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Ruined Lives
Segregation from Society in Argentina’s Psychiatric Asylums
A REPORT ON HUMAN RIGHTS AND MENTAL HEALTH IN ARGENTINA

MENTAL DISABILITY RIGHTS INTERNATIONAL (MDRI)

CENTER FOR LEGAL AND SOCIAL STUDIES (CELS)

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Ruined Lives: Segregation from Society in Argentina’s Psychiatric Asylums

Copyright © 2007 by Mental Disability Rights International
All rights reserved.
Printed in the United States of America

ISBN: 978-1-60461-304-9
Library of Congress Control Number: 2007936404

Cover photo: Eugene Richards, Many Voices, Inc. © 2006.

Cover design by Bussolati Associates

Copies of this report are available from:

Mental Disability Rights International
1156 15th Street, NW, Suite 1001
Washington, DC 20005, U.S.A.
Tel.: (202) 296-0800
Fax: (202) 728-3053
Email: [email protected]
www.mdri.org

Center for Legal and Social Studies
Piedras 547 piso 1 (C1070AAJ)
Buenos Aires, Argentina
Tel/Fax: (54) 11-4334-4200
Email: [email protected]
www.cels.org.ar

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Ruined Lives 25

Several newspaper articles and television stations reported allegations of prostitution of
women institutionalized in Moyano Hospital by staff.184 Investigators were not able to document
fi rst hand accounts of such abuse. One woman said that she knew of others who had been prostituted,
saying, “They’re afraid to talk.”185 She also remarked that some women were prostituted or
prostituted themselves to staff.

The one who drives the ambulance . . . ropes in the patients to prostitute them. He gives
them money, Þ ve pesos and has sex with them. . . . I know seven women that are prostituted.
One patient from the ward got pregnant by a man who works in plumbing. . . . The women
that smoke, who need money to smoke, [the men] pay them Þ ve pesos for oral sex.186

At Diego Alcorta, in December 2004, investigators observed two women in the later stages
of pregnancy. Upon review of their medical records, it was clear that both women had become
pregnant after being committed to the hospital. In response to investigators’ questions, a male
member of the support staff commented, referring to the size of one of the women’s bellies, “She
drinks a lot of water.”187 During investigators’ return visit in September 2006, one of the women who
had been pregnant in December 2004 was recovering from a caesarean section she had undergone
the day before. The Director of Diego Alcorta, Dr. Marta Mocchi, told investigators that she had
ordered that the woman have a tubal ligation, “because she’s promiscuous.”188

At Cabred Hospital, the Director informed investigators that three nurses had recently been
transferred to other hospitals as the result of abuse. Although these employees were not dismissed,
he stated that this is the fi rst time that any action had been taken against staff, despite union
opposition.189 During investigators’ visit in July 2007, the Director said that there were no new
complaints against the staff.190 However, one man investigators interviewed said that on several
occasions staff beat the men “when one of them gets upset.” He said that when this happens, staff

184 See, e.g., Intervienen el hospital Moyano y relevan a su director [Intervention in Moyano Hospital, Director
relieved], CLARÍN.COM, Dec. 20, 2005.

185 Interview with woman hospitalized at Moyano Hospital, city of Buenos Aires (Jan. 23, 2006).

186 Id.

187 Investigators’ observations during visit to Diego Alcorta Hospital, province of Santiago del Estero (Dec. 7,
2004).

188 Interview with Dr. Marta Mocchi, Director, Diego Alcorta Hospital, Santiago del Estero (Sept. 29, 2006). A
report denouncing this and other serious situations was sent by CELS and MDRI to the governor of the province
of Santiago del Estero with a copy to the National Ministry of Health and the Sub secretary on Human Rights on
December 22, 2006. To date, investigators have received no response.

189 Interview with Dr. Leo Zavattaro, Director Cabred Hospital, province of Buenos Aires (Dec. 11, 2004). It is
important to note that transferring personnel from one institution to another does not imply any type of punishment,
and entails the risk that similar acts are repeated at another institution.

190 Interview with Dr. Leo Zavattaro, Director Cabred Hospital, province of Buenos Aires (July 25, 2007).

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26 Ruined Lives

apply “knots” by choking the men with strips of cloth or rope to stop them from breathing and
“calm” them. He said that eight months before investigators’ visit, a man had died of strangulation
inside Cabred Hospital’s Medical Clinic as the result of a “knot” applied by a nurse with the help
of other patients.191

The existence of physical and sexual abuse against institutionalized persons in State
psychiatric institutions is undeniable, and violates the American Convention and the ICCPR, which
provide that no one shall be subjected to torture or to cruel, inhuman, or degrading punishment or
treatment.192 Argentina does not have effective mechanisms to protect institutionalized persons, in
State custody, from these abuses. As such, the State is failing in its obligation to prevent human
rights violations and to investigate and punish those responsible.193

D. Dangerous conditions

During visits to several institutions, investigators documented dangerous conditions that
violate individuals’ rights to health and to humane treatment. These conditions included the lack
of adequate medical care, and unsanitary and unsafe conditions of confi nement.

1. Lack of medical care

The lack of medical care is a serious concern in many of the institutions investigators
visited. At Penal Unit 20, Diego Alcorta, Moyano and Borda Hospitals, investigators observed
large numbers of institutionalized persons with open sores, rotting or missing teeth, and even some
with extremities in advanced stages of decay from gangrene.

While investigators were visiting the province of Santiago del Estero in December 2004,
Digna Ledesma, a woman who had been institutionalized in Diego Alcorta Hospital for the previous
24 years, died.194 Information obtained through investigators’ interviews indicated that Ms.
Ledesma’s death was most probably due to extreme neglect by personnel at Diego Alcorta Hospital,

191 Interview with a man hospitalized at Cabred Hospital, Open Door, province of Buenos Aires (July 25, 2007).
Investigators could not confi rm this complaint with other sources.

192 American Convention, supra note 23, art. 5(2), ICCPR, supra note 24, art. 7. Governments are required to
treat all persons in detention “with respect for the inherent dignity of the human person.” American Convention,
supra note 23, art. 5(2), MI Principles, supra note 28, principle 1(2). Under the CRPD, States are required to adopt
all appropriate measures to protect persons with disabilities from “all forms of exploitation, violence and abuse. .
. .” CRPD, supra note 27, art. 16(1). Similarly, the MI Principles provide that States have an obligation to protect
persons with mental disabilities from physical or sexual abuse, degrading treatment, and other forms of exploitation.
MI Principles, supra note 28, principle 1(3).

193 MI Principles, supra note 28, principle 8(2).

194 Interview with Dr. Lucia Abdulajad, treating physician at Independencia Hospital, province of Santiago del
Estero (Dec. 7, 2004). Ms. Ledesma’s medical records indicate her date of admission to Diego Alcorta Hospital as
July 29, 1980.

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Ruined Lives 67

Acknowledgments

This report is a joint endeavor by Mental Disability Rights International (MDRI) and the
Center for Legal and Social Studies (CELS). The primary author and researcher of this report was
Alison A. Hillman de Velásquez, Director of MDRI’s Programs in the Americas.

The bulk of the research for this report was conducted during six fact-fi nding investigations
over a three year span in Argentina, from June 2004 to August 2007. In the many institutions
and community-based mental health initiatives investigators visited, administrators, staff and
people with mental disabilities were exceedingly generous with their time. Investigators returned
to many institutions over the course of the research. Institution administrators, in particular,
were gracious and welcoming, even when investigators covered similar ground on return visits.
Many government offi cials and organizations of professionals, family members, and ex-patients
also agreed to be interviewed for this report. Their candid assessments of mental health services
available in Argentina shaped much of the content of this report.

Without the meticulous logistical support coordinated by Roxana Amendolaro, Coordinator
of CELS’ Mental Health Team, research for this report would not have been possible. Roxana
demonstrated tremendous commitment to this project, participating in fi ve investigations, despite
being eight months pregnant with her fi rst child, Carla, during one of these, and spearheading a
fi nal round of fact-checking as the report went to press. Alfredo Jorge Kraut, currently Secretary
of the Supreme Court of Justice of Argentina, and the country’s principal specialist on the rights of
people with mental disabilities, opened numerous doors that offered access to policy makers and
mental health professionals alike. Alfredo provided insightful comments from his vast knowledge
of the intricacies of Argentina’s legal system and its approach to issues relevant to people with
mental disabilities. Had it not been for Alfredo’s energy, enthusiasm, and contacts, the daunting
task of compiling information about Argentina’s mental health services system would have seemed
a Herculean task.

Eric Rosenthal, Executive Director of MDRI, provided careful guidance and support
throughout the report-writing process, reviewing numerous drafts and offering valuable insights
to sharpen and polish the fi nal product. Laurie Ahern, MDRI’s Associate Director, also offered
expertise from her background as a journalist, emphasizing the need to highlight individual
testimonies as part of the research data. Andrea Pochak, Adjunct Director at CELS, lent institutional
support to this project and provided meticulous and detailed revisions to the numerous report
drafts. Joanne Mariner, former Deputy Director of Human Rights Watch’s Americas Program,
offered thoughtful comments, suggesting many improvements in the early stages of the drafting
process. Daniel Wilkinson and Maria McFarland of Human Rights Watch also provided important
editorial and stylistic recommendations that made the report more cohesive and easier to read.

Authors must thank the numerous individuals who both participated in the investigation
and documentation of this report, and who reviewed report drafts and offered their comments and
corrections. These individuals include: Ana Laura Aiello, J.D., human rights doctoral candidate,
Carlos III University of Madrid; Graciela Guilis, ex-Director of CELS’ Mental Health Team;
Mariano Laufer Cabrera, attorney at CELS; Humberto L. Martinez, M.D., Executive Director,

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South Bronx Mental Health Council; Victoria de Menil, MPH; Clarence Sundram, J.D., President,
Board of Directors, MDRI; Willians Valentini, M.D., psychiatrist, consultant to the World Health
Organization; and Alicia Ely Yamin, J.D., MPH, MDRI Board member and Instructor, Harvard
School of Public Health. Additionally, members of CELS’ Mental Health Team Adelqui del Do,
psychologist, and Laura Sobredo, M.D., psychiatrist, and CELS’ legal intern Pablo Alvarez,
participated in the investigation of this report.

Marcel Velásquez Landmann, anthropologist, candidate for a Master’s in Public Policy,
Georgetown University, participated as an investigator and interpreter, and translated this report
from English to Spanish. He displayed undying patience in incorporating what at points seemed
like interminable revisions from a variety of reviewers. Without Marcel’s loving support, this
report would never have made it past the initial draft.

Freelance photographer Eugene Richards captured several of the compelling images that
accompany this report. Weeks of his donated time and his decade-long interest in exposing abuses
against people with mental disabilities have been invaluable for lending a human face to the silent
suffering of thousands of institutionalized individuals. MDRI is particularly grateful to Gene
for his dedication and tireless support of our work. Elizabeth Mallow and Jeremy Robbins also
contributed photographs for this report.

Manager helped with formatting and provided valuable technical assistance.

Essential support for the research and writing of this report was provided by a grant from
the Overbrook Foundation. In addition, the Morton K. & Jane Blaustein Foundation, and the Merck
Fund provided sustaining support without which the completion and dissemination of this report
would not have been possible.

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