The image of his face appears on posters and stencils throughout the city, alongside the words: “Mariano Ferreyra Presente”. But Mariano isn’t here. On 20th October 2010, the 23-year-old activist with the Partido Obrero (PO), was shot and killed while taking part in a protest in Barracas. The shocking footage from that day—the barely-conscious youngster with a bullet wound in the abdomen lying on top of another victim in the back of a poorly-equipped ambulance—laid bare the tragic consequences of the forceful suppression of social conflict.
20th October 2010
In the minutes after Mariano’s death, news channels began to report of a fatality during a clash between protestors. Those who were there, however, had a very different interpretation of events. “There was no confrontation,” says Eduardo Belliboni, a leader in the PO who was alongside Mariano that day. “It was an attack by a murderous gang on a protest group that had already begun to disperse.”
The group had formed earlier that day, near the train station in Avellaneda, a suburb immediately south of Buenos Aires. Activists from the PO joined a group of ‘tercerizados‘ (outsourced contract workers) from the General Roca railway line, who were protesting against the dismissal of over a hundred workers and demanding equal pay, benefits and conditions as full-time employees and members of the Unión Ferroviaria (UF).
The initial plan was to block the busy suburban commuter line at Avellaneda, but after receiving threats from UF members, who had formed another group at the station to impede the action, the 200 or so protesters decided to march into the capital. Another attempt to cut the railway at a different location was quickly repelled by the unionists—who had followed the group, insulting them and throwing stones.
Tired and unable to achieve their objective, the protesters agreed to end the action and meet again the following day.
It was at this point, with the protestors having already retreated around 300 metres from the tracks, that the union gang launched an unexpected vicious assault. “Some of us turned to face [the attackers], defending the others as they moved away,” says Belliboni, “and that’s when the fatal attack came.”
Belliboni’s tone lowers as he recalls what happened next. Though he would not call himself a close friend of Mariano, he knew him well through PO activities and admired his dedication to supporting workers rights.
“At one point, I saw a colleague whose legs were stained with blood… I stopped and looked at the attackers, and identified the shooter.”
According to Belliboni, the man with the gun was 10-15 metres away, firing several times in the direction of his group. “I turned around, and saw Mariano lying on the pavement. And then I was told that Elsa [Rodríguez] had been shot in the head.”
It was on top of Rodríguez, a 56-year-old member of the PO, that desperate colleagues would place Mariano after stopping a private ambulance that happened to be in the area at the time of the attack.
At the Argerich Hospital, doctors were unable to revive Mariano; Elsa Rodríguez survived, but continues to recover from her serious, long-lasting injuries. Nelson Aguirre and another activist, Ariel Benjamín Pintos, were also treated for gunshot wounds.
The day after the killing, the PO led a march of around 50,000 to the Plaza de Mayo. Tens of thousands of people also mobilised in other cities around the country, demanding “justice and punishment” for all those responsible for Mariano’s death.
The network of responsibility stretches far beyond the suspected shooters, Cristian Favale and Gabriel Fernando Sánchez. In total, ten members or affiliates of the UF have been charged for their involvement in the attack, including union head José Pedraza and his right-hand man Juan Carlos Fernández, both accused of instigating and organising the group that launched the attack.
Diego Rojas, author of ‘Quien mató a Mariano Ferreyra?’ (Who Killed Mariano Ferreyra?) thinks the tragedy was the inevitable result of a long-established tactic of union leaders to use violence and intimidation to defend their interests, which in many cases run in contrary to the interests of the workforce that they are supposed to protect.
The title of the book alludes to Rodolfo Walsh’s classic 1968 investigation into a similar crime: ‘Quien mató a Rosendo?’. “Walsh went to Avellaneda to find out how it could be that a gang of union thugs from the metal industry killed an activist,” says Rojas. “That [over] 40 years later, another activist is murdered in the same manner, had a strong impact on me.”
In the book, Rojas both recreates the events of 20th October and presents a wealth of research and investigations into the murky dealings of the UF and other unions. It includes a long list of incidents in which violent gangs have threatened or directly assaulted groups demanding better working conditions from their unions.
In the event that led to Mariano’s death, the UF directors wanted to put an end to the protests of the tercerizados, who, with a salary of 30-50% of full-time members performing the same tasks, were a source of cheap labour. In addition, UF leaders are suspected of withholding a proportion of state funds destined for the outsourced workers.
“For us, this [business] is what made the union leaders decide to instigate the attack on the protesters,” says Maximiliano Medina, a lawyer the Centre for Legal and Social Studies (CELS) and acting prosecutor for the Ferreyra family. “[The idea was] to teach the tercerizados a lesson so that they wouldn’t keep demanding a change, because it risks putting this whole situation in play.”
According to Medina, that the two suspect shooters, Favale and Sánchez, were barrabravas—members of football hooligan gangs that are frequently associated with political and union violence—gives an indication as to the kind of lesson the UF wanted to give the protesters on 20th October. According to testimonies, after the attack, Favale, who didn’t even work on the railway and wasn’t a UF member, boasted about “putting a hole” in one of the protesters.
The Role of the Police
Another branch of the judicial investigation into the death of Mariano is focused on the actions of the federal police, who accompanied the protesters as they marched in the capital yet did nothing to prevent or halt the attack.
Six police officers have been accused of failure to render assistance a charge both Belliboni and CELS say is insufficient given the inaction—and more pertinently, the actions—of those on duty.
“For us they were active participants in the homicide,” says Medina. “It wasn’t just a lack of intervention, but the police deliberately let [the attackers] through…after the shots that killed Mariano were fired, when the gang retreated back the way they came, the police didn’t try to stop them or identify any suspects, and even formed a protective circle to block protestors that were chasing after them.”
In addition, by allowing the aggressors to escape, the police missed the opportunity to recover the weapons used in the attack, which would strengthen the case against the shooters. Suspiciously, the police unit’s video camera failed for six minutes during the day’s operation—precisely at the moment of attack. Thirty-nine minutes of radio communication from that day were also missing from the recordings.
Justice and Impunity
While the police face a charge far less severe than evidence suggests they should be facing, Rojas notes the significance of Pedraza’s detention. “In this country it is rare that the instigator of a political crime is put behind bars…he [Pedraza] believed that justice wouldn’t reach him, that he had immunity.”
In ‘Quien mató…‘, Rojas describes how key eye-witnesses, including the news crew who filmed the shocking aftermath of the attack, received intimidating messages about their testimonies. The prosecutor initially in charge of the case, Cristina Camaño, required private security after being approached by a suspicious man at her office. Furthermore, telephone wire recordings allegedly link Pedraza to an attempt to bribe judges involved in the Mariano Ferreyra case.
Rojas says the government has fomented this feeling of immunity by supporting Pedraza and the UF and turning a blind eye to its irregularities and episodes of violence. “In the 90s he destroyed the railways, and was responsible for the loss of 80,000 jobs… yet he has received awards, and when most of the cabinet attended the inauguration of a cultural centre in the UF headquarters [in 2009], there was only praise for Pedraza.”
Pedraza and the other UF defendants will face trial on 20th February; the investigations into police compliance and alleged bribes are still in development.
But will the case have an impact the underlying problems that contributed to Mariano’s death?
“This case forms part of a list of emblematic events with regards the suppression of social protests in Argentina,” says Marcela Perelman, of the Security Policy and Institutional Violence team at CELS. “There aren’t many of these cases in the country’s history, and each one has had an important impact.”
Perelman adds that it was in the context of this case, and the conflict in Parque Indoamericana two months later, that the new national Security Ministry was created in December 2010.
Meanwhile, another huge march is planned in Buenos Aires for the one-year anniversary of Mariano’s death.
Belliboni, who will be at the march with the PO, says that while nothing can compensate for the loss of a life, there is an important message to take from this tragedy: “What needs to change is that in Argentina, no more youngsters can die for what they think, for their ideas, and for what they fight for.
“Until that happens, we have to keep organising and fighting, flying the flag that Mariano can no longer fly.”