In early January around 2,000 members of Argentina’s military-style border force – known as the gendarmeria – left the country’s second city of Rosario. They had arrived 9 months earlier, on April 9th, carried clandestinely into the city as part of an elaborate rouse involving a fake climate change conference. In a surprise display of force the local press justifiably described as “cinematic”, six helicopters hovered above while more than 80 raids were launched on known ‘bunkers’, the one room buildings that serve as illicit drug dispensers and are almost wholly located in the villas, the poor neighbourhoods that form a loose rim around the city centre. At the forefront of proceedings was the National Security Secretary, Segio Berni. “This was the largest operation in the history of Argentina, with the objective of pacifying the area of Rosario,” he told the press.
Since 2012 drug trafficking and violence have become issues of public debate in the city. The violence and the trafficking had been going on in isolation in the villas, separate from the affluent heart of the city, but the issue was forced into the public eye and onto the political agenda thanks to the dedicated work of the activist organisation Frente Popular Dario Santillan after three of its members were killed on New Year’s Day 2012 by a local drug gang who mistook them for rivals. Since a spike in mid-2010, violence has been spiralling upwards. The city’s homicide rate is now the highest in the country. Overwhelmingly, the victims are young men and boys; confrontations between rival gangs involved in the drug trade – generally small outfits, and often family-run – are considered to be behind a sizeable proportion of the deaths. In response, “insecurity” has become the buzzword among politicians and the media. It’s election time here at the moment and the posters blanketing every advertising space promise to combat insecurity, to bring back security, to make Rosario normal again. Official mentions of the root causes – poverty, exclusion, corruption – are rare. Policies designed to address them are even rarer. (I know an activist group that struggled for a year and a half just to have lights put above a football pitch so the kids in one villa could have something to do in the evenings.) The growing use of Argentina as a transit point for cocaine headed to Europe has increased the stakes and likely contributed to the violence, as have a provincial police force heavily involved in the trade and the lacklustre efforts of the judiciary and the government. But in the public mind, and according to government policy, the embodiment of insecurity, the cause and the consequence, is a drugged-up 16 year old with a gun (a forthcoming GDPO Situation Analysis will discuss the treatment of children here involved in the trade). “What these kids need,” local journalist, author, and political candidate Carlos del Frade told me, “is education, sport, art, activities. They don’t need the gendarmeria in the neighbourhood.” But that’s what they got.
It was something of an omen of things to come that while the mega-operation of April 9th looked impressive, the haul that day – 25 low-level actors involved in small-scale selling, “three guns, a couple of thousand dollars and some drugs”, quoting the former governor of the province – was less so. The gendarmeria continued the established trend of pursuing the lowest and most visible link in the trafficking chain. Over their 9 month stay they did reduce violence in certain areas of the city; when they were replaced by the provincial police, shootings resumed. Their presence also resembled an occupation and abuses were reported. A university study of one area found selling alcohol was not permitted after 10pm, shopping receipts needed to be kept at hand to show proof of purchase, youngsters were detained arbitrarily and prevented from gathering outside, and people riding motorbikes were constantly stopped and searched. Drug traffickers, local sources suggest, responded by selling more at night, and switching from ‘retail’ selling to ‘delivery’ – a text message is sent and a motorbike appears with the goods. After the bandage was ripped off in January the blood began flowing again – as would be expected.
Party politics is central to all this. When the gendarmeria were withdrawn, Berni, of the ruling Frente Para la Victoria party, could not resist using the opportunity to fire some parting shots at the Socialists who govern Rosario and Santa Fe. The Socialists blame the national government for not sealing up the borders and not acting on drug trafficking, which is a federal, not provincial crime. The national government blame local corruption. Both have a case. Berni rightly took some flak for politicising the issue, but this was merely an open recognition of what previous actions have made clear. Even major operations are largely reactive and serve to score political points: when the provincial government were impelled to move on the city’s biggest drugs gang two years ago, the national government sent their forces into the province to capture a powerful drug trafficker – “I’m caught in the middle of a political war”, he somewhat justifiably told the press. Nice rhetoric aside, the national government, which has sworn not to follow a War on Drugs approach, has done exactly that with the sending of the gendarmeria.
For now there are few signs things will improve. Post-gendarmeria, the public debate is focused on the narrow question of whether they should come back or not; the governor of the province, Antonio Bonafatti, is adamant they return. The national government seems to be enjoying watching their provincial rivals suffer. Not enough is being done or said, on a national or provincial level, about the conditions behind the violence and trafficking – present in many cities across the country – or about the corruption in the police, the judiciary and the government; some local experts are incensed the provincial government didn’t use the breathing space provided by the national forces to overhaul the notoriously corrupt police force. The short term seems to be the sole consideration for parties focused on upcoming elections. “The long term exists only for theoretical dalliances,” remarked a local columnist while discussing the dominance of the “security” issue within local political campaigns. But serious, sustained programs designed to address deep-rooted issues are imperative if the many youngsters growing up in the villas who feel helpless and excluded and angry, who have lost a sense of value for life, are to have a better future than the one offered to them today. Youngsters like 23 year old Pablo Martinez, who died this February while playing russian roulette.
By Ross Eventon