Renowned Human Rights Campaigner Says Argentina Is 'Destroyed'

Argentina's Formosa province is emblematic of corrupt government under Peronism.

Martha Pelloni

Carmelite Sister Martha Pelloni

Sister Martha Pelloni, the standard-bearer for human rights in Argentina, called for national reform and said the province of Formosa “lives under the boot of Governor Gildo Insfrán.” The people of Formosa,  she said, “live in fear” of his “tyrannical government” which colludes with narco-terrorists and sex traffickers.

In a television interview with +Entrevistas broadcast in Argentina, she said: “There isn’t any democracy there and everybody in Formosa depends on Gildo Insfrán. They’re afraid of him. If you listen when people speak of him, you’ll conclude it is a tyranny. The people of Formosa are crushed. He’s very strong.” Formosa borders neighboring Paraguay and is a known staging point for international drug trafficking.

Insfrán is member of the ruling Justicialist Party to which President Alberto Fernandez belongs, and that was founded by strongman Juan Peron in the 1950s. The wider Peronist movement, a populism of which the Justicialist party is an integral part, has had a grip on Argentine politics for decades and has shifted its ideology to retain its appeal.

A feudalistic strongman

Insfrán was elected in 1995 and was the subject of an exposé by the Clarín newspaper in 2012 that accused him of running Formosa like a feudal fiefdom. Other reports claim that his supporters run both the private and provincial health systems, and there is no effective separation of powers in the province. Also, Insfrán is believed to have arranged an amendment to the provincial constitution allowing him to remain in power indefinitely in the country’s poorest province. He has also been accused of making Formosa a sanctuary for drug traffickers, where police are accused of collusion with drug traffickers. Also, indigenous people are systematically deprived of human rights, according to Amnesty International.

Formosa has the highest infant mortality rate in the country, more than half of its residents work for the government, and in 2010, 31 percent had no electricity and 41 percent had no running water. 

"We Argentines have to support the party that is there, whatever it is, as long as it has the guts to resolve this situation and shows that there is a plan," Pelloni said in the television interview regarding the Justicialist national government. She also demanded that voters support leaders with a commitment to ethics, and who will not rob the nation for personal or political purposes. “That must be corrected. We have to know which program to implement,” she said.

Pelloni said that while official corruption remains a problem, she called on leaders to focus on the economy and job creation. In the interview, Pelloni said that Argentina is “destroyed.”

The country’s inflation rate topped 104.3 percent by April 15, and is projected to go even higher even while President Fernández is seeking new loans from the International Monetary Fund and other lenders. Argentines who cannot afford housing or food because of inflation have been forced to sleep at night at the country’s international airport in Buenos Aires, where they are also provided scant meals. Hunger is a growing problem in Argentina, which has also faced recent shortfalls in agricultural production due to drought.

Pelloni called on the government to reform its social welfare scheme. “The number of malnourished has greatly increased in recent years. Why? It’s because the Ministry of Social Development  preferred to not give a plan to the people: it gave them money. And they don’t use that money for food,” she said.

As for Insfrán, Pelloni said public housing for the poor in Formosa is controlled by the provincial government. “It is a way to keep the people of Formosa quiet because the houses are built, but they are not owners,” she said.  

Pelloni visited Formosa on April 22-23. On April 23, she went to housing projects known only as Lot 101 and Lot 111, which have 4,000 dwellings built by Insfrán’s administration.  Many are unoccupied, despite the number of the needy looking for housing. Many houses, she found, have at least two families living in them. “Those who have not occupied the new houses, live with 10 other people,” she said.

The poor are deprived of housing

Before leaving the capital, Pelloni left a letter for Insfrán demanding that the provincial government be put to work for the people, according to the country’s constitution. Pelloni singled out the case of Ana Mariela – a mother of five children who had been unfairly deprived of her home in public housing and her belongings thrown into the street.

Saying that her organization seeks to take action and assist those whose human rights have been denied, Pelloni called Insfrán to restore the dwelling to Ana Mariela, who is “one of many dwellings that I have verified that have yet to be given to residents but instead used for political activity. There are many more cases like hers in which residents suffer and are intimidated by officials who choose the path of injustice instead of human rights.”

During her visit to Formosa, Pelloni inaugurated another branch of her Stolen Childhood Network –  a national movement that seeks justice for victims of prostitution and trafficking, domestic abuse, and other violence, while demanding that governments respect constitutional and human rights.

Pelloni, who has been a firebrand for human rights in Argentina since the early 1990s, also focused on unresolved deaths and missing persons, as well as misgovernment by Insfrán.  On the evening of April 22, Pelloni led a torchlight silent march from the central square in the capital and was joined by mourners who demand answers about still unresolved murders and disappearances, some of whom were police or coastguards.

Marchers silently carried photographs of the missing and the dead, recalling the so-called “disappeared” of the latter 1970s and 1980s during the military government. Pelloni told the marchers: “I have participated in many marches in this country, demanding justice in our provinces for so many, many victims of violence found throughout our society that calls out for justice from law enforcement and government. Where there is no justice, there is violence. And the violence generated in the silence of so many families that mourn their loved ones: we must accompany them. That's why I'm here."

Pelloni is famed for her outspoken defense of human rights, sincere Catholic faith, and commitment to ending sex trafficking. At 82 years old, she remains active in a cause that began in 1991. Pelloni was then headmistress of a girl’s school, when a 17 year-old girl, was drugged, raped, and murdered by sons of politically-connected families. When no official investigation was launched, Pelloni led silent marches of thousands of parents and citizens demanding justice. Arrests and brief sentences for the perpetrators came nearly a decade later.

Recently, Pelloni called for life imprisonment for a mother who, with her female partner, subjected her son to repeated sexual torture and beatings that led to his death. She has also called for justice in the case of  Fernando Báez-Sosa, an impoverished 18 year old student who was beaten to death by a group of well-connected young men from wealthy families.

Human rights are universal

Pelloni has founded nonprofit organizations to fight government corruption, sex trafficking, and the abuse of children. In a 2013 TEDtalk, she said that the experience of leading the silent marches gave her a new perspective: “When I started, many years ago, as a professional educator, I discovered that human rights are the legal framework for universal values of all religions. It was then I understood that the greatest human value is dignity.”

In an interview, she told this writer that establishing the new branch of the Stolen Childhood Network in Formosa is an important step towards uncovering cross-border human trafficking, especially of children and women. She said that she fears sex trafficking, especially of children between Argentina and neighboring Paraguay, Bolivia, and Brazil is going unchecked.

 “Sex trafficking has to do with human dignity, with defending human dignity. Unfortunately, we hear every day from the media and we also talk among ourselves about the ‘phenomenon’ of sex trafficking, the ‘phenomenon’ of drugs, or the ‘scourge’ of trafficking and the ‘scourge’ of drugs,” she said.

She frequently urges Argentines to take a closer look at social issues such as human trafficking and drug addiction. For decades, Pelloni has entered the poorest and most crime-ridden places in Argentina to bring not only the message of the Gospel, but also call on civil authorities to guarantee the human and civil rights set out by Argentina’s constitution and natural law.

Justice for the dead and missing

During the silent march on April 22, Pelloni told a crowd in front of the principal church in Formosa: “The cathedral is devoted to Our Lady of Carmel, and I’m a Missionary Teresian Carmelite. In honor of the Virgin, we are asking our Mother Protector to bring justice for each one of the victims we accompany on this march.” Following her short remarks, the participants prayed a Hail Mary and continued their silent procession.

The march continued until reaching the seat of the provincial government of Formosa where the names of the dead and missing where read out.  

Among the names: Joaquín Oviedo, Adriana Noelia Vargas, Federico Romero, Luís Gavilán, Marcelo Gaona, Mauro Ramírez, Pablo Torrilla Diel, Facundo Ojeda, Gabriel Federico Torres, Juan Pablo Ayala, Carlos Manuel Pérez, Mariana Belén Batalla, Alan Rojas, Familia Martínez, Gilda Sosa, Padre Sergio Federico Castro, Martín Castro, Dra. Yolanda Corbalán, Enzo Cáceres, Ariel Frutos, Martín Pineda, Honofre Torres, Dra. Lucy Juárez, Mirella Atrach, Daniel Fernández, Lidia Elizabeth Brítez y Herminio Roa.

For her part, Pelloni said, “I have never been to a province where there are so many victims dying under such suspicious circumstances. I was moved when I saw the faces of young police officers, missing guardsmen, unresolved deaths, where their families have not been able to mourn their loved ones because they were given a closed casket or no corpse was returned to them.”

“Cases were not investigated or simply vanished, as in one case where the case was not only suddenly closed but the file was burned. That is not just,” Pelloni said. “We have to live together. Where are the human rights that are social rights? I leave Formosa and am committed to continue accompanying them with the entire network of forums in the country of which Formosa has now officially joined,” she said.

“Some victims are no longer with us, but there are living victims of another type of violence: poor health, lacking adequate medicine, employment, housing, education. That is the responsibility of each one of us. Who is responsible for what is happening in society? It's the fault of those of us who do nothing. So, as a nun, I pray to God for the people of Formosa. Society is calling out for justice even while many don’t speak out because of fear. But it is sad to live in fear,” she said.

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narcotics sex trafficking Argentina Catholic