The Investigation Internship: Report

The case of Javier Rojas Perez distinguishes itself from other cases of gatillo fácil or “trigger happy” police violence through its struggle for justice. Although police officer Diego Centurion undeniably killed Rojas Perez, due to his own classification of the act as an accident, there existed a struggle over whether to call it a case of police brutality or a tragic accident.
Javier Omar Rojas Perez, or Colo as his friends called him, was a twenty-three-year-old Chilean immigrant with long hair. With his parents, sister, and niece, he lived in Villa Bonich, a neighborhood in the district of San Martín. For six years, he had been with his girlfriend Paula and was a member of the rock band Extermino which, according to his sister, was going to film a music video in Quilmes the week before he died. However, a team member became sick and the shooting had to be postponed.
The night of July 23rd, 1995, the band was booked to play at a bar in Wilde, but due to its sudden cancellation, Javier and his friends went to a pizzeria called Kadorna. The owner had known him since he was sixteen, so the group went there to drink, eat, and discuss what they wanted to do that evening. While they were in the pizzeria, the band members heard shots fired in the street and several went outside to find out what was going on. According to Javier’s friends, there was a man running away from a small group, but when the scene had passed, they returned inside. The situation they witnessed was Juan Esteban Duarte, 23, trying to escape a gang with which he had a dispute over 20 pesos. A few blocks past the pizzeria, the members of the gang caught up and beat him to death. Shortly thereafter, the police received an anonymous call about the crime, saying that the gang members had gone into the Kadorna pizzeria immediately afterwards. In response, the department sent the sixth commission of Monte Chingolo to the area to investigate, where a taxi driver directed them to the pizzeria.
Around 3:30 in the morning, four policemen arrived at the pizzeria, which at that time held about thirty people. Among the policemen was Diego Centurion, twenty-two years of age, who normally worked administrative tasks. According to all of the witnesses, the police promptly began to remove the band members one by one from the pizzeria without explanation. Some noted that Centurion, with his gun drawn, maintained an aggressive attitude during this process, even gripping the shoulder of each person as he escorted them out. As he accompanied Javier to the door, Centurion held the gun to his head and supposedly gripped his hair as well. According to the testimony of Centurion, Javier made a suspicious movement that Centurion interpreted as an attempt to escape, leading him to fire his weapon and immediately shout that the shot “escaped me,” or was, in other words, accidental. Some of the witnesses recall the police asking them to prepare their documents when the officers entered the pizzeria, but others do not recall being asked to show anything. All those inside, friends of Javier and others, testify that Javier was completely cooperative with the police, showing no signs of resistance. His mother later reflects that due to his long hair, a stereotype often associated with gangs or delinquents, Javier was accustomed to police discrimination and being asked for his documentation, so the “suspicious movement” to which Centurion accredited his shot was most likely Javier attempting to take out his documentation. After being shot, the policemen immediately tossed Javier into the back of the police car, covered him with a jacket, and drove off without another word to the witnesses. Although confused, many of Javier’s friends said they did not do or ask anything at this point because they were afraid that the police were going to kill all of them. From the pizzeria, the police drove Javier to the Hospital Vecinal de Lanús, where he died within minutes.
The following day, Centurion remained in custody for the initial investigation into the events of the night of July 23rd.He declinied to declare before Judge Miguel Angel Navascues, as per the advice of his lawyer Nancy Romero Andino. Whatever doubt that had existed about the innocence of Javier in the Duarte homicide was dismantled that day when the police caught and obtained confessions from two of the gang members, Javier Hernan Ferreyra (sixteen) and Emilio Enrique Vásquez (fourteen), admitting full responsibility for the crime. The mother and sister learned of Javier’s death after receiving a call from the station, letting them know that “they had an accident,” a statement which left unclear the fatal nature of the crime until later that day. Javier’s father heard of his death for the first time listening to the news on the radio driving to work. This same day, the family members established relations with the organization CORREPI (Coordinator against Police and Institutional Repression), the mission of which is “to denounce and patronize all cases in which a member of the police force is accused of acts of repression or violation of human rights.” With the help of this organization and the connections that the sister and father had as journalists, Javier’s case took to the streets in the form of demonstrations and protests. In the following week, newspapers were filled with articles about the case, although the majority focused on the interpretation of the case as a tragic, complicated accident. The rhetoric of the family and friends, portrayed both in interviews and demonstrations, starkly contrasted that depiction, especially Gabriella’s (Javier’s sister), who acted as the leader in the struggle for justice and had quotes in nearly every editorial on the case. According to her and her mother, this had been no accidental act, but an act of discrimination with the intent to kill.
The police documentation contains basic information on every mobilization that there was and their methods of circulating information. Within the universities, notable organizations like la Juventud Peronista (Peronist Youth), la Unión de Juventudes por el Socialismo (the Youth Union for Socialism), and others supported the cause by creating and distributing pamphlets on the case of Javier, “trigger happy” police violence, and the details of the next mobilization. The family used the media more than any other medium and assured that there would be at least several journalists, if not also local/provincial TV stations, at every event. The first notable mobilization had already been planned by the Mothers of the Plaza de Mayo for the “trigger happy” violence, but when the case of Javier became publicized, the Mothers included his case details in pamphlets and banners. The next important movement was Javier’s funeral on the 31st of July, attended by four hundred people. It included a march from the station ferroviaria Federico Lacroze until the cemetery.
That same day, Centurion declared before the judge Dr. Navascues from the Judicial Department of Lomas de Zomora at ten in the morning. Centurion’s lawyer asked that the Chief of Police recognize that it had been a terrible accident and that public apology be given to the family members, then forgive Centurion of the crime given its accidental nature. This received a very negative response from the audience members, mostly friends and family of Javier. On August 1st, the judge announced that the police would have twenty days to investigate the case and sort it out internally. In the meantime, the family members continued fighting for justice through mobilizations, especially through the medium of rock concerts and protests.
On the 7th of August, the police returned to the scene of the crime to reconstruct and investigate exactly how the events unfolded. During this time, the ballistics expert confirmed the autopsy determination that the gun had been fired within 5cm of Javier’s head, a distance that the judge later said should have “assured a rapid decease”. They also reviewed the behavior of Centurion at the scene of the crime, which according to Dr. Leon Zimmerman, associated with CORREPI, explains Centurion’s “inappropriate use of his weapon”. Centurion’s lawyer Nancy Romero Andino said in contrast that his “concern was valid because it was so close to the other area in which the Duarte crime took place, and therefore dangerous.” As alluded to above with the judge’s comment, on August 22nd, 1995, the judge mandated preventative prison for Centurion, citing his dangerous and aggressive demeanor, the close proximity of the gun to Javier’s head, and new evidence which determined that it required 4 kilos of force to fire his model of pistol, an Astra 9mm, suggesting that accidentally firing would be highly improbable. After this development in the case, the rhetoric of the newspapers began to reflect a clear blame of the policeman, utilizing key phrases such as “the pistol didn’t shoot itself,” “they blame the policeman,” “it was no accident,” “they try a policeman for the assassination of a youth,” and more. Based on the evidence cited by the judge, Javier’s public defender Isabel Rey asked for nine years, charging him with “homocidio simple,” (most closely paralleled to voluntary manslaughter), documented for the first time by the ex-DIPBA on April 19th 1996.
Much later, on May 22nd 1997, they announced that the trial for the case of Javier Rojas Perez would take place on June 30th 1997 by Room III of the Chamber of Crime. Between the first announcement asking nine years for “homicidio simple” and the announcement of the trial, the family exchanged public defender Isabel Rey for Eduardo Tubio who increased the accusation to “homicidio simple con dolo eventual” (most closely paralleled to 2nd degree murder), and he asked for fifteen years. Much of the news around this time contained information about the Rojas Perez case and also that of Sergio Schiavani, a known case of “trigger happy” violence from 1991. His case, in which Schiavani was an innocent victim who died during a shooting between a group of fifteen police officers and four thieves, was tried the week before Javier’s by the same chamber. The police officers were pardoned at the end of their trial and the mothers of Sergio Schiavani and Javier often stood together and told the media to plead for justice for their sons, especially in the time leading up to the trial of the Rojas Perez case.
The oral and public trial of Centurion began at half past nine in the morning on June 30th, 1997. Outside the tribunals, the family and friends of Javier and CORREPI organized a demonstration, attended by around sixty people and several journalists and newscasters. Among the witnesses, there were twelve friends of Javier’s, including the owner of the pizzeria Kadorna, a principal and agent of the commission of Monte Chingolo, and a ballistics expert. The argument for Javier’s side focused on the dangerous conduct of Centurion and the inappropriate use of his weapon, which according to regulation should only have been drawn when there was an immediate threat and should always have been pointed at the chest, never toward the head. On the other side, Centurion argued that he normally did administrative work and his practice with a firearm before that moment consisted of fifteen practice shorts during his training. What won over the judge in the end was the evidence proposed by the ballistics expert, that in such high-tension circumstances, it was possible that less pressure was necessary to fire the pistol and, therefore, it was possible that he could have fired accidentally. With that opinion in mind, the judge took the side of Centurion and on July 3rd at the reading of his verdict, Centurion was found guilty of “homicidio culposo” the United States equivalent of manslaughter. Since he was held in preventative prison for two years, Centurion was allowed to remain in freedom. The audience received this verdict very poorly, forcing the judges and Centurion to be escorted out quickly through a back door as many women in the room yelled insults such as “assassinators,” “trash,” “for how long will you continue killing our children,” and “will they have to kill one of your children to know the pain of losing a child?” To a newspaper group, Página 12, Javier’s sister Gabriela Rojas Perez commented following the reading of the verdict, “From this moment forward, every death by the hands of the police will be also the responsibility of those judges. This Chamber is as much an assassin as Centurion.”