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In Buenos Aires, A "Gentleman" Inmate's Classroom Jail Break

Shiva was not like the other detainees in the Argentina prison. For one thing, this convicted kidnapper was studying to be a lawyer -- which turned out to be the ticket for his daring escape.

Escaping with a book
Escaping with a book
Darío Coronel

BUENOS AIRES - It was a Friday, and – as happened three times a week, every week, always at the same hour – the prison guards approached the door and called his name. Shiva Narada Benítez Díaz turned away from the noticeboard, and walked calmly out of Devoto prison’s Block 50.

Carrying his packback, full of books and notes, he was identified and walked towards the Transfer Division. Although two of the four guards accompanying him into the Law School at the University of Buenos Aires were dressed in civilian clothes, all four were carrying guns.

They arrived in Recoleta, the university district, in the same type of van that is used to transport all prisoners. They entered the Law School just off one of the capital's main thoroughfares, and removed Benítez Díaz’s handcuffs so he would be able to take notes in class. They never saw him again.

What has happened since is a total mystery. The following day, a judge gave orders to search Block 50 and confiscate Benítez Díaz’s belongings. But as soon as they'd heard the news of his escape, his fellow inmates had taken all of his things. Shiva, as he was known by everyone in prison, has been on the run ever since that Friday, June 28.

Very few prisoners in Shiva’s situation manage to escape: the percentage of escapees is tiny in relation to the number of inmates who leave to study and return to their cells each night. Shiva did not return.

“The guards drop you at the door, and tell you what time they will be back to pick you up, they don’t guard you the whole time,” an ex-inmate who was allowed to leave prison to study told Clarín.

But another prisoner who knew Benítez Díaz maintained that it would be impossible to escape without assistance: “Shiva controlled a lot of money. He must have paid them off. It is unimaginable that the guards wouldn’t watch you, because if a prisoner escapes they are prosecuted.”

The Prince

Benítez Díaz was born in Bolivia, but he grew up in a middle class neighborhood of Buenos Aires. He is 30, and has spent the past five years in prison. In 2010, he studied for a basic one-year qualification in law, and from 2011 onwards had started to attend the Devoto Prison University Centre (CUD). A year and a half ago, thanks to his good marks, he started to attend the University of Buenos Aires to take classes that weren’t taught at the CUD. He was close to finishing his degree when he made his escape.

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The University of Buenos Aires - Photo: April Killingsworth

He needed just one more year to graduate; in two years, his permission to stay in Argentina would expire; and he still had ten years left of his sentence for kidnapping and robbery in the district of Bajo Flores. He was also accused of abuse in the same case, but was found not guilty on those charges.

“He was bright. He was very able,” said one of his former teachers, who'd pointed to him as an example to the other students.

In the CUD, Benítez Díaz spent all day with his notes in his hand. He was the only one of the 25 inmates in Block 50 who didn’t have the right to leave the prison alone; this block, where Shiva spent his last days inside, was an open, self-disciplining prison. Many of the prisoners were allowed out alone to study or to spend the weekend at their homes.

In order to grant him study leave, the Penitentiary Service had assessed him and awarded him excellent marks in “behavior” and “judgment”. The prosecutor and the judge linked to his case were also consulted, and he was given a court order allowing him to leave the prison accompanied in order to attend classes at university.

Shiva used to say that he was familiar with the whole of Argentina, and some neighboring countries as well. He claimed to be a trader; he told his fellow inmates that he had businesses in upper-class neighborhoods and sold fancy cars. He liked to listen to electronic music and read classic literature. Days before his escape, he took out The Prince by Niccolò Machiavelli.

“He is a far cry from society’s collective image of a prisoner; his clothes and his vocabulary are very different. He is a gentleman,” recounts one of his fellow students.

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