BUENOS AIRES, Argentina - The murder of a teenage girl has ignited fury over continuing femicide in Argentina, and exposed the level of violence against women perpetrated by police officers.
Úrsula Bahillo, 18, was found stabbed to death on the evening of February 8, in a rural area of her hometown of Rojas, about 130 miles west of the Argentine capital Buenos Aires.
Matías Ezequiel Martinez, her ex boyfriend and a police officer, was found sitting in a car near Bahillo’s body when it was discovered, with a self-inflicted wound. “I fucked up,” he said, according to local media.
He now stands charged with the femicide of Bahillo, with the aggravating factors of “premeditation” and “cruelty.”
“We’re so outraged and sad,” said Analía Kelly, a member of Mumala, a feminist organization. “Úrsula’s case shows us, on a massive scale, what women who suffer gender-based violence have to confront.”
Roughly one woman is killed every day in Argentina, according to feminist organizations.
Bahillo alerted police to Martínez’s aggressions multiple times. She obtained a restraining order that did not work. She sought a panic button that was not provided in time. Her family said the last time she tried to lodge another official complaint against him, officials told her they didn’t work weekends and that she would have to wait.
Kelly said this shows how much harder it is to access justice when the perpetrator is a member of the security forces. “What happens is a question of complicity, and protection of the man from the get-go,” she said. Mumala says 12 percent of femicides in January were committed by current members of the security forces.
“That’s one victim, out of every ten femicides,” said Kelly.
In the last ten years, 48 women in the greater Buenos Aires area were killed by their partners or former partners who were police officers, according to a report by the Center for Legal and Social Studies.
Martínez, 25, was on a psychiatric leave from his job, but still a member of the Buenos Aires province police force. Complaints of violence and sexual abuse had also been lodged against him by another ex-girlfriend, the prosecutor in charge of the case said.
The state’s alert and response system is failing women, from the urgency with which complaints of violence are attended to, to the distribution of tools like a panic button and the resources necessary to enforce restraining orders.
“It’s just a piece of paper, and then it’s the woman who ends up having to monitor. She’s alone,” said Kelly.
Bahilla suffered violence for months at the hands of Martínez before telling anyone. “I can’t take it anymore, amiga, I can’t take it anymore. I swear, I’m so sad. He told me he’s going to kill me, I can’t stand it anymore,” she said in a voice message to her friend in November.
“I’m really scared, he pulled all my hair, he beat the shit out of me,” she cried between sobs.
The brutal slaying of Bahillo, and her pleas for protection that went unanswered, has drawn thousands of people in several cities across the country into the streets, demanding justice and reforms. The day her body was found, a protest erupted outside the police station where Martínez worked, with protestors demanding justice, throwing stones and lighting a police car on fire. Video showed officers in riot gear firing rubber bullets at a handful of youths who were already retreating, hitting one of Bahillo’s friends in the face.
President Alberto Fernández called on authorities to be “inflexible” with the investigation into her murder. “We have to put an end to this in Argentina,” he said in brief comments on February 10, published on the Instagram account of Militanciafeminista.arg.
In remarks to the press on Wednesday, Bahillo’s mother, Patricia, said she hopes Martínez spends the rest of his life in jail.
"We are very hurt with the judge in Rojas because he didn’t respect the restraining order that my daughter, who had made more than 18 complaints, had, and he [Martínez] followed her until he grabbed her, put her in the car and killed her," she said.
The high number of femicides in Argentina was the lightning rod that renewed the feminist movement in 2015, drawing hundreds of thousands of people to the streets in protest under the banner #NiUnaMenos (Not One Less). The massive mobilization resulted in concrete gains, most notably the legalization of elective abortion in December. Fernandez’s government also created the first Ministry of Women, Gender and Diversity, with policies aimed at creating a more equal society.
But the numbers of femicides haven’t changed.
In 2020, there were between 270 and 298 femicides accounted for by organizations that track cases. This year, the numbers vary. The organization Ahora Que Si Nos Ven has counted 38 femicides so far this year, of which four were by police or military officers. A group of relatives of victims says there have been 44 femicides so far this year.
For Sabrina Cartabia, a lawyer, what is striking is the repetition. “We’re in the same place” as six years ago, she said. And while there are important spaces opening up, such as prosecution offices with a specific focus on gender-based violence, the change is not deep enough.
“We’re starting to realize that the problem is not just the content of the institution, but it’s the form of the institution,” she said.
“It’s not just about accessing the courts. Access to justice is about access to the state, to public policies, to education, to legal abortion, to work,” she said. “There you start to see all the things that are failing and why women are in situations of violence that we can’t seem to break, regardless of what we’re doing.”