The 2020 murder of Fernando Baez sparked protests in several cities around Argentina with eight young rugby players facing life in prison if convicted
The 2020 murder of Fernando Baez sparked protests in several cities around Argentina with eight young rugby players facing life in prison if convicted AFP

The shocking story of a teenager beaten to death by eight young rugby players has opened old wounds and shed light on class, race and gender discrimination in Argentine society.

Eight friends, now age 21 to 23, are facing life in prison if convicted of the premeditated murder of Fernando Baez three years ago in a popular seaside resort.

The trial is under way in Dolores, 200 kilometers (125 miles) south of Buenos Aires, and has gripped the nation, as did the original murder that sparked protests in several cities.

In the early hours of January 18, 2020, a fight broke out in a nightclub in Villa Gesell, a resort city popular with young people.

After those involved were evicted from the club, their quarrel continued in the street, but Baez, then 18, became isolated from his friends and surrounded by the eight defendants, who beat him so severely that he died of his injuries.

The trial opened three weeks ago but precious little light has been shone on who did what that night.

Some defendants have even denied hitting Baez.

The matter of who, or what, exactly was responsible for Baez's death has inflamed social media debates.

"The question of class plays an important role in this case," said sociologist Guillermo Levy, a professor at the universities of Buenos Aires and Avellaneda.

"Most of the rugby players are from rich, rural families."

Some have pointed the finger at rugby itself, and the culture that surrounds it.

"It's true that it is a cocktail of violence, racism, machismo, alcohol, etc. But I'm going to add the component of rugby training," Facundo Sassone, a sociologist at the University of San Martin who is also a junior rugby coach, told AFP.

He said the "herd" mentality nurtured within a team environment had a role to play.

For all its positive publicity as a sport where respect and camaraderie are integral, rugby has a dark side in which gratuitous violence, and sometimes deeply inappropriate pranks, are commonplace and unquestioned.

"If we... say that it is a sport of values and friendship, why did it fail?" asked Sassone.

"Some issues can be misunderstood by rugby players and can generate situations of violence away from the pitch."

Some former professional players have spoken out on the matter.

Former Argentina captain Agustin Pichot was one of the people to hit out at his sport after meeting Baez's family in 2021.

He said rugby had "normalized bad things" by failing "to differentiate good from bad" in some of the practices that have developed within and around the sport.

Rugby by no means has a monopoly on violence -- barely a year goes by without a death related to clashes between rival football fans, while drink-fueled fights outside nightclubs are commonplace.

It is a minority sport in Argentina, whose popularity pales compared with football.

But it stands out because it is traditionally played and watched by a wealthy elite.

And that is why this case has captured the public's imagination in a way that violence between poor people would not, said sociologist and writer Alejandro Seselovsky.

The wealthy white "who kills, that's like 'a man bit a dog', it's newsworthy," said Seselovsky.

The racial aspect of this murder is also forcing Argentine society to confront an awkward truth it would rather brush under the carpet.

According to witnesses, the defendants called Baez -- whose parents, a bricklayer and a caregiver, are both Paraguayan immigrants -- a "shitty black" while beating him.

"You cannot escape the reference to Fernando's blackness in the assault," sociologist Sebastian Bruno, an immigration specialist, told AFP.

The "racism and classism" is obvious, said Bruno, although Levy points out that it "doesn't mean they wouldn't have attacked him if he weren't" Paraguayan.

In a country where the majority of the population is descended from white Europeans, mostly from Spain, Italy or Germany, the term "black" has been widely used to describe indigenous people or migrants from neighboring countries viewed as inferior, said Bruno.

"We need to reflect on the society that produced this," said Levy.