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Grisly Murder in Argentina Ends Province's Reign of Terror - 2004-06-15

After a year of popular protest in the poor northern province of Santiago del Estero, Argentine President Nestor Kirchner has sent an intervention government there and placed the governor and her husband under house arrest on charges ranging from espionage to embezzlement. The move was sparked, in part, by the alleged complicity of politicians, judges, and businessmen in the gruesome murder of two young women there last year. The murder scandal appears to have put an end to the fiefdom that has existed in Santiago del Estero for the past half-century.

Every week for the past 16 months, Younes Bshier has marched the six blocks from the Santiago del Estero cathedral to the government house, carrying a large sign stapled to a stick with a photo of a young woman with big eyes and olive skin that reads simply "Justice for Leyla." He says, "Leyla was very young and very pretty. She liked music and liked to dance with her friends, but to be a young, pretty and humble girl in Santiago del Estero is a curse."

A curse that Bshier's 22-year-old daughter Leyla paid for with her life. In January 2003, investigators say she was murdered during a drug-fueled orgy attended by some of Santiago's most powerful people, many of whom have strong ties to long-time political boss Carlos Juarez and his wife.

Investigators say Leyla's body was chopped to pieces and then fed to a pack of hungry pumas and buzzards housed at the personal zoo of the province's former security chief, Musa Azar.

Authorities have varying theories as to why Leyla was at this party and why she was killed, but according to many here, these sex and cocaine parties were a regular thing for the province's elite, who often enticed women of limited means to attend.

Soon after Leyla's disappearance another young woman disappeared. Three weeks later police found the body of 26-year-old Patricia Villalba in thick brush in a remote area miles outside the city, but just yards away from where remains of Leyla had been discovered.

The judges investigating the murders suspect that Patricia was tortured and killed because she knew too much about Leyla's death. In addition to the arrest of former security chief Musa Azar, his wife, and son, several others have been detained in connection to the murder, but none have been put on trial.

Olga Villalba cries when she thinks about her daughter. She describes Patricia as a smart and responsible woman who liked to share a beer with friends after work at the nearby fruit stand.

Ms. Villalba says her stubborn refusal to let her daughter's death go unpunished helped sparked the popular revolt here that lead to the federal government's intervention. She hopes the new government will bring an end to the culture of impunity that has pervaded this poor region of Argentina for so long.

She says the Juarez family and all the other corrupt people in Santiago thought that I would get tired of fighting for justice after three months, because they always win, but they were wrong. They did not know what kind of mother she was. The Juarez family has ruled Santiago del Estero for the past 55 years. Eighty-seven-year-old Carlos Juarez was elected governor five times. His second-wife, Mercedes "Nina" Aragones, became governor in 2002.

Now under house arrest, Carlos is under investigation for the death and disappearance of political opponents during his time in office. His wife is accused of defrauding the province's pension system. The couple, through their lawyer, declined a request for an interview.

Cristina Torres runs the local branch of Argentina's Ministry of Human Rights. She says the gruesome nature of the girls' killings and the alleged complicity of the ruling class reminds her of Argentina's military dictatorship of the 1970s and '80s, when she was tortured and detained for seven years.

She says these murders produced something in society that was like the years of terror. She says it would be hard to tolerate that again.

So when the people of Santiago started to speak out, the national government listened.

Since taking office a year ago, President Nestor Kirchner has made fighting corruption and human-rights abuses his top priorities. He sent the intervention government to Santiago del Estero on April 1, and the interim governor Pablo Lanusse immediately purged the local courts and police force.

Fifty-year-old Sophia Aguille recently joined the family members of Leyla Bshier during their weekly march for justice. This is the first time she has felt compelled to speak out against the government. She says this is historic, she has never seen this before. "The people in Santiago del Estero were totally constrained, they stayed in the house, they never spoke up. But this unfortunate tragedy with the girls has finally given the people a chance to express themselves."

And now that the people have finally expressed their anger, they will have to turn their attention to the future and pick a new path for their province.