On 8 September 2013, Miguel Ángel Durrels was on break from his job at a polo horse farm near Pilar, a suburb of Buenos Aires, when he was arrested for possessing 78 grams of marijuana. About 12 hours later, the 29-year-old was found dead in a police station’s holding cell area, that a judge had expressly ruled could not be used to detain anyone. Miguel's body was found hanging from an electrical cable and leaning almost upright against the cell’s iron bars.
The police told his family he had committed suicide.
The autopsy concluded that he died from mechanical asphyxia due to compression (hanging) but also had non-lethal injuries to his face and chest. His family condemned the fact that they were not allowed to see his body before the autopsy was performed. This, along with the fact that a judicial order had been blatantly violated, led the family to demand justice, and seek the truth about what had happened to Miguel.
When the investigation began, his relatives recall that the police accounts were contradictory and imprecise, regarding the time of his arrest and when he was sent to the hospital for a routine checkup prior to detention. It was also unclear at first how many people were being held with Miguel in the holding cell area, and during what time periods. His family continues to demand that the responsibility for someone dying in police custody be established. Four police officers were initially investigated for disobedience of a judicial order and involuntary manslaughter (due to negligence), but a new prosecutor in the case requested that a trial go forward on the disobedience charge alone.
This detention for marijuana possession that ended in Miguel's death shows the consequences of implementing the ‘war on drugs’ paradigm, and it was one of the thousands of arrests of consumers that are carried out in Argentina each month. In 2009, the country's Supreme Court ruled that criminalising drug possession for personal use was unconstitutional, but the drugs law was never reformed to reflect this decision. Arrests like that of Miguel Durrels are still commonplace.
Often these situations are aggravated by structural problems related to violent, abusive or negligent police practices, or by inadequate detention conditions and episodes of institutional violence.
One of Miguel's sisters, Silvia Durrels, has serious doubts that he committed suicide.
“He was always smiling or making jokes,” said Silvia, who was close in age to Miguel and chose him to be the godfather of her first-born daughter. “And he didn’t look bad in those last days. Because if I had seen him looking bad, I would say ‘yes, he was doing badly, it could be, something had him down.’ But no.”
Miguel and his six siblings are from a small town in the agricultural province of Entre Ríos. As a child, Miguel was dubbed “Barchy,” a play on the name of Bart Simpson, because he was known for playing jokes on people and getting into mischief with his slingshot. As an adult, he worked as a groom on horse farms for months at a time, and would return to his hometown when the season was over. Silvia says he had never had trouble with the police before.
“When they told me ‘ your brother died,’ I thought, it was at work, a horse knocked into him or something. I never would have imagined this happening − and in the police station, where they are supposedly there to take care of you.”
When the deputy police commissioner went to Silvia’s house and told her that Miguel had committed suicide while in custody, Silvia recalls: “I said to him, ‘how can I believe you that my brother killed himself and that you didn’t beat the hell out of him and it got out of hand?’ He looked at me and smiled and didn’t say a thing … I won’t ever forget that face.”
Miguel’s family members came across a number of things that they felt didn’t add up. First, none of them were allowed see Miguel’s body right after his death. Also, the person who had been required to serve as a witness to Miguel’s arrest never actually saw the packet of marijuana on Miguel. It had already been placed along with his personal belongings − mobile phones, some money − on the hood of a patrol car.
“They say he killed himself, that he committed suicide. But they lied to us about a bunch of things. They would give us one version and then later another version,” Silvia said. “For example one (police officer) told my father that the doctor came to attempt resuscitation, they took him down (from where he was hanging) and then hung him back up again. Who in their right mind would believe that?”
“They told us a bunch of nonsense and you ask yourself, ‘why do that if he killed himself?’”
Silvia has thought a lot about what might have happened to Miguel that night in the Pilar police station.
“The police say they asked him his name and where he was from and all that, and my brother didn’t want to answer. Maybe they started hitting him because of that and it got out of hand.”
She has also considered the possibility that her brother may have been threatened or bullied while he was being detained to the point of killing himself − if the police officers told him he’d be shut up in prison and wouldn’t ever get out, for example.
“I have thought that they could have frightened him about going to prison or something. But seeing the body, reading the autopsy … the blows and everything. How can I explain that?”
Silvia says there is no doubt that the police officers could be convicted of disobedience since they should never have detained him in that police station in the first place. They also didn’t allow him to make a phone call to anyone while there and they flouted other procedures, she said. “There are a bunch of things to accuse them of disobedience. But what about the death?”
Looking back, Silvia recalls that she and her siblings knew Miguel smoked marijuana.
“My brother smoked marijuana but we never saw him with large quantities, and since I’m old enough to remember I never saw him smoking. We knew that he used because he told us … he was not ashamed of it.”
Silvia believes that Miguel may well have bought marijuana for his own use the day he was arrested, but she rules out the possibility that he was involved in dealing, as the police alleged, in part because he lived on the same horse farm where he worked and it was a controlled environment.
In any case, Silvia says the drug laws − and the way they’re enforced − must be reformed.
“There has to be a change. A person who uses (drugs) because he wants to and chooses to shouldn’t be followed by the police, threatened, beaten. A person who chooses to consume, that 's their right, their choice. My brother used and he didn't do any harm to anyone."
*CELS represents the relatives of Miguel Ángel Durrels in this legal case.
This article is published as part of an editorial partnership between openDemocracy and CELS, an Argentine human rights organisation with a broad agenda that includes advocating for drug policies respectful of human rights. The partnership coincides with the United Nations General Assembly Special Session (UNGASS) on drugs.