BUENOS AIRES, Argentina (AP) — The acquittal of 13 people accused in the disappearance of a young woman who was allegedly kidnapped and forced into prostitution for "VIP clients" spread shock and outrage across Argentina on Wednesday, prompting street protests and calls by political leaders to impeach the three judges who delivered the verdict.
Many called the ruling a setback for Argentina's efforts to combat sex trafficking, which began largely as a result of Susana Trimarco's one-woman, decade-long quest to find her missing daughter, Maria de los Angeles "Marita" Veron. Her attorneys said she would pursue appeals.
Trimarco's search exposed an underworld of organized crime figures who operate brothels with protection from authorities across Argentina.
Security Minister Nilda Garre called the verdict "a tremendous slap in the face for the prospect of justice."
"It's not only a reversal for this particular case of the kidnapping and disappearance of Marita Veron, that made society feel deeply the drama of this kind of 21st century slavery, covered up for decades by the customs of a network of machista culture," she said.
It also "renders invisible the suffering of the victims of human-trafficking networks and sexual exploitation, who gave such courageous testimony during the trial, and consecrates judicial impunity for these crimes," Garre said.
Other officials also rallied around Veron's mother, denouncing the verdicts and praising government efforts to save women from prostitution.
"Today, more than ever, we stand united with Susana and her family in their quest to find Marita and we honor the courageous work she has done to defend the victims and the survivors of human trafficking in Argentina and all over the world," U.S. Embassy spokeswoman Ana Duque-Higgins said.
President Cristina Fernandez personally called Trimarco to express her surprise and outrage.
"I thought I would find her destroyed, but I found her more together than ever, more committed to keep fighting," Fernandez said. "I told her, 'Susana you can always count on me,' and she told me 'President, don't worry, I'm going to keep fighting."
Fernandez also said that while she can't prove it, she's sure that judicial corruption influenced the verdicts, showing the need to reform how judges are picked and allowed to remain in their jobs. Political rivals have called this campaign an attack on judicial independence.
Trimarco's lawyers said the verdict shows that impunity still reigns, and they said they would pursue appeals.
"The reality is that the police are not investigating Marita's disappearance. It's Susana Trimarco who is investigating and it's been this way from the beginning," attorney Carlos Garmendia told The Associated Press.
"The Marita case is emblematic. As a result, much was learned about trafficking networks, how they move (people), how they operate," he said.
When Veron disappeared a decade ago, sexual exploitation and human trafficking got much less attention around the world, let alone in northwestern Argentina, where she was allegedly kept as a sex slave by an organized crime ring with close ties to authorities in the provinces of Tucuman and La Rioja.
Much of the case was built years later, as Trimarco's efforts produced witnesses who said they suffered alongside Veron in the brothels. One said she saw Veron being beaten; another said she saw her being held captive to provide sex to VIP clients.
Andrea D., one of these women, testified that she had seen Veron with her hair dyed blonde wearing blue-tinted contacts at a brothel in La Rioja. She said she had been kidnapped at gunpoint and forced into prostitution by the same organized crime ring, and testified that some of the accused said Marita had been sold off to brothels in Spain.
Defense lawyers dismissed the women's testimony as the lies of unreliable witnesses, and the lack of any physical evidence linking the defendants to Veron proved decisive, the judges said in a brief explanation from the bench. A fuller written justification for their verdicts is expected to be made public in several weeks.
"It's obvious that this process made mistakes," Garmendia acknowledged. "Above all, this ruling is a message that the trafficking business will continue as usual."
Simultaneous demonstrations were held in Buenos Aires on Wednesday night to protest the verdicts.
One led by governing party politicians outside the main federal justice building was peaceful. Another, involving hooded youths outside the Tucuman provincial government's tourism promotion office, quickly got out of hand with protesters smashing windows, throwing rocks and setting fire to two garbage bins they tried to push inside the building.
Reinforcements arrived and riot police pushed back the protesters, regaining control of the situation.
Trimarco called on her supporters to keep the peace, even as she expressed her anger at a news conference Wednesday, accusing the judges of taking bribes.
The lead trial judge, Alberto Piedrabuena, didn't respond to the bribery allegations, but he countered in a local radio interview that the evidence failed to resolve reasonable doubts or overcome the principle of being innocent until proven guilty.
Prostitution remains legal in Argentina, but managing brothels and trafficking in people have been federal crimes since 2008, under a law Congress passed after lobbying by Trimarco.
Garre credited her ministry's enforcement of this law with saving 938 people last year from trafficking — 215 people from the sex trade and 723 from other workplace exploitation. She said more than 800 have been rescued so far this year.
Hundreds of women also have been saved by a foundation Trimarco created in her daughter's name in 2008 with seed money from the U.S. State Department's "Women of Courage" award. The foundation also provides legal help, but its lawyers have found that proving sex slavery is difficult without full support from the same police who often get paid to protect prostitution rings.
To date, the foundation has helped 20 former sex-trafficking victims bring cases against their captors, but they have yet to win a single case. Of these, 12 resulted in federal charges, but a handful were bounced back to even more uncertain justice in provincial courts around Argentina.
"They don't investigate. There's a lack of commitment and capability," said Agustin Araoz Teran, one of the foundation's lawyers, who called the Tuesday night's verdicts "an act of cowardice."
Teran joined Trimarco's movement after his father, a juvenile court judge in Tucuman, was shot to death in his home in 2004 after investigating local police officers who were allegedly freeing juvenile delinquents so that they could peddle drugs on their (the police's) behalf.