of Limber Santos, she was detained, while her children, respectively three and five years old, were requested to testify.
Thus began a criminal procedure that was singled out as racist and patriarchal by activists and academics. Reina spoke Quechua and could barely understand any Spanish, a fact that went unnoticed by judicial authorities and the Penitentiary Service personnel from the moment she was detained.
For more than a year, her public defender, doctor José María Mastronardi, provided her with legal assistance under the belief that Reina understood what he was saying. When the issue was detected, the local authorities tried to justify the mistake by arguing that they only had access to translators of “traditional” languages, such as English, Portuguese and French. Facing widespread outrage, doctor Mastronardi publicly apologized for being “blindfolded”.
While the procedure took place, Reina signed judicial writs without understanding their content. At the same time, Tito Vilca Ortiz died in the Florencio Varela prison, leaving Reina as the only indicted person in the trial. She spent the first seven months at a precinct in Quilmes, where she had to deal with her third pregnancy. For the next three years, she was sent to Penitentiary Unit No. 33 in Los Hornos, Buenos Aires, where she gave birth to her daughter, Abigaíl. From December 2013 until her acquittal, she was under house arrest at Barrio Olimpo in Lomas de Zamora.
Reina alongside her daughter while under house arrest in 2014. Photo: Agencia Andar / Archivo CPM.
Feminist resistance and popular organization
On November 11, 2014, two weeks after the sentence was declared, the allegations that justified it were to be stated before the Court of Criminal Appeals for Oral Trials (Tribunal Oral Criminal) No. 1 in Quilmes. Nevertheless, said allegations were never publicly read or stated: as a consequence, a group of Bolivian women gathered in the street outside the court to support Reina. They took turns to speak.
- Why didn’t the judge do the proper research? We have to demand respect.
- If they know how to speak their language, we need to answer in Quechua.
- Now, god damn it, we want justice to help our comrade! What do we want?
As the gathering came to a close, they all yelled in Quechua: “Justice!”. A woman asked once more: “When?” They all answered in Quechua: “Now!”
This scene is one of many demonstrations of solidarity, as well as contempt for Buenos Aires’ justice system, that emerged once the story of Reina Maraz became public knowledge. In this case, multiple forms of violence and inequalities are intertwined, amongst which stands out the modus operandi of the justice system. The exposure that the case got in the media inclined many organizations, organisms and self-convened individuals to raise their voices.
One of the main actors in Reina’s defense was the Provincial Commission for Memory (CPM, as per its Spanish initials), a government agency that works autonomously and autarchically, founded to investigate human rights violations. The officials at the Committee Against Torture, one of the subdivisions of the CPM, periodically inspect the jails of Buenos Aires: they inspect the infrastructure, the access to education and health services, and the denunciations of torture. They also talk to those deprived of their liberty to gain knowledge of the conditions they live in and, if necessary, intervene.
In one of these inspections, at the Penitentiary Unit No. 33 in Los Hornos, they found Reina and realized she could not communicate. Another Quechua-speaking inmate told them that Reina did not understand Spanish. Since then, the CPM deployed a series of strategies to intervene in the criminal procedure that was taking place. After their intervention, Frida Rojas was hired as an interpreter and the judicial authorities were asked —to no avail— to nullify the procedural actions taken before the hiring of the interpreter.
A key element in Reina’s defense was the presentation of an amicus curiae. The latter was put together with the contribution of academic and organized women, added to the work of the Human Rights Observatory for Indigenous Peoples (Observatorio de Derechos Humanos de Pueblos Indígenas). In said text, it was highlighted that the judicial procedure was not considering the fact that Reina was an indigenous, immigrant, Quechua-speaking woman, nor the context of multiple forms of violence she had gone through.
Making use of the concept of intersectionality, the text sheds light on the ways in which a series of circumstances converged in Reina’s life story, placing her in a very particular situation of vulnerability. Likewise, the text also highlights the ways in which multiple forms of oppression - running along the lines of gender, origin, and migrant and ethnic status- ended up placing her in a particularly defenseless condition with regards to her access to justice.
Freedom for Reina Maraz. During the trial, a group of Bolivian women gathered in front of the Court of Criminal Appeals for Oral Trials No. 1 in Quilmes, to support Reina. Photo: Agencia Andar / Archivo CPM.
“I feel my heart hurting”
While the Quilmes Ombudsman and the CPM worked together in the legal uptaking of the case, the women of the Unemployed Workers Movement (MTD, as per its Spanish initials), working in the National Campaign Against the Violence towards Women, accompanied Reina during her house arrest and deployed a series of strategies to bring her case to public attention. One of this strategies consisted of producing a short video in which Reina narrated what she was going through in Quechua, with subtitles in Spanish:
– My name is Reina Maraz. I am from Bolivia, from Avichuca, I am 26 years old. I face the problem of having been accused of something I did not do. I want the truth to be known. I am not guilty. For four years I have felt manipulated from every side. They condemned me to a life sentence because I could not understand anything, because I did not know how to speak Spanish. I don’t want anyone to go through what I went through.
Elizabeth, Gilma and Ximena, three Bolivian members of the MTD, acted as translators during her recorded interview and then worked in the subtitling process, a task that turned out to be far from simple. Reina speaks a somewhat hermetic, regional Quechua. And thus, she does not say, for example, “I am sad”; she says song'oy nanahuan: “I feel my heart hurting”.
– My children were taken out in silence from here. And I do not feel well. I did not know how to speak and they gave me papers to sign. I only put my name in them. I want all the Bolivians from the countryside to know. The poor ones like me. I want them to help me. I want to know who killed my husband. I will go anywhere: until they set me free.
Reina’s story also took the front-stage in the context of the massive demonstrations of Wednesday October 19th, 2016, organized by the collective Ni Una Menos (“Not A Women Less”). A passage of a document read in the Plaza de Mayo highlighted the following: “We strike against the irregular detention and judicial procedure that keeps Reina Maraz hostage, a Quechua-speaker migrant that fell prey to the machinations of a misogynist and racist justice system, and who has been unjustly condemned to a life- sentence. We strike against the conditions that, time and time again, turn prisons for women into spaces for the amplification of class and racial hierarchies.”
The concerted efforts of State agencies, non-government organizations and leading figures of the feminist, women, self-convened women and dissident movements, managed to bring Reina’s case to public attention. It was a collective and sisterly effort that compounded the translations made by the Bolivian comrades from the MTD, the accounts put together by the CPM lawyers and the professional assistance of Frida Rojas.
Violence and Migration.
Reina was born in Avichuca, a Kichwua town from the Sucre department. She used to live with her parents and her sisters. When she got married to Limber Santos Vilca, she left the countryside and went on to live in her husband’s grandmother’s house, located in Sistenio Tambo. There they had two children. Little thereafter, Santos went to work in Argentina and never sent any money to sustain the family he had left in Bolivia. Then Reina began to travel to the fair in Camargo, a nearby town, to sell homemade products. To assist her in traveling with both her children and her things, a cousin offered himself to travel with them. The gesture awakened in Santos’ grandmother the suspicion of a possible story of infidelity. And the gossip got to Argentina. Santos came back immediately and brought the case before the community’s Mayor.
Mariana Katz, coordinator of the Native Peoples’ Program in the CPM, explains that this is a conflict resolution practice that enjoys legal validity within indigenous communities: “The Mayor was the one in charge of acting as a mediator and issuing an statement regarding the rumour of whether the infidelity was true or not. For that purpose, she was subjected to a series of tests and a medical examination. Finally, the Mayor ruled that there had been no infidelity, but Limber (Santos) still forced her to come live in Argentina anyway”.
Reina did not want to leave Bolivia, since it had already been difficult enough for her to abandon the countryside. But Santos threatened her with separating her from her children, so she had no choice. In this way, she was forced to migrate to Buenos Aires, where they initially resided in the house of Santos’ sister. Given that she still carried the stigma of the infidelity rumour, her husband and his relatives retained her legal documents, and forced her to take charge of the household chores. Later on, Reina and her husband got a job in a brick kiln in Florencio Varela, and so they decided to move. It was during their working time there that they met Tito Vilca Ortiz, an informal worker who lived in the same piece of land as them.
Eugenia Lara, a member of the Unemployed Workers’ Movement (MTD) that accompanied Reina during her house arrest, depicted that period as following: “At that time, the violence that she suffered from Limber Santos was extreme. Reina used to tell us that he would come back drunk and go insane, that he threatened her with burning down the house with them inside, that he hit her with rocks and that a few times he got to the point of leaving her unconscious.”
Faced with the impossibility of speaking Spanish, Reina could only communicate through Santos. He became the only mediator in her new home. In that context, she was not only a victim of the violences perpetrated by her husband, but also of the abuses of Tito Vilca Ortiz. Reina shared that Santos used to go to the dive bar of Liniers with Vilca Ortiz, and that they would get excessively drunk together and then fight each other. One night, Vilca Ortiz got home drunk saying that he was going to collect a debt that Santos owed him, and raped her. When Santos got back home, he denied that anything had ever happened and told Reina to never bring up the topic. Reina claimed that a similar episode took place one more time. It is in that context of violence that her husband’s body was found nearby the plot of land where they resided.
The judges Silvia Etchemendi, Marcela Vissio and Florencia Butiérrez unanimously ruled against Reina, sentencing her to a life sentence, after deeming her the accomplice of her husband’s homicide. Photo: Agencia Andar / Archivo CPM.
A racist and patriarchal justice
On October 28th, 2014, in the Court of Criminal Appeals for Oral Trials (Tribunal Oral Criminal) No. 1 in Quilmes, the judges Silvia Etchemendi, Marcela Vissio and Florencia Butiérrez published their verdict: “Reina Maraz Bejarano is hereby unanimously condemned to a life sentence in prison for being found guilty of being an accomplice to the crime of murder”. By the side, Reina bent over towards Frida Rojas so she would translate the sentence to Quechua. She was the last to know it, and she listened to the translation in silence. She kept her body rigid and her mouth closed.
When reviewing the court’s proceedings, it becomes evident that there was a lack of a gender perspective. The presumption that Reina and Vilca Ortiz were lovers appears as a hypothesis of the attorney’s investigation. According to this version, the narratives of sexual abuse were an excuse to cover-up the romantic relationship. Thus, one of the ruling’s central thesis is the presumption that Reina is lying, insofar as she never denounced the abuses or violences that she suffered.
Sofía Ballesteros, a CPM lawyer, argues that the court’s attitude of questioning Reina for not having denounced the violences to which she was subjected to, exposes the lack of knowledge of the asymmetric logics that characterized the relation. This absence of a gender perspective is further aggravated by the lack of an intercultural approach: besides losing sight of the linguistic difference, the cultural differences in dispute resolution are also ignored.
“The prosecutors claimed that Reina had understood the motives for her detainment, because at the time she received the notification, which was a sheet written in spanish, she nodded with her head. But the interpreter explained to them that nodding with the head is a cultural practice that has to do with accepting the other person as a speaker within a dialogue. It does not mean that you are understanding, nor that you agree with what is being said. Only with this gesture, they already take it as a given that Reina understood what she was being notified”, narrates Ballesteros.
The CPM lawyer adds that the interpreting task is not a simple word-to-word translation, it also covers considering the different cultural patterns and the distinct justice and conflict resolution systems: “The interpreter had to explain each part of the trial to Reina, including who were those three women that would decide over her freedom or imprisonment. Frida loaded the whole process with meaning, for Reina as much as for us.”
Mariana Katz claims that the sentence against Reina not only lacks an intercultural perspective, but is outright racist: “The prosecutor was against depositions in Quechua, arguing that as we were in Argentinian territory, trials should be conducted in Spanish. Before the oral trial even began, the judges had already determined the decision they were to take. They saw Reina, but it was as if they had separated the movie from its script. They never listened to her. They dehumanized her. I never thought she would receive a life sentence. She was given the same sentence as Jorge Rafael Videla and Miguel Osvaldo Etchecolatz, leaders of Argentina’s last military dictatorship, condemned to life imprisonment for crimes against humanity.”
Eugenia Lara, a member of the MTD, gets visibly angry when talking about the sentence: “For us, it is a racist and patriarchal sentence. I was impressed by the faces of the judges as the verdict was read: their level of indifference was bewildering. It was a disdainful, classist sentence, an exemplary punishment delivered by a hegemonic, western form of justice. The life sentence truly was a complete shock.”
Reina with her interpreter, Frida Rojas. Frida had to explain to Reina each part of the trial in Quechua, including who were the women that would decide over her freedom. Photo: Agencia Andar / Archivo CPM.
The acquittal: a triumph for the feminist movement
In late 2016, the magistrates of the sixth Chamber of the Court of Criminal Appeals (Cámara de Casación Penal) acquitted Reina Maraz from the charges regarding the homicide of Limber Santos, pointing out that “tha lack of attention to the particular circumstances of the case” generated “clear discrimination against Reina, which undermines the objectivity of the sentence”.
The acquittal takes into account the contextualization research offered by the amicus curiae; emphasizes the hardships indigenous women face with regards to the access to justice and the denunciation of sexual violence, and highlights the serious consequences, in terms of freedom of expression, of denying someone the possibility to communicate in their native tongue during a criminal procedure.
Reina’s acquittal was celebrated as a triumph of the feminist movement, of women and dissidences, both Argentinian and Bolivian. Through a sheer demonstration of organization and presence in the streets, it proved the importance of mobilizations and activism. Reina expressed her gratitude in Quechua: “I am Reina. I am very happy, as I have been set free, I no longer have that [house arrest] bracelet. Thanks for all your help, you have walked a long way for me. I am profoundly happy, thanks to you, sisters. I cannot even describe how I feel, I am almost dazed; I cannot even cry. I thank you deeply”.
* The reconstruction of the case is based on a journalistic research conducted in 2015. A shortened version of said research was published in Revista la Pulseada, an independent magazine from La Plata.
Juliana Arens is member of the Group of Studies on Family, Gender and Subjectivities at the National University of Mar de Plata, as well as the Political and Legal Anthropology Team at the Buenos Aires University. Contact: email@example.com