Double Murder Puts Montañita Under Microscope

By Brandon B. Quinn

During the February 22 full moon festivities on the beach, in the streets and at the clubs of the coastal surf/party hotspot Montañita, two young, female Argentinian backpackers were being brutally raped and murdered.

That is, if you believe the official story from Ecuadorian police. They say they’ve caught the two killers, they’ve confessed and it was an alcohol-infused, singular incident.

If you believe locals, family members and the non-state press outlets, something more sinister could be at play: a coordinated theft and human trafficking ring targeting beautiful hostel dwellers—a script straight out of “Taken.”

And it’s all playing out close to The NIMBY headquarters, in Rio Chico and Montañita, 5 minutes away by car.

From headquarters on Thursday night, a community-wide game of Bingo at the town square—just a few minutes walk down the cow path—can be heard over the loudspeaker. Proceeds will go to the defense fund for one of the alleged killers, Aurelio Eduardo Rodriguez, a lifelong resident of Rio Chico who professes his innocence to anyone willing to ask.

Earlier that day, a judge in the tiny province of Manglaralto—equidistant from Rio Chico and Montañita, separating the two on the Ruta del Sol—remanded both accused men to jail pre-trial, without bail.

 

What Police Are Alleging

While police maintain a visible presence in Montañita—the tourist hub of Santa Elena—the blatant sale and use of marijuana and cocaine, the open consumption of alcohol in public, and the obvious solicitation of sex go widely ignored by authorities.

An Austrian restaurant owner named Max, who came to Montañita with his wife and young boy by way of Aboriginal Australia and Southeast Asia, among other places, described the somewhat surreal atmosphere on The NIMBY’s first trip into Montañita two weeks ago.

“Everyone knows who the drug dealers are here, it is a small town,” Max said. “The police know what everyone is into, but they say, ‘He’s a good guy. Would you rather have a bad guy doing these things or a good guy?’ I guess you could be a murderer if you are a good guy, no?”

The upside to such policies, one would surmise, is if police know exactly who the criminals are, a mutual respect keeps each other at relative bay, and keeps a lid on the crime considered “bad for business”—robberies, kidnapping, rape, murder.

“Bad for business” crimes scare away tourists. Legitimate businesses lose customers, while the cops and the dealers alike lose their respective targets for bribes and price gouging.

Maria Jose Coni and Marina Menegazzo were found dead in Montañita, Ecuador, after reported missing on February 22.
Maria Jose Coni and Marina Menegazzo were found dead in Montañita, Ecuador, after reported missing on February 22.

It is also this sort of community-based policing, according to Ecuadorian President Rafael Correa and his Interior Minister Jose Serrano Salgado, that contributed to the swift justice brought in the heavily publicized case of these two missing tourists, 21-year-old Marina Menegazzo and 22-year-old Maria Jose Coni. Police knew exactly where to look and who to look for, they allege.

The facts, undisputed, go as follows:

  • Marina Menegazzo and Maria Jose Coni begin staying at an as-of-yet unnamed hostel in Montañita on Sunday, February 14.
  • On either the night of Sunday, February 21, or the morning of Monday, February 22, the women’s cash and cards are stolen at the hostel.
  • The women are seen leaving the hostel on February 22 at 2 p.m. There is a famed Full Moon Party in Montañita that night, and backpackers are streaming into the town already.
  • When the women couldn’t be reached all day, their families in Argentina report the women missing the night of February 22.
  • On Friday, February 26, the body of Marina Menegazzo is found on the beach, wrapped in a plastic bag.
  • On Saturday, February 27, the body of Maria Jose Coni was found in a similar fashion, just meters from the spot of her friend. Both bodies have since been described as originally found in a “three or four day state of decomposition.”
  • On Monday, February 29, Minister Serrano reports via media—traditional and social—that two men have been arrested for the crimes: Mina Ponce, a security guard in Rio Chico who lives in Montañita, and Eduardo Aurelio Rodriguez, a Montañita hotel maintenance worker who lives in Rio Chico.

Beyond these facts, the story gets messy.

Police and Minister Serrano allege that Ponce turned himself in and “he confessed everything, stating that he killed Maria Jose Coni, while Aurelio Eduardo Rodriguez, otherwise known as El Rojo, had killed Marina Menegazzo.”

Mina Ponce and Aurelio Eduardo Rodriguez are suspects.
Mina Ponce and Aurelio Eduardo Rodriguez are suspects.

Serrano detailed some of the alleged confession during a news conference. According to Serrano, between 8 p.m. and 11 p.m. on February 22, they met Ponce and Rodriguez, the latter known by locals as El Rojo for his red work attire, at a bar.

Serrano said the young women told the men, they had no money, so the defendants offered to let the girls spend the night in Ponce’s house, which the minister described as “a hovel … a decrepit housing.”

The girls remained at the house, of their own free will, according to Serrano, while the two men in their mid-to-late thirties went out drinking. When the men returned between 2 and 2:30 a.m., Ponce went to bed in a room with Coni and Rodriguez did the same with Menegazzo.

According to Serrano, Ponce tried to abuse Coni, which she resisted and attempted to flee. Ponce reacted by hitting her over the head with a stick, the official cause of death, as ruled by the Ecuadorian forensics team.

The minister said Ponce then heard a scream and went to the other room where Rodriguez was to be sleeping, and saw Menegazzo with her neck cut by a knife.

According to officials, the men buried the first body on the beach gave up halfway through the second body—presumed to be Menegazzo, which was found first. Police have not given a clear timeline as to when the bodies were buried. Police say both weapons were found at the scene of the crime, Ponce’s house, in addition to blood evidence inside the home.

According to Ecuadortimes.net, the clothing of the young women and Coni’s cell phone were found in Ponce´s yard and house. Behind the house, in the undergrowth, two backpacks were also found, the news report says.

Differing Theories

The swift turnaround in the case—the arrest of two men complete with a confession, as well as the posting on social media within hours of the discovery of the bodies—made the women’s families skeptical.

According to LaNacion.com, an Argentinian news service, Maria Emilia Coni, sister of Maria Jose, has called the official story “absolutely all lies,” and Bethlehem Menegazzo, sister of Marina, has told the news service that Marina called every day. The absence of the call sparked the missing person report.

Why would they turn to two strange men, clearly living in squalor, for a bed to sleep in, when they made friends easily at the hostel and had other friends from Argentina staying in the vicinity? Why would the two accused leave the bodies 200 yards from the crime scene, to be so easily found, when a very public investigation was under way? Why, if it were an alcohol-fueled crime, as authorities allege, would such a burial occur days after the murder? And if they weren’t murdered, but kidnapped, on February 22, as the families allege, what happened to the Argentinian women over the course of those four days?

It is possible that El Rojo knew where the women were staying, conspired to steal their cash, leaving them with few options, then offered to help with a plot to kidnap and sell them to a human trafficking ring.

Or it could be exactly as the authorities say, except the young women were brought to, and kept at, the house under duress.

The family doesn’t know the answers. They have many sensible questions, though, questions that have sparked theories nationwide. Some even believe the women are alive and were sold into a ring of sex trafficking, that the two defendants are “perejiles,” or scapegoats.

The story has ignited a massive controversy in Argentina, with more than 10,000 people holding signs and candles on Thursday night, silently marching for justice for “their daughters” in Mendoza, a town in the Andes, 3,238 miles from Montañita.

Protests in the same vein against the Ecuadorian government have been held in Montanita, as well. “Montanita Mourns,” “Justice for Marina and Maria,” “The Only Cure For Grief Is Action,” and “We Ask Order And Effective Enforcement of Ecuadorian Laws” were among the signs adorning the front of a hostel on the street just south of Segundo Rosales, east of Centro. A crowd lingered throughout the day as Hola Ola Café played gloomy music from behind the gathered mass of onlookers.

Hashtags #NiUnaMenos—“Not One Less”—and #JusticiaporMarinayMariaJose—“Justice for Marina and MariaJose”—are trending on Twitter in South America. An open letter on Facebook by Guadalupe Costa about the crime, titled “Yesterday Killed Me,” has been shared more than 500,000 times.

On Tuesday, in front of a reporter for LaNacion and speaking to his father in court, Rodriguez, or El Rojo, said, “Dad, I swear to my Lord that I have not committed such an outrage.”

El Rojo attests to bringing the women to Ponce after they told him they were robbed and needed a place to stay.

“My son took the girls to the house without expecting anything bad,” Rodriguez’s father, who has not been named, told LaNacion. “He returned [home] at one o’clock in the morning, greeted his wife and went to bed. The next day, she prepared her breakfast—chicken rice. We did not notice anything strange about him.”

The 38-year-old Rio Chico native has never been arrested, according to media reports, and has a wife and child. Before spending the past few nights in Manglaralto, he has only ever slept in a concrete shack on the Ruta del Sol with his ever-growing extended family, now up to 13 in the house. It sits next to a church and a bus stop, across the street from a cement soccer field—the town square where his defense fund Bingo collection played out.

Government officials estimate only 400 or so people live in Rio Chico. That number seems high.

But according to LaNacion’s estimate, more than 100 crowded the indorro pitch—a small-sided soccer game played exclusively on cement in communas just like Rio Chico, up and down the coast. The sport Rodriguez grew up playing.

After Bingo, a march to Montañita by the locals, demanding a release of El Rojo, was planned for this weekend.

On March 3, the Federal Police Argentina and the Central Bureau of Interpol Buenos Aires formally requested to join the investigation with forensic teams of their own, and President Correa seems to be allowing the steps, albeit reluctantly, while reminding the media that the requests are “considered an insult to the country.”

Four specialists will be sent to Ecuador to assist in the investigation, Argentine Federal Police officials said, and the Ecuadorian Attorney General and Interpol officials also struck a deal for a joint investigation on Thursday.

Who Should Be Believed?

It is hard to place trust in the official story when you’ve seen firsthand the Montañita police in action—or, more accurately, their inaction. To take the word of a government that so blatantly pins all of its societal ills on alcohol, as a means to obfuscate their anti-booze action with actual progress, is difficult.

A political assassination of the wife of an accused corrupt politician? Ban alcohol on Sundays. Two women robbed, abducted, raped and murdered? They must’ve been drinking at a bar when everything went down.

Oddly, this is the same message preached to women across South America to quell the spread of the Zika Virus. Don’t drink so you don’t get pregnant so your baby isn’t deformed.

Anecdotally, the crackdown on alcohol helped Montañita last year: a ban on drinking in public was enacted last March, and for the first time since they’ve kept official records, Montañita was home to zero of the 15 murders in Santa Elana in 2015.

But dig deeper than surface level and you’ll realize the law has stopped nobody from drinking in public, and the aforementioned makeshift trauma center in Manglaralto has, this year alone, treated a dozen people for injuries or lacerations sustained in Montañita fights.

The numbers don’t paint a real picture one way or another about alcohol fueling the crime, but that in itself—in the face of such stigmatism from the Correa government—effectively shows how much deeper the issues run.

If booze is banned, but all the issues remain, the booze can’t be the only issue.

It is also difficult to mistrust the words of the generous people who have hosted two gringo journalists, translating every sentence with a book and an iPhone for the past month. Beyond stealing a $5 pair of sunglasses and overcharging a bit on the first few days, their default setting is kindness and outright flattery.

But, juxtapose those chants of innocence by the neighbors with the horrific discovery by The NIMBY of three puppies tied up inside rice sack, left for dead in a ditch on a 90-degree day, less than 24 hours before the alleged murders, just a minute from the homes of the accused. Pleading for help upon the discovery, all but one adult in the communa were too drunk to care.

Is it possible that one of the very people proclaiming such innocence could be prone to a random fit of violence and cruelty under the seemingly constant influence of alcohol? Absolutely.

After apologizing profusely, The NIMBY’s host—when informed of the incident that left one dog dead, covered in feces, and two others to return to their abusers—could only say, “I’m sorry. People without education, with an alcohol addiction … they do [these] things.”

It seems to even be a crutch for the sober to help explain away the insane. One must ask, “If people are willing to do that when they’re drunk …?”

Does this region of Santa Elena have much more systemic issues than alcohol—such as corruption, drugs and violence—that are being swept under the rug by the politicians in charge and actively ignored by local police all too eager to take a cash handshake in exchange for averted eyes? Absolutely.

But when every crime on the “bad for business” checklist gets checked, and the debauchery of a small town in the middle of nowhere is put under the world’s media microscope, even then, only traces of justice are to be found.

Because regardless of whether the true perpetrators are sitting in a Manglaralto jail, or if they ever get caught, none of them face more than 26 years in prison.

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