22-year old María José Coni and 21-year old Marina Menegazzo left Mendoza on January 10, 2016 for a 45-day trip to Peru and Ecuador. They would stay in Montañita, an Ecuadorian coastal town popular with international tourists, until February 22. On that date, the friends were due to leave for Lima to catch a plane back to Argentina, but they failed to make contact with their families and were reported missing. On the night of February 25, Coni’s body was discovered. Three days later, Menegazzo’s body was found. The girls’ families didn’t trust the version of events offered by the Ecuadorian Government and, after pointing out various inconsistencies, asked Argentina to intervene in the investigation and began their own inquiries. The key contentious points of the case are as follows:
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1. The disparity that first raised the suspicions of the girls’ family and friends was the Ecuadorian Interior Ministry’s assertion that the young Argentines had voluntarily gone to a house belonging to two strangers because they had run out of money. According to the families, the girls had a credit card and had made some money by selling food on the beach.
2. According to the official version, on Monday February 22 at around 8pm the two friends arrived at a house belonging to one of the suspects, Segundo M., accompanied by the second suspect, Aurelio R. a.k.a ‘Red’. The girls were at the house until 2am, at which time Segundo M. returned and killed them. However, an Argentine who later contacted the family claimed he saw the girls without their backpacks near the center of Montañita at around 10:30pm, with two white men.
3. The victims’ families criticized the three-day delay in finding Menegazzo’s body, which was less than 15 meters from where Coni was found.
4. As reported by the website Plan V, Ecuadorian legal experts have criticized the handling of the investigation by the police and the prosecution, warning that the case may have been invalidated. It seems that the alleged perpetrators of the crime were not in the presence of a lawyer when they gave their first version of events. It is also not clear whether there was a warrant to search the house where the killings were committed, or whether the Prosecutor was present when the bodies were removed.
5. The families also criticized the hasty resolution of the case. In particular, the actions of Interior Minister José Serrano came under fire, after the Minister posted the faces of the suspects on his Twitter account, in violation of their constitutional rights. Serrano also published photos of evidence on the same social network when the case recently entered a quiet phase. His actions broke the chain of custody and interfered in the proceedings of the Prosecutor.
6. One of the main suspects, Segundo M., who remains in custody pending trial, has changed his story four times. According to the second Prosecutor in charge of the case, Juan Pablo Arévalo, “at first he said three Colombians (were involved), then in his free and voluntary testimony he blames his partner (Aurelio R., alias ‘Red’) and now before the judge he tries to exonerate his partner.” Later, in a press conference, Segundo M.’s family and lawyer claimed that the suspect was pressured into incriminating himself and identified a Venezuelan, José Miguel O., known as ‘El Chamo,’ as responsible for the double murder, along with an Ecuadorian and two Colombians. ‘El Chamo’ was detained in Montanita, but the Interior Ministry has reported that the arrest was made for drug possession.
7. As reported by the newspaper El Universo, three prosecutors have taken over the case in less than a month. Eduardo Gallardo Rhodes was the first to investigate the murders. On March 2, Juan Pablo Arévalo took over the case and requested the detention of prime suspects Segundo M. and Aurelio R. Following complaints from the defense, who alleged that they had not been permitted to see the case file or the defendants, on March 14 Maria Coloma Pazmiño, fiscal agent of the province of Guayas, was appointed to continue with the investigation.