Paraguay accused of destroying crucial evidence in killing of Argentinian girls

Authorities in Paraguay destroyed crucial evidence in the killing of two 11-year-old Argentinian girls by state forces and violated their own investigative protocols and international human rights standards, Human Rights Watch said on Wednesday, adding that the Paraguayan government should ensure an independent, prompt, impartial, and transparent investigation into the killings.

On September 2, 2020, members of the Joint Task Force, a military-led elite unit that includes police and counter-narcotics agents, allegedly killed Lilian Mariana Villalba and María Carmen Villalba during an operation against a camp of the Ejército del Pueblo Paraguayo (Paraguayan People’s Army or EPP), an armed group, in a forested area about 360 kilometers northeast of Asunción. The mother of one of the girls, who were cousins, told Human Rights Watch that the girls were born and lived in Argentina but were in the camp visiting their fathers, who are members of the armed group.

“All signs indicate that the investigation into the killings has been woefully inadequate,” said José Miguel Vivanco, Americas director at Human Rights Watch. “The Paraguayan government should immediately allow Argentinian forensic experts to conduct an autopsy and grant them and the victims’ families full access to the evidence. The longer the government delays exhumation, the more likely that any evidence from the remains will be lost.”

Shortly after the raid, Paraguayan President Mario Abdo Benítez traveled to the campcalled the operation “successful in every sense,” and said that two female members of EPP had been killed. Nobody else was killed. One Task Force agent was slightly injured.

Human Rights Watch reviewed the authorities’ public statements about the case and publicly available evidence. In response to a Human Rights Watch request, the Independent Forensic Expert Group (IFEG) of the International Rehabilitation Council for Torture Victims (IRCT), an international group of pre-eminent forensic experts, provided its expert opinion on some elements of the investigation.

Human Rights Watch found that irregularities have marred the investigation into the killings from the very beginning, including that the authorities:

  • Hastily buried the victims without an autopsy
  • Burned the victims’ clothing
  • Maintain, based on an unreliable forensic test, that one of the 11-year-old victims had fired a gun
  • Made a shooting range determination that cannot be substantiated based on forensic evidence
  • Barred a representative of the families from a forensic examination of the remains and denied them access to the investigation

Onder Ozkalipci and Karen Kelly, two forensic medical experts affiliated with IFEG who have extensive international experience, concluded that the destruction of the girls’ clothing “represents the destruction of crucial evidence that violates the most basic and fundamental criminal investigative and forensic principles.”

International standards that mandate an effective investigation in all cases of killings by state forces require preserving such evidence. The director of forensic science at Paraguay’s Prosecutor’s Office, Pablo Lemir, said in a September 7 radio interview that clothing is “key for criminal investigations” and must be preserved under the country’s own protocol.

Cristian Ferreira, the Paraguayan forensic expert who first examined the bodies, told the media that the girls were shot from the front and then from the back and the side, leaving the bodies face down on the ground. “The position of the bodies shows both [girls] were obviously fleeing” the state forces attacking the camp, the expert said. The authorities have not released any images of the bodies as they were found.

Ferreira said that, based on his external examination of the injuries, the victims had been shot from a distance of between 10 and 20 meters. In contrast, the two IFEG experts said that forensic analysis cannot determine shooting distances exceeding approximately 1.5 meters, since “bullets fired from 1.5, 50 or 150 meters will produce gunshot entrance wounds with identical appearances.”

Police conducted a paraffin test to identify gunshot residue on the victims’ hands and thus determine whether they had fired a gun. A prosecutor said it was positive for one of the girls and negative for the other. But the IFEG experts asserted paraffin tests are unreliable and that their value is “marginal, at best,” as a variety of substances can trigger a positive result – beans, lentils, and other leguminous plants, urine, fertilizer, tobacco, fingernail polish, soap, and even tap water.

The Paraguayan government spent days insisting that the victims were much older than they really were, despite evidence provided by their families and corroborated by the Argentinian government. Because of the controversy surrounding their age, Paraguayan officials exhumed the bodies and, after DNA and bone analysis, Lemir confirmed the girls were 11 years old.

After that examination of the remains, Lemir said that one girl was shot seven times – from the front, the back, and the side – while the other girl was shot twice, from the front and the side. A lawyer representing the victims’ families told Human Rights Watch that the authorities did not allow her to be present during a forensic examination on September 5 and have continued to deny her access to the investigation, in violation of international human rights standards.

On September 15, the Argentinian government asked Paraguay to authorize the Argentinian Team of Forensic Anthropology (EAAF, in Spanish), a well-respected group of professionals with experience in forensic investigations around the world, to exhume the bodies and conduct an autopsy. They have not received authorization. The two IFEG experts recommended exhuming the bodies “in haste” to preserve any remaining evidence, given the deterioration of remains over time.

On September 9, the Paraguayan Human Rights Coordinating Group (Coordinadora de Derechos Humanos del Paraguay, Codehupy), a coalition of human rights organizations, sent a letter to Paraguay’s Congress requesting the creation a commission to investigate the case. Congress has not responded yet, according to the coalition. Human Rights Watch supports its petition.

EPP is an armed group allegedly responsible for homicides and several kidnappings, including the September 9 kidnapping of former vice president Óscar Denis, who remains missing.

Paraguay’s international human rights obligations require it to conduct thorough, prompt, and impartial investigations into killings by state agents. The international standard for conducting autopsies and other forensic analysis is the United Nations Manual on the Effective Prevention of Extra-legal, Arbitrary, and Summary Executions, known as the Minnesota Protocol. Paraguayan authorities have not complied with the basic investigative steps laid out by that protocol, Human Rights Watch said.

“Paraguay’s authorities attribute very serious crimes to members of the EPP, who, if proven guilty after an independent investigation and trial, should be held accountable,” Vivanco said. “But state action also needs to be within the bounds of the law. Any killing by state forces should be thoroughly investigated.”

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