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One Year Later, Family Attorney Discloses that Harvard Graduate Student Rodrigo Ventocilla Died by Suicide

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
By Miles J. Herszenhorn, Crimson Staff Writer

Rodrigo Ventocilla Ventosilla, the transgender Harvard Kennedy School student who died last year in police custody in Indonesia, died by suicide after overdosing on prescription medicine, a lawyer for Ventocilla’s family said on Tuesday.

The disclosure by the lawyer, Julio Arbizu González, confirms an account by police in Bali that Ventocilla died after consuming unseized drugs while in custody.

Arbizu, in audio messages sent in response to questions from The Crimson, offered new details about the case, including that Ventocilla, who was a citizen of Peru, and his spouse, Sebastián Marallano, had left a suicide note. Marallano also consumed the drugs but survived.

The case is still under investigation by the Peruvian prosecutor’s office, which is analyzing the suicide note, according to Arbizu. The note has not been made public.

While police in Bali have denied all allegations of abuse, Ventocilla’s family insist that the couple were driven to suicide after they suffered physical and psychological violence at the hands of Indonesian authorities.

“The family (and the defense) have the thesis that the degrading treatment generated that consequence,” Arbizu wrote in a statement in Spanish on Tuesday.

Ventocilla, who was a prominent trans rights activist in Peru, died at a hospital in Denpasar on Aug. 11, 2022, five days after he was arrested at the airport in Bali by Indonesian authorities for allegedly possessing items containing marijuana.

Ventocilla’s family has alleged that his arrest was motivated by racism and transphobia. Ana Ventosilla, Ventocilla’s mother, said in an interview with The Crimson last year that he was beaten while in police custody.

Venotcilla and Marallano were traveling to Bali for a honeymoon vacation. Ventocilla was due to return to HKS in September 2022 for his final year as a master’s student in public administration in international development.

From the outset, police in Bali have maintained that Ventocilla, 32, died after consuming unseized drugs while in custody. In statements to The Crimson, Stefanus Satake Bayu Setianto, a spokesperson for the Bali Police, repeatedly denied allegations of police violence.

Arbizu also said that Ventocilla’s family believes inadequate medical attention in the hospital contributed to his death. Marallano received “preferential treatment” after the couple were hospitalized but Ventocilla did not, according to Arbizu.

The attorney did not provide any additional details about the medical treatment received by Ventocilla and Marallano. The family has stated that their allegations and account of Ventocilla’s arrest and hospitalization are based on what they learned from Marallano after they returned to Peru from Indonesia.

The lawyer’s disclosure, made days after the first anniversary of Ventocilla’s death, corroborated the official police report that Ventocilla died from an overdose, but still left more questions than answers about what happened in Bali last year.

It remains unclear how Marallano and Ventocilla were in possession of prescription drugs while in police custody. Police in Bali have also not explained why Marallano was detained by authorities.

Ventocilla’s family is waiting for the results of an official inquiry led by the Peruvian prosecutor’s office, according to Arbizu, who has expressed some frustration with the pace of the investigation.

“It’s going very slowly,” Arbizu wrote in a statement.

Arbizu’s announcement that Ventocilla and Marallano attempted suicide in police custody and left behind a note is one of the few new details to emerge since the investigation was launched in August 2022.

An autopsy performed by Peruvian authorities on Ventocilla’s body in September yielded inconclusive findings, according to a report from the Peruvian Public Ministry obtained by The Crimson late last year.

Arbizu has suggested that Indonesian authorities delayed releasing Ventocilla’s body to make it more difficult for authorities to perform a legal autopsy. Ventocilla’s body was returned to Peru three weeks after his death.

“I believe that in the case of the Indonesian authorities it is more than a mistake, more than an error,” Arbizu said in November. “We believe that what the Indonesian authorities actually did was deliver a body that was going to be difficult to undergo a legal autopsy.”

Bayu Setianto, the Bali Police spokesperson, wrote in a November statement in Indonesian that “the handling of the case against Peruvian citizens is in accordance with the SOP [standard operating procedure] carried out by investigators.”

Ventocilla’s family and friends gathered on Aug. 11 in Lima, Peru, to mark the first anniversary of his death with a church service and celebration of life ceremony, as Ventocilla’s family continues to search for answers about the circumstances surrounding his death.

Marallano, Ventocilla’s spouse, told the crowd in Spanish at the ceremony that it is unfair they are all mourning Ventocilla’s death — when the attendees should have instead been celebrating Marallano and Ventocilla’s “big, queer wedding in the Lima Cathedral.”

In a video of Marallano’s speech posted on the Instagram account for Diversidades Trans Masculinas, a trans rights advocacy organization co-founded by Ventocilla, Marallano remembered how Ventocilla would respond to people who said he would never succeed in life because he was transgender.

“He would tell them, ‘I will succeed, I will become the first transgender president of Peru,’’ Marallano recalled. “That’s how he told it to me.”

“Rodrigo changed lives,” Marallano added. “He changed lives and not just mine.”

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

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