Brothers' Torture Death of Girl, 2, Has Argentines Rethinking Juvenile Prosecutions

Two brothers, age 7 and 9, told psychiatrists they slowly, coldly tortured a 2-year-old girl to death — a revelation that has Argentines debating whether to do away with a law prohibiting the prosecution of minors for terrible crimes.

Judge Marta Pascual said the children confessed to slaying little neighbor Milagros Belizan in a shantytown south of the capital. "They understood her pain but it did not move them," said Pascual, a youth judge for Buenos Aires' Lomas de Zomara district, after meeting with psychiatrists who examined the boys. "In some form it gave them pleasure."

Belizan disappeared from her home in the Almirante Brown neighborhood on Sunday. Her family found her body in a vacant lot 10 blocks away.

She had been stripped naked, beaten and strangled with telephone cord that was left around her neck. The discovery prompted neighbors to attack an adult suspected of the crime — until the two boys confessed.

Argentine law prohibits the prosecution of anyone under 18 years old. Instead, such juveniles are generally held in youth homes until they reach 18, when they are released without further punishment. Sunday's killing has many Argentines calling for stiffer punishments — including prosecuting them once they come of age.

"There's the idea among Argentine lawyers, psychologists and sociologists that the child is always the victim and can never be the victimizer," constitutional lawyer Gregorio Badeni told The Associated Press on Wednesday. "But if it were up to the people living in the shantytown where that little girl was murdered, they would kill the two boys."

Other Argentines disagreed that child killers should be tried like adults.

"These two boys are victims just like the poor girl they killed," family psychologist Cristina Castillo told the AP. "Even if the boys knew what they were doing, they couldn't be aware of the consequences of their actions. They couldn't know they were going to kill the girl."

Since such awareness usually comes only after adolescence, Castillo said the responsibility for the crime lies with the boys' parents and the society in which they were raised — in this case a shantytown on the far southern margins of Argentina's capital.

Authorities have not boys' identities, but said they were neighbors of the girl, who lived in a wood-slat shack in a shantytown of dirt streets in the provincial town.

The newspaper Clarin reported that neighbors said the boys were frequently beaten by their mother and had been out of school for two years. They were often seen throwing stones at other children and passing cars, they said.

"They are little boys who evidently had violence for an example," the judge said. "I don't know if the mind of a boy can know whether it was a crime. But they did know they had done something wrong."

The boys' grandmother said she repeatedly pleaded with the boys' mother to stop beating them. But only after the girl's death did the neighborhood appear to take action: A mob rose up, setting fires and throwing rocks, after her brutalized body was discovered in a pit. Police fired rubber bullets to prevent more bloodshed.

Neighbors later told police they had seen the boys with the little girl and then leaving the pit. Confronted, both boys then blamed each other for the crime in confessions that matched in every other way, authorities said.

"Although unlike the young girl, these boys didn't die, they can be considered socially dead," Castillo said. "Social condemnation is incredibly strong."