Human Rights NATIONAL

The Ámbar Cornejo Case: Another Femicide Shocks Chile

SANTIAGO – On Aug. 6, the body of 16-year-old Ámbar Cornejo was found inside Hugo Bustamante’s house. Bustamante was the boyfriend of the teenager’s mother and had been convicted in 2005 for the murder of his then-girlfriend, Verónica Vásquez, and her 9-year-old son. After 11 years of imprisonment, he was given parole.

On Jul. 29, the town of Villa Alemana in Valparaíso started raising red flags regarding the disappearance of 16-year-old Ámbar Cornejo. Around 9 a.m. that morning, she went to her mother’s house to collect the pension money her father had sent her. She was never seen again. According to the first statement of the teenager’s mother, Denisse Llanos, Cornejo had collected the money and left the house.

Other family members and friends, however, were very concerned about Cornejo’s disappearance and complained to authorities. A police search for Cornejo started on Jul. 31 and ended yesterday, Aug. 6, after her body was found buried in her mother’s backyard. Llanos had confessed earlier that day that her partner, Hugo Bustamante, killed Ambar and told the authorities where the body was.

Bustamante is a convicted felon who spent 11 years in prison after murdering his then-girlfriend, Verónica Vásquez, and her 9-year-old son, in 2005. He is known as “asesino del tambor” (water drum murderer) because that’s where he stored the bodies of the victims after he strangled the boy and slaughtered and mutilated Vásquez.

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The Alleged Killer Didn’t Even Serve Half His Prior Sentence

In 2006, 10 months after he confessed to the murder of Vásquez and her son, Bustamante was sentenced to 15 and 12 years of imprisonment for simple homicide, 27 years in total. In 2016, however, after serving only 11 years, he was released.

Bustamante had not yet even served half of his sentence, but the law at that time favored him: article 3º of Decree-Law 321, established that “those sentenced to more than 20 years may be granted the benefit of conditional release once they have served 10 years.” 

Essentially, the law stated that if inmates maintained good conduct in prison and fulfilled a series of requirements – depending on their sentence – an appellate court could review their status and award them benefits, including parole. The week Bustamante was released, 788 prisoners in Valparaíso were also given parole, 90 percent of those who applied for it. 

Since then, the parole law has been modified to make it more difficult for a prisoner to obtain parole. Yesterday, referring to this modification from January 2019, President Sebastián Piñera tweeted that “it is for Ámbar and everyone that we have already tightened the parole law that would have prevented this murder. We are making progress in improving the prison system.”

The commission judges recall that back in 2016, when they were reviewing the batch of parole requests that included Bustamante’s, they paused after reading his name. The water drum murder case had been so notorious that one of the judges asked the others if they were sure about setting him free. They all agreed that they had to abide by the law in all cases: if an inmate had maintained good conduct and served half the sentence, the inmate would walk free. 

The judges decided to give Bustamante parole even despite a negative report from Gendarmerie (the prison authorities). The report stated that “the inmate requires intervention and a longer period of observation as psychological variables determine an uncertain prognosis … it is not recommended to grant conditional release.” Still, his parole was admitted and as of Apr. 29, 2016, he was once again a free man. Prosecutor Alejandro Ivelic even said Bustamante could potentially be a serial killer.

In 2006, journalist Carlos Pinto interviewed Bustamante for a Chilean TV show called “Mea Culpa,” while Bustamante was in prison for the murder of Vásquez and her son. During the conversation, Pinto asked the accused if he would commit murder again. Bustamante firmly and without hesitation replied, “I have thought about it and I don’t have the answer. I can’t say it’s impossible that I will experience a similar situation … I’m not the owner of destiny.”

Two Potentially Implicated in the Death of Ambar

Bustamante is now in custody for the murder of the 16-year-old girl. Currently, Llanos is being treated as just a witness, but lawyer Patricio Olivares, who represents Ulises Cornejo (Ambar’s father), said her involvement in the murder of her daughter has not been ruled out.

“As a complainant in the case, I will seek to clarify certain hypotheses. We want to determine what went on with the mother (regarding her statements), why she accompanied the accused, why they were seen walking together looking for a campsite, why she always maintained a low-profile attitude regarding the event in question,” said attorney Olivares.

National Child Defender Patricia Muñoz questioned the judicial system for releasing Bustamante. “Once again the system has been unable to protect a girl from our country. Once again we see how someone that should have been in jail was free,” said Muñoz.

This morning, Congress representatives Carolina Marzán and Andrés Celis urged a special investigative commission to review the institutional responsibilities that lie with the death of the 16-year-old. The initiative aims to evaluate whether Bustamante fulfilled all the requirements for parole.

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