Mar del Plata, Argentina – Recently, Marta Montero dreamed of her teenage daughter, Lucia. It happens from time to time. She felt the soft fabric of the dress that Lucia was wearing, and she felt peace when she woke up to a world in which Lucia is no longer there.
Lucia’s life was snuffed out five and a half years ago in one of the most emblematic cases of femicide in Argentina — not just for the violence that was exacted on the 16-year-old, but for the way in which a court judged her.
“The first year is just terrible. The first birthday. The first Christmas,” said Montero, sitting at the kitchen table of the modest house where she lives with her family in the coastal city of Mar del Plata, about 400km (248 miles) from the capital Buenos Aires.
“That absence makes your skin hurt. Your soul hurts. You feel it in your body. Your body hurts. It is just terrible. I remember coming home from work on the bus, and seeing Lucia. And getting off the bus crying and thinking, ‘I must be going crazy.’”
It has been a devastating and maddening time for Lucia’s family and their allies since the teenage girl’s lifeless body was dropped off at a health clinic in her hometown in October 2016 by two men, Matias Farias, 23, and Juan Pablo Offidani, 41. They were accused of drugging, raping and killing her – and Farias also faced a charge of femicide – but acquitted by a trio of judges who found them only guilty of administering drugs to a minor. The judges also absolved a third man who is now deceased of helping them cover up the crime.
The ruling was quashed in 2020 by a higher court, and the family is still awaiting a new trial date to be set. They also are waiting for a hearing that could strip the original trial judges of their posts for relying on gender stereotypes and prejudices in their ruling. That would be a milestone in the battle waged by women’s rights activists to dismantle the patriarchal underpinnings of Argentine society, including in the judiciary.
“The movement of women has not only conquered the streets, but we are also conquering these spaces and we will use all tools that are available to us,” Maite Guerrero, a lawyer with the Equipo Latinoamericano de Justicia y Genero, told Al Jazeera. “This case could set an important precedent for us.”
In Argentina, one woman is killed roughly every 30 hours, a statistic that has not shifted much since a new wave of the feminist movement exploded onto the streets in 2015 under the banner Ni Una Menos — Not One Less.
Lucia’s death prompted the first women’s strike, which saw hundreds of thousands of people demonstrate in the streets in 2016 demanding more action from legislators. They were driven there at least in part by the horrific revelations by a prosecutor, who told the press in the days after the crime that the teenager had been impaled during the brutal attack, and that her body was cleaned.
Those allegations were deemed unfounded in court, and the three judges — Facundo Gomez Urso, Pablo Vinas and now retired Aldo Carnevale — sided with the defence, which had argued that Lucia had consented to sex with Farias, who sold her cannabis the day before, and that her death was likely the result of drug intoxication.
The judges said they believed text message conversations made it “clear Lucia had sexual relations with whom and when she wanted”; her “personality” and experience with older men meant she couldn’t have been subordinated in the encounter with Farias, they argued.
They also said they did not think that giving her drugs would have “enhanced a situation of vulnerability and prevented her from freely consenting to the action”. Though there was evidence of lesions and rough penetration on Lucia’s body, one of the judges maintained that there was “no physical or psychological violence, subordination, humiliation, much less objectification”.
“I am aware of the existence of so-called gender violence,” Carnevale said, but that did not mean that “under that label, we should frame an act that, once analysed, is diametrically opposed to that”. The court in 2018 sentenced Farias and Offidani to eight years in prison for drug possession with the purpose of selling to a minor and fined them 135,000 pesos (about $3,500 at the time).
‘What happened here?’
The decision sent shockwaves through the courtroom that rippled onto the street.
Human rights, legal, and feminist groups denounced the verdict, saying it judged the character of the victim, rather than the accused. The Organization of American States said the judges sent a “message of tolerance of violence towards women”, and that the use of gender stereotypes by the judiciary represented a “clear violation of the human rights of women” as defined by the Inter-American Court of Human Rights.
“Imagine what it was like when they gave that sentence,” said Montero. “My husband and I looked at each other and we thought: ‘What happened here, what did we miss?’”
The verdict sent a message, Montero said: “You are disposable. You are a thing. You don’t exist. So, I can f**k you until you’re dead. I can drug you until you’re dead. And I’ll do what I want with your life.”
It has also put Argentina’s legal system under the microscope, as women denounce the patriarchal views of the judiciary. In 2020, a court in the province of Buenos Aires quashed the acquittal. It criticised harshly the judges’ “inexplicable” focus on the conduct of the victim prior to her murder, their probe of her personal life, and the use of “intolerable prejudices, and suppositions based on gender stereotypes”.
In November 2021, the legal body that investigates the conduct of judges, the Magistrates Prosecution Jury, went one step further, announcing that a hearing into their conduct would take place. A date has not yet been set. It suspended them immediately and docked their pay 40 percent.
The family initiated the complaint into their conduct. It was also taken up by the attorney general of the province of Buenos Aires, a commission of the provincial legislature, and the provincial ombudsman’s office.
The judges have stood by their ruling and called the proceedings against them “political”. They maintain that the desire to “make an example” of this case was flawed from the start. The aspects that have to do with Lucia’s personality or relationships are there because they were presented in court, they said in a rebuttal documented by local media.
The College of Magistrates and Civil Servants in the Judiciary of the province of Buenos Aires and of Mar del Plata, which registers lawyers to practice, also rejected the hearing, saying that it threatens the independence of the judiciary and could generate a chill effect for future rulings. They said that the suspension of judges “can’t be based on the content of their decision”.
But Montero said their complaint is not over a dislike of the sentence, but that the decision itself was “so arbitrary”.
Search for answers
Now, Lucia’s family waits – and continues its painstaking work.
“After five and a half years, I’ve already kicked and screamed over the loss of my daughter. I have lived through all the horrible things that someone could live through. But I want things to change,” said Guillermo Perez, Lucia’s father, who with his wife has started an NGO that tracks femicides and advocates for the victims.
“Look at everything we have to do to bring this case forward. We have to pay lawyers, we have to raise money, we have to invest time, and we’re the ones who have lost a loved one,” he told Al Jazeera.
In February of this year, dozens of people rallied around the family as local bands performed at an event in Mar del Plata to mark Lucia’s birthday. One of Lucia’s favourite songs, Jugetes Perdidos (Lost Toys), played on the loudspeaker during intermissions.
“I am here because I am a woman and we don’t want any more femicides and we want justice for Lucia,” said Mariana Solina, a mother, who was part of a Candombe ensemble that performed. “It affected me deeply, honestly. It was terrible. We want to draw attention to everything that is happening. Because this happens all the time,” she said.
Perez said his daughter would have loved the event. Lucia had an entrepreneurial spirit and was always ready to help others. He recalled the concerts the two of them attended together, the way she would remind him to take his medicine, and the mates – the typical Argentine infused drink – they shared before he took her to school every morning.
“We have had incredible support, not just in Mar del Plata but across the country. And we never stopped fighting,” said Montero. “That’s very important. Not just that the family doesn’t stop fighting but that they believe in what they’re fighting for. It’s very important to believe in that daughter that you had.”