Wrongfully imprisoned for the double murder of two French tourists, Santos Clemente Vera savors his newfound freedom

Poverty made me an easy target and I became a scapegoat, but when I stepped through those doors to freedom, it felt euphoric.

  • 5 months ago
  • February 3, 2024
9 min read
Santos Clemente Vera savoring his newfound freedom alongside his son after being acquitted of the double murder of two French tourists in Argentina. | Photo courtesy of Humberto Martinez Santos Clemente Vera savoring his newfound freedom alongside his son after being acquitted of the double murder of two French tourists in Argentina. | Photo courtesy of Humberto Martinez
journalist’s notes
interview subject
Santos Clemente Vera, 43, hails from the picturesque town of Villa San Lorenzo, situated near the city of Salta in Argentina. As a devoted father, he takes pride in nurturing his four children: Eduardo, 12, Martín, 6, and twins Amanda and Victoria, 2. Santos grew up tending to his family’s garden and raising cows and horses, and continued that lifestyle as an adult. He served as a tour guide in the area and worked in landscaping. On August 6, 2011, police arrested him for the murder and rape of two French tourists. He was held for nearly three years before he was declared innocent and released. Then, suddenly and with no notification, the courts overturned his acquittal and sentenced him to life in prison. After seven years and 10 months in jail, his sentence as finally vacated, and he was released an innocent man.
background information
“The bodies of [French tourists] Cassandre Bouvier and Houria Moumni were found on July 29, 2011, in the Quebrada de San Lorenzo, province of Salta” in Argentina, according to Infobae. The two women, who met in Paris while enrolled in Latin American studies decided to travel to together throughout Central and South America and the Carribean. On their last trip in Argentina, they were brutally beaten, raped, and murdered. Santos Clemente Vera, who was intimately familiar with the area, helped in the search but one of the suspects, after claiming to be tortured by police, implicated Vera. Vera was found innocent but later, the court vacated the sentence and gave him life in prison. With the support of the Innocence Project, his attorneys, and one of the victim’s fathers, Vera was finally deemed innocent in December 2023 and released after nearly eight years in prison.

VILLA SAN LORENZO, Argentina — On December 11, 2023, the long-awaited moment finally arrived: the Argentinian court overturned my conviction for double murder. After suffering in prison for over a decade for a crime I did not commit, I finally faced a chance at freedom. [Santos was wrongly convicted for the 2011 murder of French tourists Cassandre Bouvier and Houria Moumni in Argentina.]

Poverty made me an easy target and I became a scapegoat, but when I stepped through those doors to freedom, it felt euphoric. I embraced my tearful wife and reunited with my children – who kept my presence alive every single day.

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The police ripped him from his home in front of his family, accusing him of murder

Before the murder of two French tourists in Argentina in 2011, I worked as a gardener in a private neighborhood. On my days off, I spent Saturday afternoons toiling in the field and doing housework, and on Sundays I cared for the cows and horses. I lived the life I learned from my father as a child.

In late July of that year, devastating news shattered the tranquility of our region: Cassandre Bouvier and Houria Moumni were raped and murdered. The town buzzed with shock and disbelief. Days later, the police arrived at my doorstep, asking for assistance in finding clues. Given my familiarity with the terrain, it was not unusual for them to seek my help in locating individuals injured or lost during excursions. I served as a guide, searching without much success for a few days.

On the afternoon of Saturday, August 6, 2011, I heard clapping outside my house, accompanied by shouts of “Milico!” – a nickname known to those familiar with me. Assuming they wanted me to guide another hill tour, I walked calmly outside.  

However, the moment I crossed the threshold, two police officers threw me to the ground forcefully, barking orders and hitting me. My bewildered parents and wife watched in horror as my nephews abruptly stopped playing. They begged the police to stop. Amidst the chaos, I pleaded my innocence as they continued threatening me, insisting my family would suffer if I failed to comply.

In that moment, I found myself ensnared in a nightmare, but unlike a nightmare, I would not wake up. It felt painfully real as I endured their brutality. They covered my head and subjected me to unspeakable torment, leaving scars that linger to this day.

Poor and uneducated, the accused proves an easy target but victim’s father becomes a surprising ally

Up until the moment the police tore me from my life, I felt content. I did nothing wrong, yet I faced the horrific accusation of murdering two French citizens. “How can I possibly release this burden,” I wondered. A pro bono lawyer came to defend me, explaining that the investigation would take time. I waited patiently, confident that if conducted properly, the investigation would prove my innocence. I believed wholeheartedly that justice would prevail and did not feel nervous.

However, I soon discovered other interests working against me. During the investigative stage, the judge informed me that due to my financial status, I could not afford DNA counter tests. “It’s not like buying a strip of bread; this is paid in dollars,” he remarked. 

I began to believe the system needed someone like me, someone poor and without an education, to carry the guilt of another man’s crime. Either they could not or did not want to find the true perpetrator. Intense anger surged inside me, and I vowed to do everything possible to establish my innocence. People who knew me, those I worked for over the years, raised funds to help me.

In 2014, the trial finally arrived, marking the moment I finally met the father of one of the murdered girls. Apprehensive about his perception of me, I tried to put myself in his shoes, imagining what it would feel like if I met someone accused of killing my child. I knew I would harbor hatred toward that person.

To my surprise, I encountered a calm and intelligent man who opened his eyes and watched with clarity as events unfolded. Sitting there, I turned my head and met his gaze. He encouraged me with a gesture, and I knew in that moment, he believed in my innocence. Eventually, when the judge acquitted me, that man celebrated, even amidst his own and my pain. I thanked God he saw something in me.

Court suddenly and without warning overturns acquittal and sentences man to life in prison

In the first trial I was acquitted and when the verdict came, a sense of pure relief washed over me. It did not feel like an explosion of happiness, but rather a quiet belief life would return to normal. “This is finally over,” I thought. When I arrived home in San Lorenzo, my boss awaited me at my house and offered me my job back, despite being in prison for almost three years.

Other offers came my way illustrating the community’s trust in me, but little did I know, the nightmare simply went dormant. A year and eight months after my release, as I made my way home from work to have lunch with my family, an announcer on the radio made a shocking declaration. “Santos Clemente Vera will be sentenced to life imprisonment,” he said.

It felt like a bomb exploded. I hastily called my lawyer, who shared my surprise. He assured me they couldn’t convict me after an acquittal. Two tense and sorrowful hours passed, and I felt far worse than the first time. After my initial arrest, the prosecutors had an accusation to prove. Now, a life sentence hung over my head, despite my innocence.

At 3:00 p.m., the police cars arrived. Leaving my son in my brother’s care, I assured him I would return. It took nearly eight years for me to set foot in my house again. Back in prison, enclosed in those drab, grey walls, the days merged into an ongoing monotony. The fields and hills of my home and the chirping of the birds gave way to the constant clamor of prison life. The persistent screams, thunderous sounds of heavy bars opening and closing, and the distinctive smell of confinement enveloped me.

For years, my son set a place at the table for me

Despite the horrific turn of events, I never once believed I would die behind bars. I remained steadfast in my belief that my time would come; I would step out of those doors and once again taste freedom. I vocalized that conviction often and some of my fellow inmates bellowed with laughter. They deemed me crazy. Nevertheless, I clung to my innocence and implored God to intervene because my faith in the justice system had vanished.

[With help from his lawyer, the Innocence Project, and support from the victim’s family] on Monday, December 11, 2023, the long-awaited moment finally arrived. Days earlier, the court overturned my sentence, condemned the ruling, and set me free.

Seeing my wife and kids there waiting for me, I felt so grateful for their faith and patience. Reporters swarmed around me, eager to hear me speak and express my feelings. Despite my desire to be cordial, I simply wanted to go – to hug my kids and get home to everyone waiting for me.

My family never let me go. When the Argentinian court first imprisoned me, my oldest son was just a baby, and my other children came into the world over the following years. Every meal, my oldest son set an extra plate on the table for me. He would pour soda in a glass and declare, “This is for dad.”

Now that I’m home, my children remain by my side throughout the day, always close. We explore the hills, visit the nearby streams, and play together. We are never apart, even for a moment. Despite everything, I feel like a blessed person knowing my family waited for me at the end of this path.

Gazing into my garden, I listen to my children’s laughter and savor my freedom

Adapting to my newfound freedom does present occasional challenges. One day, while instructing my son to clean his room, a word slipped from my lips. “Clean your cell,” I said. The moment the word left my mouth an immense pain consumed me.

I recoiled at the idea of bringing that darkness into my home and burdening my family. Yet, my wife came forward and offered me a comforting hug. It was the very solace I needed in that moment. Today, with our family whole again, I focus solely on the future. I see no point in dwelling on the painful and ugly past; of my time in the courts and in prison.

Today, I embrace my children often and I find my true happiness immersed in the life of my family. I can grasp the freedom that I yearned for, for so long. As I stand here, peering into my hillside garden, I see the city of Salta sprawling out before me.

A free man, I listen as the laughter of my children echoes joyfully through the air while they run around. My wife brews a cup of mate and we sit together, savoring the taste. I am free.

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