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Argentina: Repression Made Easy


“Yes, to win power, whether legally or illegally, one needs to have left by the roadside a large part of one’s ideological baggage and to have got rid of all one’s moral scruples. And then, once in power, the big problem is how to stay there. One needs to create a joint interest in the new state of affairs and attach to those in government a new privileged class, and suppressing any kind of opposition by all possible means. An established government, founded on the passive consensus of the majority and strong in numbers, in tradition and in the sentiment – sometimes sincere – of being in the right, can leave some space to liberty, at least so long as the privileged classes do not feel threatened. A new government, which relies for support only on an often slender minority, is obliged through necessity to be tyrannical. This is why we are neither for a majority nor for a minority government; neither for democracy not for dictatorship. We are for the abolition of the gendarme. We are for the freedom of all and for free agreement, which will be there for all when no one has the means to force others, and all are involved in the good running of society. We are for anarchy.”

Errico Malatesta, “Neither Democrats, nor Dictators: Anarchists”

In 1926 Errico Malatesta wrote in the anarchist publication Pensiero e Volontà that democracies act universally to suppress any kind of opposition. Anarcho-communist Errico Malatesta lived in Argentina from 1885 until 1889. Malatesta had exiled to Latin America from Italy where he was persecuted as a political prisoner. He worked fervently to instigate activities within the labor organizations and trade unions in his adopted home. The tireless organizer helped in founding the Bakers Union, the first militant workers’ union in Argentina. Malatesta, undoubtedly formed part of the legacy of labor resistance and the fight against state repression in South America.

At just a month before mid-term elections the national government of President Nestor Kirchner has started a new campaign to get tuff on protests. The institutionalization of violence is not a new phenomenon in Argentina’s political arena, with a police and security (coast guard/border guard) force left over from the last military dictatorship (1976-1983).

President Kirchner has adhered to Malatesta’s hypothesis that democracies can leave a small margin for liberty, but only when the privileged classes can safely maintain power. Since Kirchner stepped up to the presidential office in May 25, 2003 he’s made a number of gestures in favor of human rights. The most recent was the Supreme Court ruling that two laws shielding military officers who committed human rights violations as unconstitutional. However with growing dissent from the right-wing during the upcoming elections, Kirchner quickly changed his discourse on human rights.

“This government says that it’s progressive, but it’s taken actions that haven’t been taken since the military dictatorship,” said Roberto Pianelli, subway worker and union delegate. Kirchner’s administration has taken on a hardline position to confront growing demands among the working class for better wages and that the public health care and education be preserved. For the past month the national government has deployed more than one thousand police officers and national border guards throughout Buenos Aires to prevent protestors from marching to the Plaza de Mayo. Public health workers from Garrahan children’s hospital, who’ve been striking for weeks lead the marches with other unionists and unemployed worker organizations. Garrahan staff are demanding a eighteen hundred (1,800) peso salary equivalent to 600 US dollars. Unemployed workers organizations’ main demand is an increase in 1.6 million welfare subsidies to 350 pesos a month from the current 150 pesos or 50 US dollars.

“This is the first time since the military dictatorship that the government has blocked off Plaza de Mayo. The last time protestors were prevented from marching to the plaza was March 30, 1982,” said Pianelli. According to Pianelli, the government’s determination to get tough on social demands is a desperate response to social protests as a way to win votes from right-wing voters. During the last march on September 9th to protest against President George Bush’s upcoming visit in November, two journalists had to be hospitalized from police brutality. Police hit a photographer, ripping off part of his ear. The independent photographer said that the government is adopting a “palo facíl” or happy police baton policy. Since Kirchner took office there have been at least 229 cases of “happy trigger,” or police officers or security forces killing while on duty. Thirty percent of these deaths occurred inside prisons or police precincts, where torture and abuse are part of the justice system.

Institutionalized violence is part of every day life for the 5.2 million people in Argentina who can’t find adequate employment, half of the population that live in poverty and prisoners. Meanwhile, the government targets with direct political violence and new laws against workers who stand up to fight against this destiny.

For the workers at Tango Meat the political violence is very harsh and real. The conflict at Tango Meat, a meat packing plant in the Greater Buenos Aires district of Tigre began in July with the firings of union delegates demanding a wage increase for workers. Since the initial firings, workers have camped out in front of the plant’s entrance. The union went on strike to demand the re-hiring of workers with a wage increase. The management then fired all the workers, without paying back pay or indemnity. The workers in protest suspect that the owner of Tango Meat wants to shut down the plant for good and move operations to another facility. Daily, police and political lackeys threaten the meatpackers to abandon their camp. The conflict climaxed on September 12 at 3am when scabs with police protection tried to enter the plant. A police car tried to run over workers. They then got out of the police car attacking the workers with clubs, including women who were on night duty.

The very next day in the city center of Buenos Aires border guard cracked down on telecommunication workers protesting against flexible labor practices at an out-source company. Several protestors were left injured. In the northern province of Salta the coast guard evicted unemployed workers blocking off the Pan American Energy headquarters to demand work. Security officials shot tear gas, rubber bullets and live ammunition at protesters. Police arrested eight from the Union of Unemployed Workers. One had to be hospitalized after police beat him.

Even in soccer stadiums, police violence has gotten out of hand. Police shot and seriously wounded a professional soccer player from the San Martin Mendoza team. The police tried to control fans who got out of hand in the stadium. The player, Carlos Azcurra, was shot at point range in the chest with a rubber bullet. Doctors had to remove a third of his lung.

Although with increasing violent attacks, popular sectors celebrated a very special victory. After spending 14 months in prison without trial, 15 political prisoners detained during a protest in front of the Buenos Aires city legislature were released from their jail cells. Relatives and fellow activists fighting for their freedom waited for hours outside the courthouse for news on the judge’s decision, as defense lawyers argued for their release. Five of the prisoners had staged a hunger strike for over 20 days to press for their freedom – two had to be hospitalized.

“Walk in the streets Carmen, the entire block is yours,” yelled one of the supporters outside the court house. With her first breath in freedom Carmen Infran shouted , “I’m free!”

Between tears of emotion and embraces from friends and family, 15 political prisoners celebrated their freedom after 14 months of detention. The court’s decision for their release came as a surprise. For months the courts refused to release them on bail while awaiting trial.

Margarita Meira, a street vendor, walked out of the courthouse and told reporters that the conditions inside Argentina’s jail system are worse than the clandestine torture chambers used during the last military dictatorship.

“This was a political arrest. I’ve had two operations from lung cancer. I can’t throw a rock or hit anyone. The police invent a crime and then the judges approve the case. The jails are concentration camps for women. Women have to wait two years, three years and in some cases 10 years for their trial. If the president turned the Navy Mechanics School, a former Clandestine detention center into a museum for memory, he also has to hand in the jails because they are concentration camps. They kill women who have nothing.”

According to relatives and friends who campaigned for the prisoners’ release, police arrested easy targets to deter the poor from protesting. They also say that there is no evidence to identify the 15 as attackers among the 3,000 demonstrators who participated in the march. Meira was arrested while protesting with a group in defense of street vendors. However, plain clothed policemen picked her up as she was leaving a café close to the city legislature as the protest was ending. She went inside the use the bathroom.

Meira says she had been unemployed for more than 12 years and needed to sell goods on the street to support her family. She also runs a soup kitchen in the city neighborhood of Constitution. Police arrested the 15 during a protest turned violent in front of the Buenos Aires city legislature last July 16. Demonstrators attacked the building in protest of an anti-solicitation law that makes street vending a crime and prostitution outside of a red zone illegal.

The law also lowered the arrest age for minors to 14 and established legal restrictions for street protests. According to Carmen Infran, she lost part of her body and soul during her 14 months in a jail cell. Infran is part of AMMAR, Association of Argentine Women for Human Rights, an organization that works with women and transvestites in prostitution. Plain clothed police arrested Infran after the protest as she and another AMMAR member, Marcela Sanagua. Infran and Sanagua got off a bus to buy cigarettes and a soda at a kiosk.

“I left good compañeras, good people and that damn personal baggage. I left my life inside. A year of crying, of fighting and waiting for what is just,” said Carmen moments after her arrest.

During the military dictatorship Infran spent most of her youth in a jail cell for working as a prostitute. Inside prison, guards raped and tortured her and her cellmates. In a radio interview Infran gave only a week before her arrest, she said that she went to marches so that neither she nor her compañeras would suffer from further gender abuse inside the prison system.

Unfortunately for 28-year old Marcela Sanagua and the other 14 political prisoners history repeats itself. She did 14 months along with her two-year-old son for protesting against the code that makes prostitution outside of a red zone a crime. She said that she will continue to fight against the injustices that prisoners suffer inside the jail system.

Marcela said: “They have you thrown in a cell like a dog for three years. If you get sick in many cases you die because the good care is very poor. We can’t allow for justice to always remain on the side of the rich and that the poor are always discriminated against. Inside the prison system, 90 percent of us are poor and workers. The poor can’t be punished for just working. I want to go find my children, work and continue to fight.”

These 15 women and men will now begin to rebuild their lives in freedom. Some will complete probation while others may be summoned to trial on charges of aggravated conduct and kidnapping. Human rights lawyers expect courts to drop the case for lack of evidence.

Marie Trigona forms part of Grupo Alavío, video and direct action collective. She can be reached at [email protected]

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