Continuing Police Repression in Argentina

Buenos Aires, Argentina

At 9 months since police killed two young piquetero activists, Darío Santillan and Maximiliano Kosteki, June 26, human rights groups say that activists are experiencing a reactivated government and media campaign to instill fear and begin a repressive offensive.  Strong police force and discrediting of social movements are at the heart of what activists consider a state terror campaign against protests and the poor. 

The massacres of December 19 and 20, 2001 ending with 33 deaths and the murders of June 26 reveal how far the state will go with crusades to control the streets.  Many activists are concerned that heavy police presence during street actions is part of a campaign to provoke violence during non-violent actions and create the illusion that piquetero groups are national security risks. 

Since the mid-1990s the piqueteros, as the unemployed workers movement is known have been organizing throughout the country in response to joblessness.   Today in Argentina’s most marginalized neighborhoods, piquetero community projects have blossomed-bakeries where bread is sold at cost, community gardens, clothes donation and repair, copa de leche where a cup of milk is given to children each afternoon, and community kitchens.  They also blockade roads to demand resources for these projects, welfare plans, and jobs. 

Tense standoffs between police and piqueteros in the past months have followed with government officials publicly announcing that they will not tolerate protests blocking transit and "hard-line" piquetero groups.  On February 19, police blocked piqueteros for 10 hours from marching to the Ministry of Welfare to demand social programs be reinstalled.  After the standoff, Clarín, Argentina’s largest daily, headlined, "Violent Hard-line Piqueteros," and published Chief of Cabinet, Alfredo Atanasof’s statement,  "we are going to continue pushing dialogue and isolate violent groups." 

Hard-line piqueteros’ continued road blockades signify a rejection of corrupt politics and institutions responsible for Argentina’s poverty.  The government is pushing hard to convince the public that because piqueteros are potentially violent they don’t have the right to protest.

The Federal Government reopened a judicial case late February accusing piqueteros of threatening national security during the events of June 26, stating, "what happened June 26 indicates an escalation of violent acts that threatens public order, the lives of the public and the overthrow of constitutional powers."  Claudio Pandolfi, lawyer with National Coordinator against Police and Institutional Repression (Correpi) and trying the double homicide case of the 26 denounced the government’s accusation as an attempt to reactivate a terror campaign against the unemployed hoping that the public will distance itself from the popular movement.  Mariano Bacheco from piquetero group, Movimiento Trabajadores Desocupados (MTD), Aníbal Verón suggests, "they always need a phantom to justify repression, it has to have some cause, the supposed cause is us, ‘the violent who don’t want democracy and generate chaos’."

"While there’s no resources for education and health, while social plans fall and malnourished children die, the Federal Police receive 16 million pesos annually for the business of security," reads María del Carmen Verdú, lawyer with CORREPI during a march denouncing government repression and commemorating 5 months since the deaths. 

As the IMF says, "no more social spending," delegates applaud President Duhalde’s position "to make security a priority."  Minister of Security, Justice and Human Rights, Juan Jose Alvarez argues that the fear that protesteros may be violent is the reason for devoting more financial resources to increase police presense.  "In this financial situation of the government, the few resource we are able to control we intend to allocate to the security forces to give them minimum equipment to confront protests."  The Buenos Aires city government late February signed an agreement with the Federal Police allocating 6.45 million pesos for the purchase of fire arms, vehicles and computers.

Delia Garcilazo de Ríos, whose son was killed by prison guards while in prison 10 years ago has worked with CORREPI for six years and forms part of an association of family members of victims of police violence.  She reflects, "Police repression and low salary are forms of having social control.  When the people ask for things in a blockade or in a march and there’s a kid who breaks a window, we are violent.  But I ask what’s more violent, a youth dying of starvation, a kid being shot from behind, or if we break a window?  A window is a material thing, you can fix it, life you can’t ever get back."  

Many like Delia Garcilazo have increasing concerns of government’s attempts to use a hard hand against activists pressuring the government to respond to the needs of some 57% living below the poverty line.  In this past month there has been a series of police repression.  Police brutally repressed 89 families residing in Padelai, an abandoned building occupied for 19 years that sits in historic San Telmo during a government ordered eviction. Residents and supporters were tear gassed, shot with rubber bullets and beaten. There were some 86 detained and 40 injured, among them minors and elderly.

In the midst of crisis and repression, Argentina has been the breeding ground of some of the most innovative, inspiring examples of community organizing.  Around the nation, workers are taking abandoned factories and creating jobs and community activists occupy vacant spaces to feed hundreds of people a day.  Rather than supporting community initiatives to cope with poverty, the government ignores these accomplishments and is criminalizing these acts.

Neka Jara, organizer from MTD, Solano acknowledges, "The government is showing strong signs that repression and criminalizing are taking a more offensive appearance."  There are fears among many Argentines that today’s discrediting and criminalizing of the piqueteros and other social movements will allow tomorrow’s repression. 

Marie Trigona is an independent journalist and activist currently based in Argentina.

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