Killer of martyred Argentine Blessed Wenceslao Pedernera gets life in prison

Blessed Wenceslao Pedernera Supporters of Blessed Wenceslao Pedernera listen during the final hearing on Dec. 11, 2023, of the trial for his 1976 murder in La Rioja, Argentina. | Credit: Diocese of La Rioja

After seven months of hearings, the trial for the murder 47 years ago of the martyr Blessed Wenceslao Pedernera finally reached a verdict in La Rioja, Argentina, on Dec. 11. The only defendant in the case, 2nd Lt. Eduardo Abelardo Britos, was sentenced to life imprisonment and disqualified from holding office.

“Justice was done for Wenceslao, a good man who knew how to stand up for his ideals,” said the current bishop of La Rioja, Dante Braida, adding that with this ruling, “a debt was settled with Riojan and Argentine society.”

The trial to determine responsibility for Pedernera’s murder began on April 28. 

On July 24, 1976, three masked men broke into his home in the town of Sañogasta, La Rioja province, in west-central Argentina, and shot him multiple times in front of his wife and daughters. He died hours later at the Chilecito hospital. Before dying, he told his family: “Do not hate; I have already forgiven them.”

The only person accused of the crime is Britos, who in 1976 was in charge of the Chilecito Gendarmerie Squadron.

More than 60 people worked to resolve the case, testifying about state terrorism, persecution due to hatred of the faith, the systemic attack on the pastoral work of then-Bishop Enrique Angelelli, false imprisonment, torture, and sexual abuse of those detained in the Social Rehabilitation Institute, which was run by the gendarmerie headed by Britos.

Pedernera’s family recalled his social and religious commitment at the time of his murder. In addition to the layman, during those weeks in 1976 the priests Carlos de Dios Murias and Gabriel Longueville — as well as Bishop Angelelli — were also murdered. All three have been beatified.

In the first hearing of the trial, the defendant heard the accusations during a virtual session and at the next one, also virtual, he refused to testify. His absence in the remaining sessions of the court was justified for health reasons.

Before an overflowing hearing room, the court presided by judges José Camilo Quiroga Uriburu, Mario Eduardo Martínez, and José Fabián Asís determined that the acts attributed to Britos were crimes against humanity and therefore did not fall under the statute of limitations. 

The judges convicted Britos of the crimes of false imprisonment, illegal searches, torture, aggravated torment, and sexual abuse and sentenced him to life imprisonment and disqualification from holding office.

The court also determined to defer the execution of the sentence until it is finalized pending a medical examination so that Britos, 72, is considered fit to serve his sentence in a regular prison.

Britos was also stripped of membership in the Gendarmerie.

Attending the verdict were the wife, daughters, and relatives of Pedernera; several of the victims with their relatives; Braida, the current bishop of La Rioja; priests; members of the Provincial and National Secretariat for Human Rights; the media; and the general public, who reacted with applause and cheers in recognition of Pedernera and the victims of state terrorism.

Pedernera was a layman, rural activist, a co-op member, and a Catholic catechist, husband, and father. He was a member of the Rural Movement of Argentine Catholic Action in the Cuyo region and had a great commitment to the poor, especially in rural areas, assisting the pastoral work of the then-bishop Angelelli.

Pope Francis officially recognized that the death of Pedernera had the character of “martyrdom in hatred of the faith.” He was proclaimed blessed on April 27, 2019, in La Rioja in a ceremony presided by Cardinal Giovanni Angelo Becciu, special envoy of the Vatican.

This story was first published by ACI Prensa, CNA’s Spanish-language news partner. It has been translated and adapted by CNA.

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