It was a cool summer night in January when a photojournalist in Argentina was kidnapped and murdered. There would eventually be eight men caught and convicted. They didn’t serve much prison time for the murder because the man that had paid them to murder the photojournalist was close friends with the President.
Today, Jose Luis Cabazas is remembered as a symbol of journalistic integrity and bravery in a place where both were in short supply. Argentina, South America’s second largest country, marks the day as a federal holiday, National Photojournalist’s Day, in his memory. His widow, María Cristina Robledo, their three children and scores of neighbors and friends remember Jose each year with a visit to the spot where the photojournalist was murdered for pursuing truth.
Pinamar is Argentina’s most exclusive resort on the Atlantic Ocean. Its patrons include regional and national politicians, world class actors and sports figures, as well as businessmen and lesser celebrities.
Leaving a birthday party thrown in Pinamar for Oscar Andreani, Cabezas was pulled from the sidewalk as a car pulled up to the curb and several men got out. After beating him and putting handcuffs on him, he was taken to a pit in the countryside where his kidnappers tortured him for hours. Still wearing the handcuffs, the kidnappers made Cabezas kneel as they fired two shots to the back of his head. His body was placed inside a vehicle and burned.
A corrupt provincial governor, Eduardo Duhalde, was in office. The head of provincial police was as corrupt as his boss, Duhalde. The murder, carried out by police officers from Buenos Aires Province, was a message.
Carlos Saul Menem was President of Argentina and he promised to clear the matter up. Menem was as corrupt as the police and Duhalde. Menem never pursued justice for the murdered photojournalist. President Menem good friends with Alfredo Yabran, another key player in this story of corruption.
The murder happened at the height of press popularity in Argentina. Noticias (News) was Cabezas’ employer and it was like the Spanish version of Time Magazine. Noticias was known for its propensity to expose corrupt individuals and institutions, something it still does today. The murder of Cabezas has been widely viewed as an attack on freedom of the press by the institutions, corporations and businessmen which it exposed.
People swarmed the streets in the days and weeks that followed Cabezas’ murder. Marches, auto caravans and trains brought hundreds of thousands to Buenos Aires to protest. Chanting “no se olviden de Cabezas” (“Don’t forget Cabezas”) as they came, the rally magnified Cabezas as a symbol for justice and a warning for corrupt people who seemed totally unaware of the level of people’s frustration.
The subsequent investigation led to five men who were connected to the owner of a brothel at Mar del Plata. Carlos Redruello and Gustavo Prellezo, two police officers, as well as four thugs from the Los Hornos region were also taken into custody. Despite the speedy arrests, the general public mainly believed that these persons were used as scapegoats to cover up the maneuvering by Provincial Governor Eduardo Duhalde.
Prellezo was linked to two other policemen, Sergio Cammarata and Anival Luna, who had been tailing Cabezas in the days before his murder. Silvia Belawsky, Prellezo’s wife and also a police officer, had sought background information on Cabezas several weeks before the murder.
Two parallel investigations took place. One focused on Buenos Aires Provincial Police and the other on businessman, Alfredo Yabran.
Noticias did its own investigation as well. Looking into the Buenos Aires Police practices of corruption and violence, Noticias published stories linking Buenos Aires police to prostitution, illegal gambling and drug trafficking. The title of the article, Maldita Policia, (“Damned Police”) remains a nickname for the ‘policia’ in the capital city to this day.
Alfredo Yabran, a physically short man with a shock of gray hair, refused to ever allow anyone to take photographs of him. It was a point of pride to him that no one, not even the national intelligence services, had one. In the days before smart phones, Yabran was able to dodge the media cameras as well, despite being one of the most notorious businessmen in Argentina.
Yabran had close relationships within the Argentine government. He used these connections to eliminate competition as well as bad press. Several journalists who had tried to pry into Yabran’s secrets had been threatened or attacked.
In 1996, Cabezas did manage to get one picture of Yabran while Yabran was vacationing in Pinamar. Noticias published the image along with news about Yabran’s web of business ventures. Despite threats, Cabezas continued the investigation. The murder took place a few weeks later.
Eventually, in February 2000, eight men were put on trial for the murder of Cabezas. Still called the “Los Horneros,” they had remained on the payroll and under the protection of Yabran and governmental leaders. Each of the eight was sentenced to life in prison. In the end, justice would be denied. The last of the eight, Horacio Anselmo Braga, bribed the courts with $20,000 and was released on the tenth anniversary of the murder. When Braga walked out of prison, 6,000 people gathered in Pinamar seeking justice for Cabezas.
Cabezias’ killing embarrassed Argentine President Carlos Menem. At first, Menem denied even knowing Yabran. Later investigations by Noticias revealed that only only did Menem know Yabran, but they were close friends. So close that Yabran had given Menem a mansion in Buenos Aires as a wedding gift. Justice Minister Elias Jassan eventually resigned over the 100 plus calls he personally made to Yabran as well as the calls that he made to Yabran’s bodyguards the day following Cabezas’ murder. Cabinet Minister Jorge Rodriguez was forced to resign when it was revealed that he had invited Yabran into Casa Rosada several times as a personal guest. Casa Rosada is the Argentine version of The White House.
At a critical turning point during the murder investigation in 1993, Yabran was found dead in one of his half-dozen homes. A shotgun blast through the face left him unrecognizable.
Government forensics said the body was Yabran’s, but many Argentines were not convinced. Mainstream media had serious doubts about the suicide theory also. Yabran was a short man. The length of the shotgun barrel could not have been held in by the man whose body lay on the floor. There wasn’t time to do more as the body was hastily cremated the next day. The investigation into Yabran’s alleged death has drug on and the case has largely been forgotten. Every so often, reports of Yabran sightings filter into the country and to this day, many believe that he faked his own death and is living in luxury in another country.
Seventeen years after a photojournalist was murdered, Argentines still celebrate his memory, and what he stood for, as a national holiday. Menem is in the Senate and faces jail when his term is over. Many of the rest of the people have disappeared into La Pampas or beachside resorts. And maybe somewhere is a lonely old man remembering where he was today so long ago.
By Jerry Nelson