The Judiciary has levied its first criminal charges in the ARA San Juan case, initiating legal action for the first time since the Argentine submarine's tragic sinking in November 2017.
The charges come almost a year after the submarine's wreckage was found off the coast of Argentina and nearly two years after the start of an investigation into why the vessel sank in the South Atlantic. The probe had yet to yield any formal charges, stuck instead in what officials called a “gathering evidence” phase.
Marta Yáñez, the federal judge of Caleta Olivia leading the investigation, named the accused on Wednesday as three head Navy officials: Captain Héctor Anibal Alonso, Commander Hugo Miguel Correa and former Lieutenant-Commander Jorge Andres Sulia.
The federal judge did not notify any of the families of the 44 lost crew-members beforehand, nor did she say what the three men are being charged with in her court. Instead, she said all such information would become public when they appear before the courts next week.
As well as the aforementioned criminal investigation in Judge Yañez's courtroom, there is also an independent commission comprised of three submarine experts set up by the Executive branch and, finally, a Bicameral Commission in Congress.
The ARA San Juan disappeared mysteriously in November 2017 on route to Argentina's naval base in Mar del Plata. Its crushed wreckage was located almost exactly one year later on November 16, 2018, by the Seabed Constructor, a ship owned by US search firm Ocean Infinity, after a long, traumatic search for submarine that drew attention from across the globe.
Navy officials later confirmed the submarine suffered an implosion, which caused the vessel to sink. The remains of the vessel now lay "in an area of 70 to 75 metres of debris," 920 metres below sea level, some 460 kilometres southeast of the Patagonian city of Comodoro Rivadavia.
Family members have previously expressed frustration over the lack of answers provided by the authorities, especially given the loss of so many naval officers.
“Personally, I am very frustrated because we have no answers. We have more questions and no answers. We haven’t been able to find them, we don’t know where they are, we don’t know what happened,” Luis Tagliapietra, the father of a fallen crew member, told the Times in 2018, in an article marking the one-year anniversary of the tragedy.
Tagliapietra, himself a lawyer, is one of the plaintiffs in the case and arguably the most vocal public figure from the 44 families who lost a loved one when the ship went down.
In an interview with radio station FM Futurock this week, he said he believes Yáñez declined to inform them in advance of the charges because she anticipated that they would respond poorly to her focusing on what Tagliapietra described as the prosecution of smaller offences.
'Truth and justice'
Tagliapietra been also been vocal in his criticism of President Mauricio Macri and Defence Minister Oscar Aguad.
“[Aguad’s] incompetence is a more of a criminal attitude in many ways because of how badly things have been done, seemingly on purpose,” he told the Times last year. “And in the middle of it all, we’ve had to deal with people trying to impose their hypotheses, particularly the Defence Ministry, with this idea that it was all [the crew’s] fault.”
Valerie Carreras, one of the lawyers representing the families in the case, told Télam this weekshe believed charging these three men was the first step in the “search for truth and justice.” However, she quickly pointed out it wouldn’t quiet the families of the lost crew-members. There are 14 members of the Navy and the Defence Ministry we feel committed crimes according to last year’s commission’s findings, she argued.
For his part, Tagliapetra’s looking for a more dramatic remedy. After speculating that the charges were politically-motivated charges, he described them as an insult, adding that he hoped a potential change in government would finally “advance the cause and reinvigorate the investigation.”
Argentina holds general elections on October 27, with opposition Peronist hopeful Alberto Fernández seen as the frontrunner against President Macri, who is seeking re-election.