~ This article first appeared in Rolling Stone Argentina, August 2014, ©Rolling Stone. Used by Permission. Translation by Michael Lettieri, Trans-Border Institute. ~
This story received the 2015 Gabriel García Márquez Journalism Prize for Best Text. The Trans-Border Institute Freedom of Expression Project is pleased to present this exclusive translation of a chronicle that traces the intertwined lives of police and lower class youth in La Plata, Argentina.
The Case of Axel Lucero: A young motorcycle fanatic who tried to rob an off-duty policeman in La Plata, revealing the reality of the marginal neighborhoods where having two wheels means having something in life.
On the back of a black Honda CG Titan motorcycle on Monday, February 25, 2013, a bit before nine at night, Axel Lucero and a friend sped out of the barrio of El Carmen in La Plata, Buenos Aires. They had left on one motorcycle, but they hoped to return on two: the other, the one they had yet to acquire, Lucero was going to obtain with the gun that he carried in his jacket pocket.
Lucero was a skinny kid, with a wide smile, impish eyes, and elegant features: an adolescent enrolled, with far from perfect attendance, in the eighth grade of School No. 84’s night session. Because of the copper color that burnished his face, his family and friends called him “El Negrito.” [Little Blacky]
That same February 25, a bit before nine at night, Jorge Caballero, a 25-year-old sergeant in the Buenos Aires Police 2—a unit dedicated to patrolling the greater Buenos Aires area and La Plata—left home aboard his Honda Twister and headed to the gym. On the road, he throttled the motorcycle forward enthusiastically: it had been the first big investment of his life. With his first savings as a policeman (18,500 pesos in cash) he had indulged himself the pleasure of that black machine, solid, powerful.
He headed down Calle 6 toward Calle 90, passed the supermarket and the newsstand nearby, turned on Calle 7, passed the club where he had trained as a boxer a few years earlier, and continued until he reached the corner of Calle 80, where he saw the light was red. He had been thinking about going to the gym in the morning, but the day had grown late on him, and he still had not left his house. It was his day off, and the hours passed quickly: when it grew dark, he prepared a protein shake and drank it while watching reggaeton and 80s pop music videos on YouTube. He put on a tank-top and wrapped his ankle. When the glass was empty, he checked the time. It was a little after 8 PM. It was late. He went to the kitchen, put down the glass, brushed his teeth, and grabbed a bag with some clothes.
As he rode, under his jacket he felt the cold metal of the 9 millimeter pistol, the service weapon that he rarely went without, even when he was not on duty.
The red stoplight at the intersection of Calles 7 and 80 gave him time to move forward between the cars and position himself at the edge of the crosswalk. When El Negrito and his friend Nazareno Alamo, a boy four years older, appeared with the CG, Caballero was already thinking about what he would eat for dinner after training hard for a few hours at the gym.
None of them were ready for the shootout. And El Negrito was not ready to die. Who is, at sixteen?
“It is necessary to examine the use of service weapons by off-duty police officers,” says lawyer Julián Axat, in his offices at the La Plata court building, where files are stacked on every surface and a Banksy print hangs on the wall. Axat, 37, performs his legal work with a sense of political purpose: he defends children and adolescents who are in conflict with the law and he has had various conflicts with distinct sectors of the police corps and judicial branch. Last May, he presented to the Buenos Aires supreme court a list of six murders occurring over eleven months that, when he examined them, had one major similarity: all were cases of presumed juvenile delinquents, hoodlum kids, “pibes chorros,” who went out to rob—in the majority of cases, to steal motorcycles—and ended up killed by plainclothes or off-duty police, some of whom were the owners of the motorcycles. Murders that were the result of excessive force in self-defense. The case of El Negrito was on his list.
The ability of police to carry and use their service weapon while off-duty, protected by the Law 13.982 of the province of Buenos Aires (revised in 2009 by the current governor, Daniel Scioli), has, in many cases, become a problem with lethal consequences. The last report from the Centro de Estudios Legales y Sociales (Center for Legal and Social Studies, CELS) details how between 2003 and 2013, 1,286 civilians died in events involving members of the security forces. Of the victims, 35.4% were shot by police who were off-duty at the moment they pulled the trigger. At the same time, 76% of the police officers killed during this period (332) were also off-duty: 47% on their day off, and 22.9% were retired. In that ten year period, Federal Police killed 195 people in the city of Buenos Aires. But there were another 304 victims in the province: many of them were killed by officers who live in the urban area and who became involved in the event on their way to or from their homes. In the case of the Buenos Aires city police, off-duty police were responsible for around 30% of the cases in the last decade. (There is one emblematic case: that of Lautaro Bugatto, the Banfield soccer player killed on May 6, 2012, when he was caught in the crossfire of a shootout between David Ramón Benítez, an officer in civilian clothing who fired seven shots, and two thieves who were trying to steal his motorcycle. Benítez is now awaiting trial, accused of using excessive force in self-defense).
The current coordinator of the Community Access to Justice Program and, until a few weeks ago, the director of the Public Defenders Office for Minors No. 16 of La Plata, Axat is also a poet and in 2013 published the book Musulmán o biopoética (under his own label, Los Detectives Salvajes), where there are poems about some of the boys from the cases on his list.
“The issue of police in the community, in their lives as civilians, when they are off the clock, is totally unresolved. That is why they always carry their weapon,” Axat says. “This legal outlook gives a sort of authorization for the police, who choose to naturalize the carrying of weapons and remain in a constant state of alert. Because there is no break between going on and off duty, the service weapon becomes a risk 24 hours a day.”
The heart of the barrio of El Carmen is its plaza, which looks much like a decadent dream of the moon. It is a layer of worm-eaten grass like the back of a mangy dog; a roof of gray sky surrounding the barren trees, and a cement walkway encircling it like a snake. Located on Calle 128, this is the “plaza del fondo”, the plaza at the end: one block farther and everything is over. There are only two or three kilometers of fields before the Río de la Plata licks the shore at the edge of the province of Buenos Aires.
El Negrito arrived in El Carmen only four months before the fateful meeting with Sergeant Caballero. And in those sixteen weeks his life had changed totally. The son of a mechanic and a housewife, he was raised as the youngest of three brothers in a working class home. The house functioned as a workshop for his father, Rubén, a man of rustic features and few words. The first accelerator that El Negrito stepped on was a go-kart with a Vara chassis, with the number 29, that Marcela, his mother, thinks is probably somewhere in a back room of the house.
While Rubén moves silently through the workshop, Marcela prepares mate [tea], smokes ceaselessly, and remembers how her son loved motorcycles so much that when he was not in school he worked with his father there, helping him and learning a bit: enough to know about motors and models. El Negrito bought and sold his preferred motorcycles with scandalous ease. He had, Marcela lists: a Honda CG, a Wave, a Twister, a Tornado. Also a Zanella RX, and twice a Suzuki X100, which his friends called “The Paraguayan” for a strange noise it made. “The kids would buy and sell them among each other,” his mother says with a tired voice. She knows that some of El Negrito’s friends frequently acquired motorcycles at gunpoint, and she stiffens when she thinks that her own son might have stolen some. But she prefers to deny it. “There are pibes [kids] who are a bad influence,” she says. “They are not mama’s boys: they are boys who go down the drain and start taking drugs. They live for that.”
El Negrito arrived in El Carmen in the spring of 2012, along with Fernando, his cousin, who lived there, and in a short time had made many friends. He matured quickly in this piece of land that the world has forgotten: with his new friends he tried the mental orbits offered by some drugs, the vertigo of some criminal schemes, the taste of stolen kisses and the grease of the motorcycles that appeared and disappeared, that he always wanted to mount and accelerate with burning enthusiasm.
He arrived there riding along Avenida 122, a two-way street filled with buses and plastered with posters in memory of Huguillo, perhaps the best rider on the eastern periphery of La Plata. Huguillo became a legend on the day he died, just shy of 20 years old, when, while lying flat on his motorcycle, he crashed into a car. El Carmen lies to the left of the route. It is a small neighborhood, poor, but not exactly an established town. It has two schools, a medical clinic, a social club with pool tables, and a police station with dilapidated patrol cars, but the penetration of social welfare programs—even those through the network of informal politics—was almost nil. Not even the business of drugs, in the hands of two or three miscreants, was that spectacular. The whole territory seemed to be in a state of suspense, waiting. And as the streets stretched away from Avenida 122, the scene grew duller: there were horses pulling carts of trash, bunches of barefoot kids, rivulets of dirty water, fragile houses of wood and others that looked like boxes of cement.
El Negrito, who was from Villa Elvira—an area of low, orderly houses—did not have friends who were so brave, who carried guns and who stole, going into the criminal districts on the same motorcycles that he was crazy about. In El Carmen, on the other hand, Pablo Alegre, nicknamed “Ratón” [Mouse], a boy of 17 with the reputation of a devil, frequently went about with a 9 millimeter pistol or a .38 caliber revolver, on the grip of which he had carved his nickname. El Ratón had declared war on a delinquent from the barrio of El Palihue, a neighborhood with similar characteristics on the other side of Avenida 122, and every so often he would exchange gunfire with his enemy and his people. Nazareno Alamo, who called himself Naza Reloco [“Really Crazy Naza”] on Facebook, was acquainted with jails and guns. Maximiliano de León, “Juguito,” [“Little Juice”] had begun smoking marijuana at 13, and a few months later was already mixing cocaine, downers, and alcohol, and was uncontrollable. And Axel’s own cousin, his host on those streets, also had jail in his future: a few months after introducing El Negrito to the barrio, he would end up in prison, accused of robbing a butcher shop. Many of these pibes are routine visitors to the police station.
As it was, Ratón, Naza Reloco, and Juguito became El Negrito’s good friends. With them, things were different and, in El Carmen, he felt like everything was allowed.
Seated on the curb of a silent street, around the corner from the house of the Lucero family, Johnny Lezcano, a kid with close-cropped curly hair and a tattoo of folk saint Gauchito Gil, talks about El Negrito. “He rode motorcycles like it was a dream: it was him and the bike, and it was as if nothing else existed.” The sun hits hard, and every now and then a car goes by. Johnny, who is not yet twenty, clearly remembers all the motorcycles his friend had, and insists that El Negrito had not stolen them. “The first, he worked for. He saved up and later he traded for another and, bam!” he says. “He grew, he sold, bought another, sold, bought a better one, and so on. All legal. What he rode always had papers.”
If in the past, the dream of a pibe in the barrios of the periphery of Buenos Aires was to play soccer in the first division, to be a boxer, or a cumbia star, today the dream has shrunk to having a motorcycle. In barrios like these, a bike is a way to work, a luxury good, a mark of distinction, something to be shown off and, also, a tool for crime.
The guy had women left and right. He had looks, clothes, shoes, he was suave. But just the bike was enough,” Johnny adds. “Women go crazy for motorcycles. You go by one and you hit the gas. You know how they get on? And if you know how to do a wheelie, they’ll never get off.”
On Thursday nights, or sometimes on Saturdays or Sundays, El Negrito went to El Bosque, a giant traditional park in La Plata where crowds of motorcycle fanatics would gather to challenge each other to races or to boast about their tricks. “El Negrito went to show off what he knew,” Johnny says, as if it were a scene from Fast and Furious. “He would get attention, standing the bike on its rear tire or revving the engine, turning the key so the engine would make noise: pa-pa-pa!”
In El Carmen, he and his friends helped out with the motors: someone always needed to tune up their machine, there were always new bikes showing up. And, in general, it was well understood where they came from. (In the periphery of La Plata, a stolen Honda Wave can be had for 500 pesos, less than 10% of its legal value). The clandestine circuit is fed by those who get the bikes, cortatruchos who take them to the chopshops of the delinquents who deal in motors and parts. The complicity of the police is also well understood. In Argentina there are around 5.5 million motorcycles registered: in the last three years, the tally rose to a rate of 21% ownership (one motorcycle for every eight people). In the barrio the final product of this chain—an illegal bike with a doctored registration—is almost always more respected than a motorcycle with its papers in order.
El Negrito’s conversion was completed, and his ties with the past definitively cut, when he met Araceli Ibarra. It was a hot November afternoon in 2012, on the corner by his school, at the intersection of Avenida 7 with Calle 76. There, they chatted for the first time when a shared friend introduced them, and some time later, near that same corner but at night, El Negrito asked for a kiss. She was with her friend again, he had arrived on a motorcycle and stopped when he saw them. The bike suited him, they said to each other. They liked that.
El Negrito requested and obtained that first kiss and, before accelerating away, managed to enter Araceli’s number into his phone. He departed later, with a certain electricity in the lips, like a genteel teenage horseman.
He already had a girlfriend, Evelyn, a girl with an angelic face who had been his first love. (After his death, she would graffiti their names on a Rolling Stones tongue on one of the streets of Villa Elvira). But El Negrito had started to like that princess from El Carmen, who also was a boxer and had a different attitude than all the other girls he had met.
Their next meeting was in the plaza Matheu, a little hexagonal park where six streets converge, that suddenly was theirs. Under a tree, with Ratón and a friend of Araceli’s, they ate hamburgers and drank soda, and chatted until they ran out of words. At 2:30 in the morning, Ratón got on his bike and left with the two girls for El Carmen, and El Negrito headed to his parents’ house. Aboard his motorcycle, he crossed streets with a gleaming smile that cut the wind hitting his face: he had kissed Araceli again. As the streets passed, El Negrito knew that there would be new dates, new nights, new kisses and new words, and that in the end, he would ask Araceli what she wanted from all of it.
“Do you want to be my girlfriend or what?” That is how Araceli remembers El Negrito confronting her. “I liked El Negrito,” she says now, sitting on a staircase at the side of the Club Chacarita Platense, in the south of the city. The place is a porous basketball court where a dozen boys and a girl (her) spar, jump rope, and do sit-ups. Araceli, who still has her pink gloves on, is bathed in sweat under her pants and soccer jersey: at 18, she is a tough boxer who is following her dream of stepping into the ring as a professional. She takes off the gloves and wrapping, and underneath it all are fingernails painted red. “Even though El Negrito did a lot of dumb shit, he was good to me,” she continues. “I told him yes, that I would be his girlfriend, but only if he was going to behave.”
Shortly after beginning the relationship, Araceli had him move into her apartment. They lived together there a month. El Negrito had thought it would be better to be in El Carmen, because the police were looking for him at his parents’ house to take a statement: a friend of his had shot another pibe who had tried to rob his Honda Wave.
In a one room apartment, where Araceli’s brother and his girlfriend also lived, El Negrito slept sometimes as late as four in the afternoon, and when he awoke, he found that Araceli had already gone out for a jog in the morning and was hitting the bag in the gym. “He was messed up, because he was awake all night” she says, about El Negrito’s new life in El Carmen. He was well behaved, he helped her to clean and cook, and when the sun went down they watched cartoons or horror movies. “He was a partner for me,” she adds, “but when he went out, he went crazy.”
“There, El Negrito was the standout, the hotshot,” remembers Nicolás, another of his friends from Villa Elvira. “But those pibes took him down a bad path. And to show how he was, he said yes to everything. And one day he changed, he started to go farther, farther, and farther, and not come back. And nobody understood why.”
That was how, in scarcely four months, the good boy had become a bad boy. “Everything he did not do here, he did there,” his mother says, “and I thought he was okay.” In the kitchen of the Lucero’s house, she attempts to find an explanation for the changes that brought her son to his death. “He had one personality there, and another here,” she says. “Since he said he wasn’t afraid of anything, the pibes there used him. And to show them, he went with them to steal.”
At the kitchen table, Nahuel Giménez, a silent boy of 17 who El Negrito’s mother says was not only her son’s best friend but who also most resembles him, adds a sliver of words: “He told me that stealing was not easy, and he did not like it either.” Marcela rests her hand on his arm and tries to console him. “But when you’re on drugs, you don’t know what you’re doing. When he came back from El Carmen, it wasn’t him: he was smashed, drooling, he would have crazy eyes.”
El Negrito would say to his mother: “Mommy, nothing is going to happen to me,” Marcela says. “’The things that they say about me are not true, I don’t do anything, I behave well, you can rest easy,’ he would say to me.”
The mother and friend fall quiet. “I did not realize if he had smoked or snorted,” she says later. “For me, his face was always the same. He hid it very well. Only recently am I becoming aware of these things.”
The stoplight at Calle 7 and 80 is still red. “I was thinking about all kinds of stupid stuff,” Caballero says. On his left, a motorcycle with two guys pulled up, also stopping at the light: they were dressed in sportswear, they wore hats and had the hoods of their jackets on. The one in front looked to each side; the other looked backward, nervously. Caballero, who had not seen them when they arrived because he was wearing a helmet, wondered what was happening. “When the one on the back put his hand in his jacket, I realized that I had lost.”
El Negrito pulled his hand from his pocket, gripping the gun, and time stopped. He jumped off the motorcycle and in two steps stopped in front of Caballero, pointing the gun in the policeman’s face and shouting the words: “Now! Get off!”
Under a Nike hat and the hood of a jacket with the logo of the River Plate soccer team, and behind a scarf wrapped around his face, Caballero saw only two frenetic eyes. “Now! Now! Get off! Get off!,” he repeated.
“I thought that if I moved, he would shoot me,” Caballero remembers. His father is still an active policeman. When he did not react, El Negrito hit him twice in the helmet and again in the chest with the weapon until the policeman, dressed in civilian clothes, finally realized what was happening and, after turning the engine to neutral and putting down the kickstand so it would not fall, got off the motorcycle. But El Negrito was not ready to make off with the Twister: he needed Caballero to back away a little further first, to avoid a counterattack.
Around them, several witnesses seemed frozen: they were waiting for the bus, leaving the supermarket, walking back to their homes, and suddenly they had no choice but to stay quiet and wait for the bullets.
“I turned my back because I did not want him to search me,” Caballero says. “If he looked for my wallet and my phone, perhaps he would have felt my gun and I did not know how that could end. So I said to him, ‘Okay! Okay! Okay! Take it!’ and in a second the guy gets on and turns his back, and that was when I took out my gun and cocked it.”
When Caballero aimed, El Negrito’s friend saw him. “Shoot him!” he said. Or perhaps “Hit it!” Caballero cannot remember that detail clearly. When he turned around, Caballero was aiming at him and shouted “Police! Police! Get off!” But El Negrito still raised his gun. “He aimed at me and I fired,” Caballero says. “It was a flash: Pop! Pop! Pop! Pop! When I looked at him, his gun fell and he did too.”
El Negrito stayed on the ground, with the Twister on top of him, stretching to get away or perhaps to recover the gun (a Bersa with the serial number filed off that had once been a police weapon). Caballero ran toward El Negrito and reached the gun first, while El Negrito’s friend accelerated and took flight. El Negrito was hit with four shots and those last grasping efforts were also an attempt to cling to the Buenos Aires asphalt, to the life that was leaving him too quickly. In an instant he was dead.
Caballero wanted to know who had tried to steal his motorcycle. “I wanted to know who he was, and I unmasked his face,” he says. The smooth skin of El Negrito’s face had just let out its last breath. “And when I saw, I thought ‘Uh! It’s a boy! [guacho]’.”
On its side on the asphalt, the motor of the Honda Twister still hummed.
The murder of Axel Lucero could seem one among many of the tragic stories that Buenos Aires tells every day: a petty thief dead, a policeman’s hands stained with blood and gunpowder, a meager booty. The end. But no. In its multiple layers of interpretation, the intersection of El Negrito with Caballero hides more than one meaning.
Months after the crime of El Negrito, Axat presented the case to the Supreme Court of Buenos Aires province in a list along with five other adolescents murdered by La Plata police in civilian clothing during a period of eleven months: Rodrigo Simonetti, 11 years old (killed June 6, 2012); Franco Quintana, 16 (December 27, 2012); Omar Cigarán, 17 (February 14, 2013), who, according to the official version, tried to rob a motorcycle from a policeman in civilian clothing; Bladimir Garay, 16 (19 May, 2013); and Maximiliano de León, 14 and already with 22 arrests on his record (August 1, 2012). De León, known in El Carmen as Juguito, was a friend of Ratón and El Negrito.
“In five years of work as a public defender, I have never seen a refrain such as this,” says Axat, who since presenting that list has identified another six new cases. He does not speak of a death squad, rather, his hypothesis is that the series of unpunished murders generates an environment of repetition. “It is copycatting,” he continues, “they are crimes copied from other crimes, that arise from an articulation of imaginaries and practices that work to shortcut logic where the persecution and harassment of these pibes is concerned, they are sentenced beforehand, because they have antecedents with the police and followings in the barrios.”
The province of Buenos Aires does not have a system of public statistics that shows the cases of death caused by institutional violence. And although there is a database that registers cases of torture and coercion, it is not trustworthy because public defenders do not always file their complaints. The Buenos Aires prosecutors office, on its web page, registers the rate of penal investigations begun each year, but it specifies neither the victims, perpetrators, nor circumstances. “It is a useless statistic,” explains Axat, who suspects that if in La Plata there were six cases in eleven months, in other judicial districts with more violence (like La Matanza, San Martín, or Morón) there should be more. The matter keeps him awake at night: “The real number is out there,” he insists. The Sistema Integrado del Ministerio Público (Integral System of the Attorney General) of the province, he says, obligates officials to turn over everything they do, and later it is received by the Dirección de Estadística (Office of Statistics), which uses the data for internal controls, but does not make them public.
Axat says one of his sources leaked him a part of the statistics and that, until now, he has been able to discover a few things: “It is serious. Just in La Plata, where there is an average level of conflict, I have a rate of around 130 pibes dead in the last eight years, but I do not have the circumstances. I do not know if they killed each other, if it happened when they tried to rob a policeman, or in legitimate self-defense. We should, as a society, be able to know that.”
In El Carmen, the death of El Negrito did not go unnoticed: the barrio mourned him. And although his mother ensured that none of his new friends would be at the burial, they sanctified him on Facebook, where the flyers with his face began to circulate, designed by those who had known him, along with photographs that showed him walking through the streets or popping a wheelie, “hanging” some motorcycle at full speed. “We remember them for the image they left of gangstas, pibes bien chorros, compañeros, and important friends. We love them a lot,” reads one of these images: there El Negrito shares a poster with Ratón, who at that point had been killed, shot in the back by a drug dealer from El Palihue.
One day after the murder of Axel Lucero, his friend Nazareno Alamo, Naza Reloco, who had managed to escape, added a comment to a photo of El Negrito that he himself had uploaded to Facebook a while back. “I love you friend you are really missed Blacky, big buddy,” he wrote.
Four days later, the same photo received two discomforting comments: “You left the kid to die Naza, you can’t do that. They’re going to get you, guy,” one read. And another “About the pibe, how could you leave him like that? Something’s going to happen to you.” Naza Reloco defended himself fiercely: “Shut up, idiots. Say it to my face if you’re so tough,” he wrote. “I did what I could but he was totally gunned and I couldn’t take him, I saw when he was shot.” One of those who had posted before reappeared: “I don’t know friend, all the pibes said that he was with you.”
On December 31, 2013, ten months after the murder, Naza left a rosary to Gauchito Gil in memory of El Negrito in a sanctuary that he himself had helped construct in the plaza of El Carmen. “He was in rough shape because everyone accused him of having gone to rob with El Negrito that day, because they were always together,” says Maira Verón, Naza’s girlfriend, who calls herself La Morocha de Ningún Gato (Nobody’s Dark-haired Lady) on Facebook. In her house, an apartment in a miniature monoblock called Monasterio, not far from El Carmen, there is almost nothing: scarcely a table, some chairs, a cooler, and very few other things. Maira insists that her boyfriend works as a mason from seven in the morning and that he no longer steals, and that, moreover, there is no way that he would have abandoned El Negrito. (The judicial investigation into the murder of Axel Lucero is also ambiguous in this sense: the presence of Nazareno Alamo at the incident has not been proven nor discarded. But the suspicion that he was there still remains.)
“That day, Naza came to my house at eight at night and later we went to sleep, and at one in the morning some guys came to tell us that El Negrito had been shot,” Maira continues. It was she who got on a Honda Wave and verified the story. When she returned with the news, she found Alamo praying to Gauchito Gil for the life of his friend, with a lit votive candle. “He couldn’t handle it,” she says. “He began to cry.”
Almost a year after the murder of El Negrito, on Wednesday, January 22, 2014, Araceli, who was about to provide a meeting location for another interview for this article, announces that she cannot make it: another friend has just died. It is Alamo, who was trying to help a neighbor recover a motorcycle and ended up shot in the face.
At midnight on Friday, January 24, a small crowd arrives from El Carmen to the funeral home on Calle 72, the last street of the grid of La Plata, before the amorphous suburb swallows everything. They are his friends from the plaza and the streets: pibes with hard expressions, some still with childlike cheeks, who cry with grief and shout for vengeance. Nazareno Alamo, Naza Reloco, is inside with his eyes closed in a box adorned with the flag of the Gimnasia y Esgrima de La Plata soccer team. It is a cold night in the middle of summer, and in the funeral home it is said that the killer is a guy called “Chino” and that he is a member of the barra brava fan group of the Estudiantes soccer team. But there are those friends who say that it could have been El Negrito avenging his abandonment.
It is morning when the wake ends, and a caravan of motorcycles follows the hearse as it passes the Alamos’ house in El Carmen. After passing the sanctuary of Gauchito Gil in the plaza, where two shots ring out, and passing by the residence of one of the friends of the supposed assassin, the route ends in the municipal cemetery, the motorcycles revving their engines.
For Caballero, who stood for an instant alongside Axel Lucero’s body, the memories pile up: the dry face of the boy, the cars that started passing the red light, the horns, the lights, the screams of the people, those who thought that Caballero was a thief who had just killed someone and who shouted “Son of a bitch! Murderer!” and those who had seen the entire sequence and confronted the former. Frightened, unnerved, Caballero put away his weapon and examined El Negrito’s, and he found it was loaded and ready. Later, someone gave him a newspaper to wrap it.
In ten minutes, the intersection of Calle 7 and 80 is crawling with police. With the area secured, Caballero is made to wait on a curb, but he is allowed to keep Lucero’s weapon, which he will later deliver to the prosecutor Virginia Bravo when she arrives. Caballero wanted to call his father, but the phone slips from his hand and the SIM card and the battery smash on the ground: his nerves are wrecked.
After taking traces, fingerprints, and bullets, the prosecutor and her secretary ask Caballero what had happened. With two witnesses, the investigators take the cartridges from the service weapon: of the 17 bullets, only four had been fired. El Negrito’s gun had three in the magazine and one in the chamber. They took photos, made a diagram of the crime scene. They lifted the motorcycle and turned over the body. They examined it: they found nothing in the pockets. Then they lifted the jacket, cleaned the back, and saw the bullet holes in the shoulder, the scapula, the ribs, all on the side of the back. They removed the pants and took off the hood and a shell casing fell out: it was the fourth bullet, which had entered and exited through the skull.
“He was a damn kid,” Caballero says now. “If you saw him with the puffy clothing he seemed bigger, but he had the body of a boy. He didn’t even have hair on his face.”
Two hours after the shootout, they remove the body and send it to the morgue. Caballero was taken to the Eighth Precinct, where El Negrito’s friends were also gathering. At two in the morning, he was a prisoner on fire: the precinct sent him off to the police station in the Abasto barrio, in the southwestern periphery of La Plata. In a foul-smelling cell (the mattress was still wet with urine and cockroaches scurried everywhere) Caballero was alone at last. “I replayed it to death in my head,” he says. “I was shocked. Six hours earlier, I was in my house getting ready to go to the gym and suddenly I was in a hole and at a crossroads.”
Just after dawn, a police van came to transfer him to appear before Bravo, the prosecutor. The driver was an acquaintance and did not understand what was happening. On the way, he bought a newspaper and they read it together. The prosecutor decided that Caballero would be the last to speak: a witness had said that the policeman had executed El Negrito while he was on the ground and Bravo wanted to hear more testimony before hearing Caballero’s version. At ten in the morning, a lawyer visited Caballero in the court building, where he was waiting his turn. “I’m not going to lie, it’s bad for you,” the man said to him. “With that woman’s declaration, you’re looking at doing time, 8 to 25 years.” While the prosecutor listened to the new versions, Caballero was sent back to the precinct. His mother visited briefly. They cried together. “I slept, and woke up every half hour. The only thing I could do was sleep and cry,” he remembers. “I couldn’t believe it. I thought it was all a dream. I broke down.”
The next day, he returned to the court building and gave an hour-long declaration to the prosecutor. Detail by detail. Afterwards, they took him to the underground cells. There was some paperwork and an initial sentence: since there was no more space at the precinct, Caballero would be taken to the Olmos prison, a tower of Babel inhabited by more than 3,000 prisoners, the largest and most dangerous prison in Argentina. “It gave me goosebumps,” he says.
He did not have to wait for the next transfer. Caballero traveled in the front seat of a truck, separated from the prisoners chained in the back who asked about him: “What’s up with that guy who is there?” “They thought I was a violín,” he explains, using the slang prisoners use to label rapists. “The trip was interminable: I looked at the fields and the cows, and I swung from hot to cold, I wanted to cry. I thought it was the last time I would see a cow.”
When they arrived, he was received by the head of the facility. She told him that she knew his story and that she did not consider him either corrupt or abusive, but rather a policeman who had defended himself. That day, he was placed in a separate solo cell, with a bed and a toilet, a space slightly less disagreeable than the one in the precinct. Caballero knew that in less than 24 hours he would be just one more in the pavilion of imprisoned policemen. But then, at the end of the day, Prosecutor Bravo called: the autopsy indicated that the bullets had penetrated a seated body that was turned, in a dynamic fashion, which corroborated, with the testimony of various witnesses (who had, in turn, contradicted the woman who said that El Negrito had been shot while on the ground), the policeman’s version.
“Witness accounts are a weak proof: two people seeing the same event can tell two different things,” the prosecutor says to justify her decision to free Caballero and not charge him with using excessive force in self-defense. “That was why the fundamental and objective proof in this case is the autopsy.”
The young sergeant Caballero was freed the same day as he arrived at Olmos prison. He walked through the door of the prison just after midnight. Outside, his father was waiting. On their return, they passed by the Eighth Precinct: it had been stoned by Lucero’s friends.
“I carried the gun because I felt confident in my judgement, and one has to feel confident to use it,” Caballero says. “If not, you don’t take it. You can’t doubt. It’s the same for the delinquent: he takes a gun and has the same responsibility you do. Kill or die. You grab a un, and you grab your fate.”
El Negrito’s mother returns home exhausted. “I came from the prosecutor’s office. I went to see if the cause had advanced at all and they told me it hasn’t, that there is nothing that is in favor of the boy,” she remarks bitterly. It has been several months since the murder. “Everything is in favor of that policeman, who says he was scared because my son was robbing him. But he shot him four times: I think that more than crossed the line.” Although there is no proof, Marcela says that she hears something about a girl who was involved with both victim and perpetrator. She is convinced that Caballero executed her son on purpose. That he shot him in the head at close range. That he did not give him a chance to live. “I have a pile of versions,” she says. “And every day, I learn something new.”
The space El Negrito left in her home is now empty. His room remains intact, and on his bed there is a flag that his friends from the barrio made and gave one night to Tito, the singer of La Liga, El Negrito’s favorite cumbia band, so that he could wave it while singing “I have an Angel” [”Yo tengo un ángel.”]
In the living room of the house, a giant photo hangs on the wall: El Negrito smiles, wearing sunglasses and a cap. “He cleaned his visors with a brush, at night,” his mother says, looking at the photo.
A year after El Negrito’s murder, Araceli is in the gym of the Centro Paraguayo of Los Hornos. Following her trainer, the boxer is used to traveling to this neighborhood in the south of La Plata to hit the bag, do sit-ups, jump rope, to spar. “If I wasn’t training, I would be in the barrio with the gang,” she says. “But boxing and my mother saved me.”
Araceli recalls “El Negrito” Axel Lucero, Nazareno Alamo, Ratón Pablo Alegre, Maximiliano de León, Juguito. And her cousin, Brian Perego: another pibe who was just killed on a motorcycle. He was riding his Honda Biz C125 when he was struck by a Ford EcoSport SUV. Now his relatives want to know if it was an accident or an attack: Brian had enemies, Araceli explains. “There are a lot of dead boys now,” she says, gloomily. “You can’t do anything. The gang carries you away, but everyone has to find their own path: you take your decisions, and you can’t blame anyone.”
Then she puts her gloves back on: she has to keep training.
Javier Sinay is a prize-winning journalist in Buenos Aires. He is interested in criminal and judicial stories and cultural affairs. He is an editor for Rolling Stone Argentina, and the author of two non-fiction books, Los crímenes de Moisés Ville: Una historia de gauchos y judíos (2013) and Sangre joven: Matar y morir antes de la adultez (2009) which received the Rodolfo Walsh prize. He studied Communication at the University of Buenos Aires. This story originally appeared in Rolling Stone Argentina under the title “Rapido, furioso, muerto,” and is available at: http://especiales.lanacion.com.ar/multimedia/proyectos/pdf/rapidofuriosomuerto.pdf
Translation by Michael Lettieri, Trans-Border Institute.