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Harvard Graduate Student Rodrigo Ventocilla Dies After Alleged Police Mistreatment in Indonesia

Rodrigo Ventocilla Ventosilla, who died on Aug. 11 in Indonesia, was a student in the Harvard Kennedy School's Class of 2023.
Rodrigo Ventocilla Ventosilla, who died on Aug. 11 in Indonesia, was a student in the Harvard Kennedy School's Class of 2023. By Caleb D. Schwartz
By Miles J. Herszenhorn, Crimson Staff Writer

Leer esta noticia en español.

Rodrigo Ventocilla Ventosilla, a 32-year-old Harvard Kennedy School student from Peru, died on Aug. 11 while in police custody at a hospital in Denpasar, Indonesia, after he was allegedly mistreated and discriminated against by police.

Ventocilla, a transgender man and a prominent trans rights activist, was pronounced dead five days after he was detained for alleged drug possession upon his arrival in Bali, where he was traveling on a honeymoon vacation with his spouse. His family alleges he was arrested in an “act of racial discrimination and transphobia,” deprived of basic rights, and subjected to police violence while family members and lawyers were kept in the dark about his condition.

Ventocilla was a founding member of the Peruvian trans rights advocacy organization Diversidades Trans Masculinas. At the Harvard Kennedy School, he was pursuing a master’s degree in Public Administration in International Development as a member of the school’s Class of 2023.

Rodrigo Ventocilla Ventosilla died on Aug. 11 in Bali. He was 32.
Rodrigo Ventocilla Ventosilla died on Aug. 11 in Bali. He was 32. By Courtesy of the Harvard Kennedy School

In a statement released Tuesday, the families of Ventocilla and his spouse, Sebastián Marallano, called on the “Peruvian justice system to properly investigate the human rights violations of Rodrigo and Sebastian and to guarantee truth, justice and reparation.”

Harvard Kennedy School Dean Douglas W. Elmendorf said in a statement late Tuesday night that the school “supports the family’s call for an immediate and thorough investigation and for public release of all relevant information.”

“The statement from Rodrigo’s family raises very serious questions that deserve clear and accurate answers,” Elmendorf wrote.

The Bali Police have launched an investigation into his death, according to the Bali Sun, an English-language publication on the island, but it is unclear what the focus of the inquiry is or whether the results will be publicly released.

The Bali Police did not respond to requests for comment Tuesday.

Stefanus Satake Bayu Setianto, head of public relations for the Bali Police, previously told the Indonesian news outlet detikBali that Ventocilla died after consuming unseized drugs on Aug. 8 while he was in police custody. (Ventocilla was identified in local media reports by the initials VVRDP.)

“The cause of death is a complete failure of body function that causes impaired kidney function and impaired liver and nervous system function to the patient’s brain,” Stefanus Satake Bayu Setianto said, according to a translation of his statement to detikBali.

But in their statement Tuesday, Ventocilla’s family cast doubt on the police’s explanation, writing that “we do not know the real causes of his death” because “the Indonesian authorities have not allowed” for an independent autopsy.

Ventocilla was initially brought by authorities to Bhayangkara Hospital after experiencing stomach pain and vomiting, according to the Indonesian news outlet Radar Bali. After his condition deteriorated, he was transported to the Sanglah Central General Hospital, where he died on Aug. 11 at around 3:10 p.m. local time, according to Radar Bali.

Ventocilla’s family said in the statement that authorities in Bali were not transparent about his condition.

“The Indonesian police obstructed access to the hospital at all times to the lawyers hired by the family, as well as the Harvard students who came to their aid,” the family wrote.

Ventocilla was detained on Aug. 6 upon arrival at the I Gusti Ngurah Rai International Airport in Denpasar for possession of an herb grinder, according to the Bali Police and a Facebook post from Diversidades Trans Masculinas. The Bali Police also said authorities found other items suspected to contain marijuana and two pill tablets in Ventocilla’s luggage, according to Radar Bali.

Ventocilla’s family wrote in the Tuesday statement that he was arrested for possessing prescription drugs he used as mental health medication. Ventocilla and Marallano, his spouse, were deprived of “vital human rights such as health, freedom, access to legal defense,” the family wrote in the statement.

Marallano arrived in Bali on a separate flight and was detained by police without charge after attempting to help Ventocilla, according to the family’s statement, which was not signed by individual members.

Rodrigo Ventocilla Ventosilla, left, and his spouse, Sebastían Marallano.
Rodrigo Ventocilla Ventosilla, left, and his spouse, Sebastían Marallano. By Courtesy of the Ventosilla and Marallano Families

Marallano was also subsequently hospitalized days after being detained by police, the family statement said.

Police in Bali demanded “exorbitant sums of money” ranging up to $200,000 to free Ventocilla and Marallano, the family’s statement said.

Ventocilla’s family also took aim at Peruvian consular services in Indonesia, which they said “did not show up to provide support” until after the family received news of Ventocilla’s death.

“The consulate’s actions were late, negligent and hindered the family’s request for help when Rodrigo was still alive,” the family’s statement said.

The family called on the Peruvian Foreign Ministry to “assume its responsibility for neglecting its duties” and to conduct an investigation into “the actions and omissions” of Julio Eduardo Tenorio Pereyra, the head of consular services for the Peruvian Embassy in Indonesia.

“Nothing will give us back Rodrigo nor the integrity of Sebastian, however, our demand for justice and truth also pursues the objective of improving the quality of the service of assistance to our fellow citizens abroad without preferences of class, gender, ethnicity or others,” the family wrote in the statement.

The Peruvian embassy in Indonesia and the Peruvian Foreign Ministry did not respond to requests for comment regarding the family’s allegations Tuesday.

Elmendorf, the Harvard Kennedy School dean, said Tuesday the school received the statement from Ventocilla’s family describing “extremely disturbing circumstances surrounding Rodrigo’s death.”

“Harvard Kennedy School staff have stayed in close contact with Rodrigo Ventocilla’s family and have offered ongoing support as the family copes with this devastating ordeal,” Elmendorf wrote. “Rodrigo’s HKS classmates and HKS alumni in multiple countries have also provided vital assistance.”

Elmendorf and HKS Senior Associate Dean for Degree Programs and Student Affairs ​​Debra E. “Debbie” Isaacson announced Ventocilla’s death to HKS affiliates on Aug. 12. They wrote that his death is “a devastating loss for his family and friends, for all of us at the Kennedy School, and for the many people whom he undoubtedly would have served after graduation.”

“Rodrigo came to Harvard with a resolve to create positive change within his communities,” Elmendorf and Isaacson wrote on Aug. 12. “At the Kennedy School, he was a beloved member of the BIPOC and LGBTQ communities and organized opportunities to bring people closer together.”

Elmendorf and Isaacson said there would be a gathering in memory of Ventocilla.

“The School stands with all of Rodrigo’s friends and colleagues and with the LGBTQ+ community,” Elmendorf wrote Tuesday.

—Staff writer Miles J. Herszenhorn can be reached at miles.herszenhorn@thecrimson.com. Follow him on Twitter @MHerszenhorn.

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