Body of María Belén Bernal found after disappearance stunned Ecuador

In the early morning of September 11, a 34-year-old defense lawyer entered the police academy in Ecuador’s capital to meet her husband, a lieutenant who specializes in training aspiring officers. She brought a burger she had picked up for him at a restaurant along the way.

That was the last time María Belén Bernal is seen alive.

On Wednesday, investigators searching for Bernal found human remains on the slopes of an extinct volcano near the academy. President Guillermo Lasso confirmed that they were hers.

“With deep pain and indignation, I regret to announce that María Belén has been found,” Lasso tweeted Wednesday afternoon. “Her murder will go unpunished and all those responsible will be brought to justice.”

Bernal’s husband, Police Lieutenant Germán Cáderes, was questioned by authorities last week, released and then disappeared on his own. A judge ordered him to appear in court on Friday for the “construction of charges”. Interpol has issued a warning looking into his whereabouts.

The discovery of the remains on Wednesday morning at the Casitagua volcano, 20 minutes from the police academy, was a shocking turn in a case that has shocked the South American nation, dominating local news, spurring spurred protests in many cities and fueled anger against increased violence against women.

Activists say Bernal’s disappearance from a police academy and the prime suspect is an officer responsible for training cadets, is particularly disturbing given the record they describe as the deadliest year. for women in Ecuador. According to the Latin American Alternative Development Association, at least 206 women have been killed since January for reasons related to their gender, up from 197 for all of 2021.

Mishell Medina, a spokesman for the Ecuadorian Commission Against Violence, Disappearance and Feminism, said outrage over Bernal’s case led to growing public frustration with the widely regarded police force. corruption and complicity in the rise of crime.

“They no longer represent an order to protect, but an order to make people disappear,” Medina said. “They are policemen who hire mercenaries, policemen who catch robbers, policemen engaged in drug trafficking.”

Bernal is said to have entered the police academy around 1:30 a.m. on September 11, a Sunday. It is unclear why she was allowed to enter the academy as a civilian and at that time.

An officer will report hearing a sound resembling a woman’s scream coming from Cáeres . room, according to the cadet’s lawyer. An academy official will tell the authorities that he has seen what appears to be According to Gonzalo Realpe, the lawyer for cadet Joselyn Sánchez, and Jesús López Cedeño, the lawyer for the Bernal family, a red liquid was on her husband’s hand. Both attorneys said they reviewed the case file.

No one stops Cáeres left or returned to the academy on the outskirts of Quito later that day.

“The responsibility lies with the state,” Bernal’s mother, Elizabeth Otavalo, 54, told The Washington Post this week, before her remains were found.

Edison Burbano, an attorney representing Cáeres, warned that “so far, there has been only a range of theories about the lieutenant.”

“The positive thing is that they found the body because it eases the pain for the family,” he said. “If Mr. Cáeres has any responsibility, that must be determined by law.”

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Burbano said Cáeres gave his cell phone to prosecutors during questioning last week. He was held for eight hours. “Since then, I know nothing about his whereabouts,” the lawyer said. “We didn’t talk.”

López Cedeño, the lawyer for the Bernal family, said investigators searched Cáeres’ room and found red stains. They are waiting for the results of the DNA test.

On Friday, prosecutors cadet Joselyn Sánchez was detained.

Realpe, her attorney, said Cáeres and Sánchez had been partying together and “had a few drinks.” He acknowledged that they exchanged deleted messages, but said they were related to “their fascination, their fondness. It has nothing to do with the murder of women.”

“Looks like my client was with the lieutenant when his wife arrived,” Realpe said. “He hid her in another bedroom to avoid trouble and locked himself with his wife in his room.”

“My client heard screaming and banging from the next room. But there are many others who have heard the same thing.”

On Monday, Fausto Salinas, the commander-in-chief of the Ecuadorian police, said 12 members of the force had been suspended pending an investigation.

Interior Minister Patricio Carrillo said the incident had brought “shame” to the country’s uniformed officers. He replaced the director of the police academy with a woman, Colonel Irany Ramírez.

Lasso has offered a $20,000 reward for information that helps locate Cáeres. He addressed the incident Wednesday before the United Nations General Assembly in New York.

“I want to use this forum to come together to fight gender-based violence,” he said. “In the case of Ecuador, the disappearance of a courageous woman, a lawyer, mother and daughter, should be a symbol of this challenge in the fight against violence against women.”

Otavalo, Bernal’s mother, said she never had reason to worry about her daughter’s relationship with her husband. Bernal and Cáeres began living together six years ago and married about four years ago. Bernal has a 12-year-old son from a previous relationship. The boy created a Twitter account last week and posted a photo of Cáeres.

“Good night everyone, help me find my mother”, the boy tweeted, “The last person to be with her was my stepfather German Cáceres.” As of Wednesday, it had been retweeted more than 12,900 times.

At around 2 p.m. on September 12, Bernal’s mother said she received a call from Cáeres asking if she had seen her daughter. He said she took a taxi the night before next to a major highway in Quito.

“I asked him, ‘Did you take a picture of the taxi?’ and he said no,” Otavalo said. “It’s a fast highway where taxis don’t run.”

Otavalo said she urged Cáeres to report her disappearance.

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Burbano, a lawyer for Cáderes, said Cáeres went to his office on the morning of September 13 and told him that his wife was missing. According to Burbano, Cáeres told prosecutors he was with his wife, they got into a fight, they left the police academy in her car and continued to fight.

To prevent the fight from escalating, Burbano said Cáeres told prosecutors, Cáeres stopped the car. Bernal decided to get off the highway and take a taxi, Cáeres said. sublieutenant said he had not seen her again.

Burbano said he insisted that Cáeres dialed his phone and cooperated with authorities in the search for his wife.

After the September 14 interrogation, Cáeres drove away on a motorbike, López Cedeño said. He has not been seen since.

Carillo, the interior minister, vowed to arrest Cáeres. Interpol issued last week The Green Notice, a request for international help in gathering “information about a person’s identity, location or activities in connection with a crime.”

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“We have teams looking for the alleged perpetrator, and we’re not going to let him go,” Carillo said. “Under every stone, wherever he is in the world, we will find him and we will hand him over to justice.”

Otavalo has asked the prosecutor’s office to seek assistance from authorities in Colombia or another country to ensure an impartial investigation.

Carillo said “the crime was not planned.”

“He must have left a lot of clues,” he told Ecuavisa Noticias.

Lolo Miño, executive director of the Ecuadorian Observatory of Rights and Justice, said she had never felt such outrage over a suspected case of gender-based violence. Bernal’s death was shocking not just because it happened at a police academy, she said, but because she was a crime defense attorney.

“Even with that record,” Miño said, “she couldn’t escape the violence.”

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