Looking for Marta

“Burial,” wrote Sigmund Freud’s chief French disciple Jacques Lacan in a compendium of essays published posthumously as The Ethics of Psychoanalysis in 1998, “is the first sign in which we recognize humanity.” This oft-quoted citation has somewhat eclipsed the larger context Lacan sought to illustrate, namely, a commentary on Sophocles’ Antigone, a tragedy where three suicides—yet no burial—take place.

Lacan’s dictum comes perhaps closest to capturing in words Antonio del Castillo and Eva Casanueva’s unspeakable mix of pain, anxiety, and sorrow since their daughter, then only 17, was pronounced dead about thirteen years ago. Painful though her gruesome murder was to the couple at the time, their inability to lay her missing body to rest to this day has proved the more lasting heartache.

On January 24, 2009, Marta del Castillo—or simply “Marta,” as she was fondly known to her family and the millions of Spaniards who agonized over her years-long murder trial—was beaten half-dead with either an ash tray or a gun barrel, then possibly raped, before the assaulters choked her with a cable, threw her corpse into a large trash bag, drove off, and disposed of the body at a location still unknown. Heard in court in 2011 but still not fully resolved to this day, Marta’s case has been the most publicized Spanish murder trial of the past two decades, and the entire saga has been adapted into a three-part Netflix miniseries by Galician filmmaker Paula Cons, garnering an astounding 8.4 million hours of viewership in the first week following its release. Cons’ documentary is the latest reminder to every Spanish family that their teenage daughters could head out one day to meet friends and never make it back, their corpses lost and left clamoring for justice.

I write “possibly” above because it took four years for the self-confessed murderer, Marta’s ex-boyfriend, to settle on a definitive plea, and even then, the credibility of his account remains tarnished by the six earlier versions he gave of the events and the four possible locations he has pointed to for the missing corpse, none of which have yielded the body. Miguel Carcaño was no longer Marta’s boyfriend the night she went missing; the two were meeting to put a definitive end to their lapsed romance.

The series depicts Carcaño, who was 19 at the time, as a rough kid with an Andalusian chav’s mannerisms, a penchant for violent showmanship, and even a collection of knives he had showcased on social media. The reputation of the two sidekicks he involved in Marta’s murder fares no better. One of them, “El Cuco,” was sentenced in minor’s court to three years in prison for aiding in the coverup along with another accomplice, although a new trial slated for this year may help clarify just what his role was in the crime. As for Carcaño, the series has dropped midway through his 21-year prison term, a sentence handed down on the basis of no more than his confession. That day, Carcaño picked Marta up and took her to the apartment belonging to his half-brother, Francisco Javier Delgado. Per his initial story, the ex-couple launched into an argument which ended abruptly when Carcaño, with or without help, killed Marta and enlisted El Cuco and his half-brother in getting rid of the body.

The difference in the harshness of El Cuco and Carcaño’s sentences suffices to show that justice has not been served in Marta’s case—whilst the latter’s confession has proved grounds enough to hand him a 21-year sentence, the former’s verdict points to another person involved in the cover-up who remains free to this day: Francisco Javier Delgado. Carcaño’s story on his half-brother’s role in Marta’s murder evolved markedly over a two-year period. His seventh and last version, on which he settled in 2013 and has maintained since, points in fact to a different dispute that night, where Marta was involved merely as mediator. The half-brothers were paying down a €108,000-a-year mortgage on the apartment where Francisco Javier lived, for which Carcaño, it was later proved, had been providing the bank with falsified documents.  Francisco Javier had been depleting the brothers’ account by overspending on various items, and when an argument over money devolved into a fistfight between the two, Marta rose to intervene but was savagely hammered dead by Francisco Javier with the butt of his pistol. “The time for covering up my brother’s responsibility is long over,” proclaimed Carcaño to the press in 2013, the day he went public with this latest plea. Marta’s family, meanwhile, remains as far as ever from finding the body. Last year, her father Antonio purchased the mortgaged apartment where the murder took place, hoping to lure Carcaño into confessing the corpse’s location in exchange. Technology, too, is opening new possibilities in the desperate search for Marta. While the court had relied thus far on standard wiretapping to monitor the calls and texts of all those involved, last year it moved to authorize the collection of satellite data of the exact location of each of the suspects  throughout the events of that night, perhaps offering the best chance to either confirm or dispel Carcaño’s definitive version.

Beyond the flagrant miscarriage of justice and even if this final version proves accurate, what lessons can we draw from Marta’s case? What kinds of reforms should Spain consider if it wishes to prevent mismanagement of a case like this from ever happening again? Legal experts of all persuasions concur that the slowness with which police and the courts reacted to Marta’s disappearance afforded the culprits a make-or-break chance to erase incriminating fingerprints and ensure that the body disappeared beyond the ability of the Spanish state to recover it. One scenario has Carcaño, his half-brother, or both taking the corpse to a crematorium for incineration. This would have rendered entirely pointless the mammoth, tireless search undertaken by the police, the Guardia Civil, and the military in the months following the murder across the depths of the Guadalquivir river, beneath 40,000 tons of trash, and in several other locations across Seville, the search area evolving according to Carcaño’s ever-changing story. Whether the body was in fact incinerated or not, this incredibly costly effort might have been spared had the search been launched immediately upon Antonio’s reporting of Marta’s disappearance around midnight that day, instead of waiting 17 crucial hours. The state must act quickly and decisively in future responses to missing or threatened persons.

Then there is the issue of sentencing, a point where Spain’s penal code stands out as markedly lenient relative to comparable democracies. Carcaño is only 11 years away from walking out of prison a free man. Granted, he may be proven only an accomplice in the murder by then, but even if Francisco Javier is ultimately proven the perpetrator, the jury erred on the side of lenience in his case: the maximum statutory sentencing for his crime reaches into the 50s. Even that would have been a lighter sentence than the so-called revisable life imprisonment (prisión permanente revisable) campaigned for by Marta’s family, but which Spain’s parliament only introduced in 2015 in the context of that year’s anti-jihadist crackdown. For a fleeting two years in 2017-2018, Antonio even made public his endorsement of and membership in the conservative Vox party, which has long advocated for a tougher penal code in crimes of this ghastly nature.

But the most teachable aspect of Marta’s case is doubtless the questions it raises about the role of public opinion in criminal litigation of this magnitude. The documentary itself makes this painfully clear. Granted, the del Castillo family’s desperate appeal to the Spanish—and now through Netflix, global—public is an understandable reaction to losing their daughter without even the possibility of giving her a proper burial. Was all the media attention that came with this worth it? In hindsight, recoiling at the documentary’s ghastly reconstruction of the murder, one cannot help to feel that part of the frenzied interest in Marta’s case was somewhat morbid, motivated not by the urge to find her body but by the gruesome suspense of the case. That many more millions of people will, through this documentary, get to share in the outrage at Marta’s murder is unequivocally good news. The bad news is that by now, there’s likely nothing they can do about it.

As the lesser-known elaboration that follows Lacan’s statement on burial goes, “One cannot finish off someone who is a man as if he were a dog. His register of being has to be preserved by funeral rites.” If the state cannot in all cases preserve the lives of its citizens, it must at least act quickly and decisively to gather the evidence needed to convict the guilty parties, hand down a fitting sentence to the murderers, and bring the body home for a decent and fitting burial. To do any less is unworthy treatment of a human being and a failure to do honor to the intrinsic value of the slain.

Jorge González-Gallarza (@JorgeGGallarza) is the co-host of the “Uncommon Decency” podcast on Europe (@UnDecencyPod) and an associate researcher at Fundación Civismo (Madrid).


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