The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

A lawyer disappeared from a police academy. Her body was just found.

Activists stage a sit-in in front of the attorney general's office in Quito, Ecuador, last week to protest the disappearance of criminal defense attorney María Belén Bernal, 34, from a police academy on the outskirts of the capital. (Rodrigo Buendia/AFP/Getty Images)

In the early morning of Sept. 11, a 34-year-old defense attorney walked into the police academy in Ecuador’s capital to meet her husband, a lieutenant who trained aspiring officers. She carried a burger she had picked up for him at a restaurant on the way.

It was the last time María Belén Bernal was seen alive.

On Wednesday, investigators searching for Bernal found human remains on the slope of an extinct volcano near the academy. President Guillermo Lasso confirmed that they were hers.

“With deep pain and indignation I regret to report that María Belén was found,” Lasso tweeted Wednesday afternoon. “Her femicide will not go unpunished and all those responsible will be brought to justice.”

Bernal’s husband, police Lt. Germán Cáceres, was questioned by authorities last week, released and then disappeared himself. A judge has ordered him to court Friday for a “formulation of charges.” Interpol has issued an alert seeking his whereabouts.

The discovery of the remains Wednesday morning at the Casitagua Volcano, 20 minutes from the police academy, was a shocking turn in a case that has gripped the South American nation, dominating local news coverage, prompting protests in multiple cities and fueling anger against rising violence against women.

Activists say the fact that Bernal disappeared from a police academy, and that the principal suspect is an officer responsible for training cadets, is particularly worrisome during what they describe as the deadliest year for women in Ecuador on record. At least 206 women have been killed since January for reasons associated with their gender, according to the Latin American Association for Alternative Development, up from 197 for all of 2021.

Mishell Medina, a spokeswoman for the Committee Against Violence, Disappearances and Femicides in Ecuador, said the outrage over Bernal’s case captures a growing frustration with a police force seen by many as corrupt and complicit in increasing crime.

“They no longer represent an order to protect, but rather an order to make people disappear,” Medina said. “They are policemen who hire hit men, policemen who rob, policemen who are involved in drug trafficking.”

Bernal is believed to have entered the police academy at about 1:30 a.m. Sept. 11, a Sunday. It was unclear why she was allowed to enter the academy as a civilian and at that hour.

A cadet would report hearing what sounded like a woman’s screams coming from Cáceres’s room, according to the cadet’s lawyer. An academy official would tell authorities he saw what appeared to be a red liquid on her husband’s hands, according to Gonzalo Realpe, the lawyer for cadet Joselyn Sánchez, and Jesús López Cedeño, a lawyer for Bernal’s family. Both attorneys said they had reviewed the case file.

No one stopped Cáceres from leaving or reentering the academy on the outskirts of Quito later that day.

“The responsibility lies with the state,” Bernal’s mother, Elizabeth Otavalo, 54, told The Washington Post this week, before her remains were found.

Edison Burbano, a lawyer representing Cáceres, cautioned that “until now, there are only a series of presumptions about the lieutenant.”

“It is positive that they have found the body because it mitigates the pain of the family,” he said. “If Mr. Cáceres has any responsibility, that must be defined according to the law.”

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Cáceres turned in his cellphone to prosecutors during his questioning last week, Burbano said. He was held for eight hours. “Since then, I have no knowledge of his whereabouts,” the lawyer said. “We have not spoken.”

López Cedeño, the lawyer for Bernal’s family, said investigators searched Cáceres’s room and found red stains. They are awaiting DNA test results.

On Friday, prosecutors detained cadet Joselyn Sánchez.

Realpe, her attorney, said Cáceres and Sánchez were at a party together and “had a few drinks.” He acknowledged they exchanged messages that have since been deleted, but said they related to “their infatuation, their crush. Nothing to do with the crime of femicide.”

“It appears that my client was with the lieutenant when his wife arrived,” Realpe said. “He hides her in another bedroom to avoid problems and locks himself with his wife in his room.”

“My client heard the screaming and banging from being in the next room. But there were many others who heard the same thing.”

On Monday, Fausto Salinas, commander general of Ecuador’s police, said 12 members of the force had been suspended pending an investigation.

Interior Minister Patricio Carrillo said the case has brought “shame” to the country’s uniformed officers. He has replaced the police academy director with a woman, Col. Irany Ramírez.

Lasso has offered a $20,000 reward for information that helps locate Cáceres. He mentioned the case Wednesday before the U.N. General Assembly in New York.

“I want to take advantage of this forum to work together also to fight against gender violence,” he said. “In the case of Ecuador, the disappearance of a courageous woman, a lawyer, mother and daughter, should be a symbol of this challenge in the fight against violence against women.”

Otavalo, Bernal’s mother, said she never had reason to be concerned about her daughter’s relationship with her husband. Bernal and Cáceres began living together six years ago and married about four years ago. Bernal has a 12-year-old son from a previous relationship. The boy created a Twitter account last week and posted a photo of Cáceres.

“Good night everyone, help me find my mom,” the boy tweeted, “the last person who was with her was my stepfather German Cáceres.” As of Wednesday, it had been retweeted more than 12,900 times.

At about 2 p.m. Sept. 12, Bernal’s mother said, she received a call from Cáceres asking if she had seen her daughter. He said she had caught a taxi the night before beside a major highway in Quito.

“I asked him, ‘Did you take photos of the taxi?’ and he said no,” Otavalo said. “It’s a fast highway where taxis don’t pass by.”

Otavalo said she urged Cáceres to report her disappearance.

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Burbano, Cáceres’s lawyer, said Cáceres visited his office on the morning of Sept. 13 and told him his wife was missing. According to Burbano, Cáceres told prosecutors he was with his wife, they fought, they left the police academy in her car and continued fighting.

To prevent the fight from escalating, Burbano said Cáceres told prosecutors, Cáceres stopped the car. Bernal decided to get out on a highway and take a taxi, Cáceres said. The lieutenant said he had not seen her again.

Burbano said he insisted that Cáceres turn in his phone and cooperate with authorities in their search for his wife.

After his questioning on Sept. 14, Cáceres rode away on his motorcycle, López Cedeño said. He has not been seen since.

Carrillo, the interior minister, vowed to apprehend Cáceres. Interpol last week issued a Blue Notice, a request for international help in collecting “information about a person’s identity, location or activities in relation to a crime.”

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“We have search teams on the alleged perpetrator, and we are not going to let him go,” Carrillo said. “Under every stone, wherever he is in any part of the world, we are going to find him and we are going to submit him to the administration of justice.”

Otavalo has asked the prosecutor’s office to seek assistance from authorities from Colombia or another country to ensure the investigation is impartial.

Carrillo said the “crime was not planned.”

“He must have left a lot of clues,” he told Ecuavisa Noticias.

Lolo Miño, executive director of the Observatory of Rights and Justice of Ecuador, said she has never seen such indignation over a case of suspected gender violence. Bernal’s death is shocking not only because it happened at a police academy, she said, but because she was a criminal defense attorney.

“Even with that profile,” Miño said, “she could not escape the violence.”