Development & Aid, Headlines, Latin America & the Caribbean, Population

ECUADOR-CHILDREN: Crime and Punishment

Mario Gonzalez

QUITO, Mar 11 1996 (IPS) - Problems in Ecuador’s youth rehabilitation schemes are in the spotlight since the murder of a 20-year-old gang leader – just one month after a four-year stretch in a reformatory.

The body of Juan Fernando Hermosa, dubbed by newspapers as the “child of terror,” was discovered on the bank of the Aguarico River in Lago Agrio, a town in eastern Sucumbios province.

Carlos Merino, chief of Sucumbios’s Office of Criminal Investigation, told reporters that “signs of torture” on the body suggested “it had to do with a personal vendetta.”

But Ecuadoran penologists say the country’s special statutes for minor delinquents are poorly conceived and cite the case of Hermosa, and other minors who are freed from reformatories without undergoing a full rehabilitation process.

“Laws can’t do much in a society that has decided to take justice into its own hands,” countered Jose Antonio Lopez, a priest who is rehabilitation director at the Virgilio Guerrero reformatory where Hermosa was incarcerated for four years.

Ecuadoran law stipulates that “minors under 16 years old are not subject to adult punishments because being under age is a sufficient reason to hold the minor not responsible,” explained Prof. Alberto Wray of Quito’s Catholic University.

At the age of 14, Hermosa led a band of juvenile delinquents accused of murdering taxi drivers and homosexuals. The “child of terror” was captured in 1991 when he was 16 years-old and sent to the reformatory for four years after confessing to 22 crimes.

“A person who kills 22 people in cold blood cannot be rehabilitated by four years of prison no matter how much psychological help he gets,” declared psychologist Marcelo Roman.

Ecuador “lacks a rehabilitation system that takes the particular individual’s situation into account and, what is very important, his social context,”he said. Hermosa’s sentence was “inappropriately short…and when he was released his crimes were still fresh in the minds of many people.”

“The penal code absolves minors under the age of 18 of responsibility without discerning among them,” Wray pointed out, “which is not the case under legislation such as Argentina’s.”

In Ecuador, the length of a youth’s incarceration is determined by his behavior and not by a court sentence. The law requires youths to be released when they reach maturity.

In his article “Youth and the Penal System”, jurist Jorge Zabala Baquerizo writes that “minors over the age of 14 can generally be presumed responsible and only in exceptional cases are they not.”

Baquerizo says “the presumption that older minors are incapable of understanding what they’re doing is erroneous,” since “some of them commit the most horrendous crimes.”

Marino added that Hermosa’s “repeated attempts to escape showed he wasn’t responding appropriately to rehabilitation.”

The “child of terror” succeeded in escaping in 1993 after killing a guard and wounding two more, but he was captured in Colombia and returned to the reformatory.

“By giving him his freedom, they took away his opportunity to live and sentenced him to death,” concluded Roman.

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