BUENOS AIRES, Argentina (AP) — Five men accused of robbing bank customers were sentenced to life in prison for murder on Monday for killing the child of a pregnant woman who was chased down by motorcycle gunmen and shot twice as she begged for mercy.
Carolina Piparo survived the shooting, but her baby boy, Isidro, was born prematurely and died a week later.
The case shocked Argentines and prompted congress to require additional security measures at bank branches, such as more cameras and privacy walls. But "withdrawal robberies," as Argentines call the thefts that target people leaving banks with large amounts of cash, have continued during the three years it took to reach the verdict.
Piparo said that between 4,000 and 5,000 similar robberies happen every year in Argentina. While she praised the judges for the verdict and doctors for saving her life, she lamented that so many criminals are going unpunished.
"Every day people die from these robberies. We're walking alongside these people," she said at a post-verdict news conference in La Plata, the capital of Buenos Aires province, where she was shot in 2010. "This is what it means to live in Argentina. This is a case that perhaps is really atrocious, but people are dying every day. ... I don't think we should have to wait for more deaths so that the justice system considers this to be an important problem."
Two other defendants were found not guilty of charges that included aggravated homicide, attempted homicide, aggravated robbery and criminal association.
Prosecutor Marcelo Romero called it an admirable verdict. Defense attorneys had argued that Isidro was a fetus, not yet a person, but he noted that the boy was born alive and was given an Argentine identity number before he died a week later while his mother was in a coma, recovering from her gunshot wounds.
Piparo's lawyer, Fernando Burlando, said the three-judge panel responded to all the questions that arose during the investigation.
But Piparo said she disagreed with the court's decision to drop charges against a bank teller who had told her to come back the next day after she asked for her cash, saying the bank didn't have enough on hand. Piparo suggested she might pursue a civil complaint against the bank once the criminal case is resolved. In Argentina, criminal sentences aren't fixed until a series of appeals are completed.
The five men who were convicted were Carlos Moreno, Luciano Lopez, Miguel Silva, Carlos Jordan Juarez and Juan Manuel Calvimonte. The defendant accused of firing two bullets into Piparo, Carlos Burgos, was among two who were found not guilty. Piparo's mother identified Burgos as the gunman, but Piparo herself recalled details that pointed to Moreno instead.
Piparo had saved for years with her husband to buy a house to raise their baby in. When it came time to withdraw the down payment, the teller told them the bank branch didn't have enough dollars and they would have to come back the next day. Piparo did, with her mother, carefully putting $13,250 in her purse.
The bank's cameras recorded a burly man watching from behind them in line - a "marker" who later confessed to signaling others outside. Two men on a motorcycle stopped the women's car, threw Piparo to the ground and shot her in the face and chest as she begged them to just take the money.
Carrying purses full of cash is disturbingly common in Argentina, where many people fear dealing with banks. The possibility of someone targeting them is one risk, but having their money seized by the government is also a lingering fear among people who saw their accounts frozen and their savings cut by two-thirds when the currency was devalued a decade ago.
Transferring such money electronically would solve the problem in an instant. But income tax evasion is so rampant in Argentina that even people who want to pay their taxes have a hard time complying, because there's always someone demanding to hide all or part of the transaction by paying in cash - preferably U.S. dollars.