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Latin America News Roundup: 15th April 2014

Family and friends mourn victim of clashes between militias and army (photo: AFP/Alfredo Estrella/Télam/aa)

Family and friends mourn victim of clashes between militias and army (photo: AFP/Alfredo Estrella/Télam/aa)

Mexico – Vigilante Groups Agree Disarmament Plan With Government: The Mexican government yesterday agreed on an 11-point plan with vigilante groups to disarm and normalise the situation in the state of Michoacán. Representatives of the so-called ‘autodefensas‘ agreed to hand over large calibre weapons before a deadline of 10th May. Between now and then, the vigilante groups and government authorities will engage in dialogue over the problem of organised crime in Mexico, and how to combat it together. One possible solution to be discussed further is the creation of a special State Rural Police Force, in which the vigilantes can protect their communities legally. Around 30 of the 113 municipalities in Michoacán have been taken over by the autodefensas, which formed last year as a response to rising violent crime perpetrated by local drugs cartels.

Nicaragua on Maximum Alert as Earthquakes Continue: The government in Nicaragua has put the whole country on “extreme red alert” over the possibility of a major earthquake. The country has been rocked by three moderate earthquakes since Thursday last week, leaving two dead and several injured. There have also been over 300 of smaller tremors, according to the Institute of Territorial Studies (Ineter), with authorities fearing that they could reactiviate a fault that caused a catastrophic earthquake in 1972 that killed thousands. The government has evacuated some 1,500 people from the capital Managua, and set up a number of tent shelters and field hospitals in anticipation of a potential emergency situation. There is also concern about heightened activity in the Apoyeque volcano, which could cause further earthquakes in the area.

Nísio Gomes, a Guarani shaman shot dead by gunmen in Brazil in 2011 (Photo courtesy of Survival)

Nísio Gomes, a Guarani shaman shot dead by gunmen in Brazil in 2011 (Photo courtesy of Survival)

Report Shows 80% of Environment Activist Killings Occur in Latin America: A new report by Global Witness says killings of environmental activists have increased sharply in recent years, with Latin America the most affected area. According to the report, entitled Deadly Environment, at least 908 people were killed protecting the environment or land rights between 2002 and 2013, with the death rate rising to two activists per week in the last four years. Over 80% of these killings took place in Latin America, with Brazil (448) and Honduras (109) topping the world rankings. Five other Latin American countries – Peru, Colombia, Mexico, Guatemala, and Paraguay – feature in the top ten countries with most killings, with the vast majority occurring after 2009. The report calls for urgent action to “challenge impunity of perpetrators, protect citizens, and address root causes of the environmental crisis.” In only 1% of the known cases has the perpetrator been convicted, while the report adds that the actual number of deaths is likely to be much higher than the figure presented due to a shortage of information. Tensions over land rights have increased throughout Latin America as the agriculture and mining industries advance into new territories. Local towns and villages – often indigenous communities – have faced violence and intimidation if they resist the exploitation of their land. In the most recent incident, last week, land rights activist Jesús Quinto was killed in Colombia.

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Argentina News Roundup: 15th April 2014

Buenos Aires Subte (photo courtesy of Wikipedia)

Buenos Aires Subte (photo courtesy of Wikipedia)

Judge Orders Modifications to Subte Fare Plan: Buenos Aires judge Elena Liberatori today ordered modifications to subte price plans for multiple-journey tickets introduced last month when the basic fare rose from $3.50 to $4.50. Liberatori ruled that the fare for a single journey could remain at $4.50 but that a ticket for 20 journeys should cost $85 ($4.25 per journey). Further discounts for multi-journey tickets will remain in place: a 30-journey pass will cost $126 ($4.20 per journey), one for 40 journeys $157 ($3.94 each), and for 50 journeys $184 ($3.68 each). However, Liberatori ordered the removal of any expiry date on these multi-journey tickets. Finally, the judge ruled that subte travel on weekends and public holidays will count towards a passenger’s reward scheme for regular use. Under the current system, a commuter using the subte twice every working day would only qualify for the maximum savings on three months of the year, due to public holidays.

Today’s ruling comes after Buenos Aires city legislator Alejandro Bodart had filed an appeal against the fare hike in March, and the city government was ordered to modify the pricing system to account for “inconsistencies”. Bodart had requested the fare be returned to $3.50 and today said the ruling was “insufficient”, adding that he would present another appeal tomorrow because the city government had not properly justified the fare hike.

New Regulations for Motorbike Passengers in Security Crackdown: Motorcycle passengers in the province on Buenos Aires will be obliged to wear a helmet and reflective jacket marked with the bike’s number plate, as part of efforts to clamp down on crime. The new measure was introduced by governor Daniel Scioli yesterday and came into effect today. Failure to comply with the regulation will be considered a “serious offence” and could result in confiscation of the vehicle or driving license. “This is a road safety measure, but above all targets a new style of crime committed by motorcycle passengers,” explained Alberto Pérez, cabinet chief for the provincial government. The move comes as part of governor Scioli’s ‘security emergency‘ programme, declared after a wave of lynchings put the spotlight on crime and security in the province.

President Fernández presents new bill to combat informal labour (photo: Maximiliano Luna/Télam)

President Fernández presents new bill to combat informal labour (photo: Maximiliano Luna/Télam)

New Bill Targets Informal Labour Market: President Cristina Fernández de Kirchner yesterday presented a new law aimed at reducing informal labour that will be sent to Congress. The aim of the bill is to bring around 650,000 workers into the formal labour market over the next two years through a combination of incentives, especially for small companies, to register staff and stricter controls. According to the proposal, companies with fewer that five employees will receive a 50% deduction in employer contribution payments. All private companies that hire new workers will receive similar benefits for two years, with the deduction ranging from 25% to 100% depending on the size of the business. Presenting the bill, President Fernández said that working in the informal market is “the second biggest problem for workers, the first is not having a job.” Labour Minister Carlos Tomada said the bill would deliver a “final blow” to informal labour. “We want to intensify the fight [against informal labour] and so we are providing tools so that employers do not deny workers their rights,” said Tomada in a radio interview earlier today. Under the initiative, the Labour Ministry will have authority to supervise the application of labour laws. At present, provincial governments are responsible for regulating labour conditions, but according to Tomada, lack the resources to carry out controls. According to official statistics, approximately a third of the working age population are in the informal labour market.

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Latin America News Roundup: 8th April 2014

President Nicolás Maduro (photo courtesy of Venezuelan government)

President Nicolás Maduro (photo courtesy of Venezuelan government)

Venezuela – Government and Opposition in ‘Exploratory’ Meeting: Representatives of the opposition are meeting today with the government to discuss the protests and violence that have plagued the country since February. Under the mediation of the Union of South American Nations (Unasur), the main opposition coalition, the Mesa de Unidad Democrática (MUD) agreed to meet with President Nicolás Maduro to explore the possibility of engaging in dialogue going forward. Among the issues to be discussed in the search for a resolution to violence are the levels of insecurity in the country, the state of the economy, armed groups called ‘colectivos’, and an amnesty law for those arrested in recent weeks. Earlier on Twitter, Vice President Jorge Arreaza said the government was ready to listen to the demands of opposition governors and mayors from around the country, and prepared to approve two special requests from each of them.

Mexico – Surge in Violence in State of Tamaulipas: A spike in violence between organised criminal groups has left at least 19 dead since Sunday, according to official reports. Fourteen people were killed on Sunday alone after gun battles in the cities of Tampico and Maduro, on the border with the US. The region is home to the Gulf and Los Zetas cartels, and the spike in violence comes after a series of police and army raids to capture leading members of both. According to Governor Egidio Torre Cantú: “These acts of violence are the results of actions we are undertaking as part of our fight to restore peace to the region.” Meanwhile, in the southern state of Michoacán, the vigilante groups called ‘autodefensas‘, are protesting efforts by the government to disarm them. Spokesman for the vigilantes, José Manuel Mireles, said the group demanded the dismissal of the security commissioner Alfredo Castillo and the withdrawal of the army and navy forces. President Enrique Peña Nieto said the government would restore security to the state “whatever the cost”.

Uruguay – Teachers in 24-Hour Strike Over Hours and Wages: Secondary school teachers in Uruguay today held a 24-hour strike in a dispute over unassigned hours and unpaid wages. The National Federation of Secondary Teachers (Fenapes) and the Association of Secondary Teachers (Ades) led the measure today, which included a march and the occupation of the Secondary Board for several hours this afternoon. “There are 40,000 unassigned hours and 1,000 teachers without work,” said Fenapes secretary general José Olivera. “All of this is to do with management problems.” Education minister Ricardo Ehrlich, however, said he did not understand the “radical” measure, especially as dialogue was ongoing.

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Argentina News Roundup: 8th April 2014

Susana Trimarco (Photo: Natasha Ali)

Susana Trimarco (Photo: Natasha Ali)

Long Prison Sentences for Ten Convicted in Marita Verón Case: Judges in Tucumán today handed prison sentences for the ten people convicted of the kidnapping and sexual exploitation of Marita Verón. The harshest sentences of 22 years were given to brothers José and Gonzalo Gómez, considered the leaders of the organisation that captured Verón and forced her into prostitution. Daniela Milhein and Alejandro González, found guilty of holding Verón prisoner in their house, received 18 years each. Carlos Luna, Cynthia Gaitán, Domingo Andrada, María Márquez, Juan Derobertis and Mariana Bustos, all considered “necessary participants” in the crime, received sentences ranging from 10 to 17 years. “I was hoping for more, but we achieved some justice today,” said Susana Trimarco, Verón’s mother, after the verdict. “We are going to keep fighting until the day we know what they did with her.”

The tribunal was ordered with delivering the sentence by the Supreme Court of Tucumán, which in December partially overturned an original ruling to acquit all defendants. Verón disappeared on 3rd April 2002, when she was 23, in the provincial capital San Miguel de Tucumán. Sex workers in prostitution rings have spotted her in several locations in the country, including La Rioja, Tucumán and Córdoba, according to reports.

Proposal to Investigate ‘Economic Collaboration’ During Dictatorship: Legislator Héctor Recalde introduced yesterday an initiative to investigate civilian and business collaboration with the military during 1976-83 dictatorship. The bill, which is supported by the Centre for Legal and Social Studies (CELS) and the National Securities Commission, proposes establishing a bicameral commission to identify “those that collaborated with the dictatorship, and from which companies.” It calls for an in-depth report about the consequences of the economic, monetary, industrial and commercial policies of the dictatorship, and those who where complicit in their application. If approved, the report will be presented 180 days after the commission is created, and will pass any suspected illegal activity onto the judiciary to begin proceedings. Julián Domínguez, president of the Chamber of Deputies, said the bill would allow the country to discover “the civil face of the worst dictatorship in our country,” adding that over 600 companies were illegally appropriated by state terrorism during the period.

Heavy Rains Leave Flooding and 3,000 Evacuated Across Argentina: Days of heavy rains have caused flooding and damage across much of Argentina, with around 3,000 people evacuated. Neuquén remains the worst affected province, with up to 1,500 still evacuated as more rain last night added to damage caused over the weekend. The provinces of Río Negro, Entre Ríos, Catamarca, Santiago del Estero, Santa Fe, Chubut and Córdoba were also hit hard by recent storms, resulting in flooding and landslides. In the province of Buenos Aires, 100 people were evacuated after the Luján river burst its banks, while a collapsed road left a 40m crater in Ramos Mejía, west of the capital. In the city of Buenos Aires, which suffered mild flooding overnight, a lightning strike hit an empty LAN plane at the Jorge Newberry airport, injuring one maintenance worker. The bad weather has now moved on for much of the affected areas, though the National Meteorological Service maintains an alert for further rains in Río Negro, and parts of Neuquén and Chubut this afternoon.

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Latin America News Roundup: 7th April 2014

Luis Guillermo Solís (photo via Wikipedia)

Luis Guillermo Solís (photo via Wikipedia)

Costa Rica – Luis Guillermo Solís Wins Landslide Presidential Runoff: Historian and academic Luis Guillermo Solís, of the Partido Acción Ciudadana (PAC), easily won yesterday’s presidential runoff in Costa Rica. Solís received 77.8% of the vote, against 22.2% for his rival, Johnny Araya of the Partido Liberación Nacional (PLN), who had stopped campaigning in March due to opinion polls and a lack of funding. Absenteeism was at a 60-year high of 43.2%. The result puts an end to the recent dominance of the country’s two main political parties the PLN and the Partido de Unidad Socialcristiana (PUSC). Solís called for a “broad national debate” to transform the country. “I aim to, with God’s blessing and the support of everyone, make good the change that the people of Costa Rica demand.” Solís said he will name his cabinet next Monday, 14th April. Despite his strong mandate as president, Solís’ PAC party only holds 13 out 57 seats in the legislative assembly, while the PLN has 18.

Chile – Protests After ‘Hate Crime’ Victim Dies: Protests have erupted in Chile after Wladimir Sepúlveda died yesterday morning in a hospital in Rancagua, 90km south of the capital Santiago. The 21-year-old homosexual was brutally beaten and left in a vegetative state in October in what appears to be a hate crime. According to witnesses, Sepúlveda was walking home when he asked for a light off a group of six people, who started to call him names and then beat him. Chile’s Homosexual Integration and Liberation Movement (Movilh), who shared the news of his death via twitter, has called for the new Antidiscrimination Law, known as Ley Zamudio, to be used in the case. The law was passed after the murder of Daniel Zamudio, a 24-year-old who was attacked in March 2012 by four men in a park in Santiago, and violently beaten, tortured, and mutilated. However, so far prosecutors have refused to use the law in the case against Cristopher Morales Flores, the only person charged for the attack on Sepúlveda, who says he acted alone. In defending his decision not to enact the law in this case, Judge Pablo Aceituno called it “logical” that during a fight someone’s sexual orientation would be a cause for insults, and that this is not discrimination. Movilh has responded by calling for the Antidiscrimination Law to be reformed, and have the burden of proof be inverted, so that when minority groups were victims of such attacks, the defence must prove the crime was not a hate crime. Government spokesperson, Alvaro Elizalde, called news of Sepúlveda’s death “sad and painful”, and said: “We hope justice will do its job, clarifying the facts and applying the necessary sanctions.”

Prominent Venezuelan Journalist Kidnapped in Caracas: Nairobi Pinto, chief correspondent at TV news network Globovisión, was kidnapped yesterday at the entrance to her Caracas. Her father Luis Pinto confirmed today that three armed men attacked as Nairobi was bringing in shopping to the building. They threatened the family at gunpoint and then took Nairobi away in a blue van. “We have to put ourselves in the hands of the authorities, who have resolved these situations on many occasions,” said Luis. “We hope to have the same luck… I only ask the Almighty God to intervene and return my daughter to me safe and sound.” Kidnappings and crime are a big problem in Venezuela, especially in the major cities. In February, former world boxing champion Antonio Cermeño was kidnapped and murdered in Caracas.

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Editorial: On Lynchings, The Media, and Missed Opportunities

Editorial: On Lynchings, The Media, and Missed Opportunities

It began on 26th March. “18-year-old thief lynched by locals in Rosario dies”, read the headline in La Nación. The ‘thief’ was David Moreira, who succumbed to severe head injuries four days after being beaten by a mob of up to 50 people who accused him of snatching a handbag from a young mother in the street.

Lorena Torres, David Moreira's mother holds a photo of her murdered son (photo: Carlos Carrión / Indymedia)

Lorena Torres, David Moreira’s mother holds a photo of her murdered son (photo: Carlos Carrión / Indymedia)

In the days that followed, reports started coming in of similar incidents around the country. Then, on 29th March, a Twitter user gave a vivid account of another brutal mob attack on a suspected mugger in Palermo, catapulting the issue to the front pages and opening a national debate.

Analysing the causes and psychology of collective violence is beyond the scope of this article. But before the news cycle moves on, it’s worth reflecting on some of the things we have seen and heard over the last week, and adding a bit of context and perspective to the hyperbole.

Modern-day lynchings are not a new phenomenon, nor unique to Argentina

Lynchings are already an established phenomenon in other parts of Latin America, especially in Guatemala, which reported 488 cases (and 47 deaths) in 2013 alone. However, these typically take place in rural areas and display more ritualistic tendencies, such as dragging the victim to a symbolic public place and burning or torturing them. There are more lines of comparison between here and Brazil, where a similar national debate is underway after a 15-year-old boy was beaten, stripped, mutilated, and chained to a lamppost with a bike lock by a mob who accused him of stealing in a middle-class neighbourhood of Rio de Janeiro.

There is no official data on lynchings in Argentina, but one university study found 24 cases reported by the media between 1997 and 2008, while an online search reveals sporadic recent examples, including an almost identical case in November 2012 on the same corner where Moreira was murdered.

Experts signal that there are also likely to be other cases that are not reported at all. Sociologist Javier Auyero, co-author of ‘La violencia en los márgenes‘ (Violence in the margins) spoke on radio about how violent revenge attacks are not uncommon in the shantytowns and poor urban neighbourhoods, yet the press pay little attention. When it comes to crime and security, says Auyero, the media focuses overwhelmingly on that which affects the middle and upper classes, even though it is the poor that suffer from it most on a daily basis.

There is a disconnect between crime rates and the feeling of insecurity in Argentina

When Buenos Aires Mayor Mauricio Macri recently expressed relief that his daughter spent 2013 living in San Francisco, he probably had not checked that the murder rate was higher there last year than in Buenos Aires. Yet Macri is not alone: according to Latinobarometro, 35% of Argentines consider crime the biggest problem in the country, more than any other Latin American state except Venezuela and Uruguay, despite data suggesting it is relatively safe.

National crime statistics have not been published since 2009 – a major problem in itself – but in the province of Buenos Aires, the most populous and most affected by crime, the murder rate in 2013 was an estimated 9.7 (per 100,000 people). This is among the lowest in the region, according to UN data, with only Chile and Uruguay enjoying significantly lower rates. Even localised spikes in violence – the homicide rate in Rosario reached an alarming 22 last year – remain far below the worst affected urban areas of Brazil, Colombia, and most of Central America. The same UN report does show that Argentina has the highest rate of robberies in the region, though it has not changed significantly since 2005.

Rosario has seen a surge in violent crime related to drugs gangs (photo: José Granata/Télam/ef)

Rosario has seen a surge in violent crime related to drugs gangs (photo: José Granata/Télam/ef)

Argentine sociologist Gabriel Kessler, author of the book ‘El sentimiento de inseguridad’ (‘The feeling of insecurity’), says this disconnect comes from a mix of relatively high and risings rates of victimisation (the number of households that have been a victim of crime, mainly minor offences), and the media exposure of the most violent crimes and murders. This generates fear about the potential to be a future victim, centred especially on the arbitrary nature of street crime.

None of this is to deny the existence of violent crime or diminish the emotional impact it has on those who suffer its consequences. But a legal system exists precisely to strip emotion from the judicial process – everyone has a right to demand a better judicial system, but not to circumvent it. And if there is to be a considered debate on the problem, it should be based on objective reality and not a feeling of persecution.

Condemnation comes in shades of grey

One thing that has resonated is the public response to this outbreak of lynching attacks, today more visible than ever thanks to social networks. Opinions in newspaper comments and social networks range from outright rejection of violence to unashamed celebration at the death of a ‘criminal’. Of course, virtual anonymity tends to bring out extremist views, and there has also been a strong online campaign rejecting vigilantism under the slogan ‘No cuenten conmigo‘ (‘Don’t count on me’). Yet a softer version of this ‘uno menos‘ (one fewer) mentality seems to have at least a foothold in the social conscience: two separate surveys published late last week found that around 30% of respondents support the use of violence against suspected criminals.

Media pundits and public figures have been almost universal in condemning the lynchings, though this is often nuanced with understanding for those that took part in them. Meanwhile, subtle judgements are cast through the select use of language: the person being beaten to death remains the ‘criminal’ while the mob is made up of ‘locals’ who are taking ‘justice’ into their own hands. The word ‘murder’ is largely missing from the coverage of the Moreira case, even though at least two Supreme Court judges and several prosecutors have made it clear that this is the only way it can be treated by the law.

Efforts to empathise are also one-sided. Talk of social frustration, suffering, and injustice is directed at the ‘normal’ people who resort to brutality out of ‘desperation’. The background story and social context of the person they are beating is largely irrelevant – he is defined solely by his alleged criminal act, and disregarded as just another anonymous thug from the slums.

Lurking behind it all is an undercurrent of racism. Even though in Spanish, the translation ‘linchamiento‘ does not have the same connotations as the English original, there is a clear profile of the dark-skinned, cap-wearing criminal that is reinforced by the media. It is this type of stigmatisation that led to a group of taxi drivers in Rosario to chase down, shoot at, and beat up a young man on a motorbike last week because he looked like someone who had just robbed their office. If we are talking about the feeling of insecurity, what about those of a certain complexion who now have to fear being wrongly accused by an angry mob?

Talk about an ‘absent state’ is misleading

Politicians have also weighed in on the debate, with opposition leaders Sergio Massa (Frente Renovador) and Macri (PRO) quick to point the finger at an ‘absent state’, as though Alto Palermo were South Sudan. This media-friendly soundbite is designed to appeal to those who demand a quick solution to the problem of crime via more police, more prisons, and harsher sentences.

This call to get ‘tough on crime’ has been heard before. But the state has long contributed – through corrupt or abusive security forces – to the violence that exists in the marginalised areas most affected by crime. In 1999, ex-governor of Buenos Aires province, Carlos Ruckauf, boasted about how his police would “use bullets” on criminals, effectively legitimising a type of lynching in uniform. News this weekend of current governor Daniel Scioli’s knee-jerk declaration of a “security emergency”, and the reincorporation of 15,000 retired police officers, is not going to be comforting to all.

A protester outside a villa dresses up as the grim reaper in a police uniform (photo: Kate Stanworth)

A protester outside a villa dresses up as the grim reaper in a police uniform (photo: Kate Stanworth)

The demands for sterner punishments are also selective: last week, there was an outcry over the swift release of the adolescent who was allegedly caught stealing and ‘lynched’ in Palermo, but no one seemed too concerned in September after the acquittal of five men who took part in the beating to death of 15-year-old Lucas Navarro in La Matanza in 2010 after he attempted to rob one of them with a toy gun. Meanwhile, little is being said about the fact that no one has even been arrested for the murder of Moreira.

The real state deficit in these “factories of violence”, as Auyero calls the slums and impoverished suburban enclaves, is the failure to provide public education, social services, and work opportunities. Those who were cut adrift in the rampant neoliberal reforms of the ’90s and have not felt the benefits of the so-called ‘decade won’ under Kichnerism know more about injustice and helplessness than most. As the villa-based cooperative magazine La Garganta Poderosa surmised last week: if inequality does not justify anyone going out to steal, why do some claim that insecurity justifies some people going out to kill?

An opportunity is being missed

Amid tragic circumstances, there is an opportunity to discuss seriously the complex and sensitive issue of crime, justice, and security. However, this discussion needs to be balanced and without prejudices: if we are going to try and understand social violence, we need to examine all of it. If we only ask ourselves whether it is acceptable or not to lynch a certain type of criminal (no one is talking about lynching people who cause road accidents or businessmen who steal), it will inevitably reinforce stereotypes and social divisions.

A full debate cannot exist without more voices from the margins, like those of La Garganta Poderosa or César Gonzalez, the former teenage drug addict and mugger who is now a publisher and filmmaker, and perhaps the most powerful argument against those who support lynching. “The demand for more security is shared by all,” said Gonzalez on one radio show last week. “But it’s only a certain social sector that ends up getting beaten.”


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Aurora: Just Don’t Call it Burning Argentina

Aurora: Just Don’t Call it Burning Argentina

“Burn! Quema! Burn!”

It was the Monday night of the long carnaval weekend, and I was standing in a crowded soy field on the final night of Aurora, the first Burning Man-style event in South America.

Two hundred people, most from Buenos Aires, had made the 220 km trek to a secret lakeside location for a long weekend of art, music, and participation.

Over four days, people made kites, practiced yoga, drummed, cooked, feasted, swam, and made new friends. There were jujitsu demonstrations, two lavishly-costumed weddings and live music from all sides of the map: psychedelic rock to thrash metal to lush acoustic harmony. More than anything, there was buena onda, all weekend long. Like the North American counterpart, words can suggest the totality, but not fully describe it.

So how did three guys who have never been to Burning Man bring the gospel of the Ten Principles to Argentina? And how did they convince a random mob of strangers to spend their holiday weekend in a field in the middle of nowhere?

Ready to burn (photo courtesy of AurorA)

Ready to burn (photo: Jato.cheko Fotografía)

‘Someone Had To Do It’

Fernando Regalado, 33, heard about Burning Man years ago, working on a video shoot at Iguazu Falls. One night, over beers, an American in the crew opened his laptop and showed Regalado photos from Black Rock City. He was transfixed.

“Someone had to do it,” says Regalado, humbly dodging the critical fact: nobody did it, until they did.

Years later, he showed the photos to Mauricio Matheus, 35, at a party. If Fernando is Aurora’s brain, Matheus is the festival’s heart.

“In the city, everything is consumption and capitalism. People do not look into each others’ eyes,” he says, his deep brown ones locked on mine. “Everything is bad. Everyone thinking all the time about money. Outside of the city, in nature, people can be free. This is the moment. Transformation.”

To what? “Evolution of feelings, meaning. Here in Argentina, we complain all the time. We criticise, but we do not do. It is time to become a society of action. Everyone involved, everyone an artist.”

“Community,” adds Emiliano Gonzales Portino, the third and final member of the organising team. Two years ago, he left his well-paid advertising job to write and direct plays. He passed Regalado and Matheus, whom he had known years before, on a bike ride. He waved, they waved. A week later, he was in the countryside, scouting possible locations for the festival. “Bonding and joining in a real way. We cannot change the world, but we can help to change people.”

Fernando Regalado (photo courtesy of AurorA)

Fernando Regalado (photo courtesy of AurorA)

Numerous people wrote to ask what the lineup was, or what would happen there. Only what you bring, they were told. You will see whatever you build, create, dream up, without the usual tools and no sponsors. Everyone participating, no spectators. Everyone an artist, at any level, in any way.

It may have been just a camping trip, but… You talk to them and you believe. The world can change. Argentina can change. Everything is possible.

The Spark Begins

A bit of Burning Man background: from its chaotic start as performance artists on a camping trip, the North American event has evolved into a global, year-round organisation, henceforth referred to as BMOrg.

BMOrg is now an established institution, with more than 50 paid staff, offices, accountants and even lawyers. They also maintain a global network of regional contacts to spread the word, organise events, and keep in touch with Burners everywhere.

As their planning progressed, the Aurorans reached out to the local BMOrg contact, Martin Marquez. At two meetings in November, the trio described their dream, asked for connection to headquarters in the north, and invited him to participate.

Mauricio Matheus (photo courtesy of AurorA)

Mauricio Matheus (photo courtesy of AurorA)

Marquez, who also dreams of bringing ‘Burner’ culture to Argentina, did not think it was possible with a group that had never been to the main event, and were not schooled in the principles. “Leave no trace, gifting, these are not established concepts here. People may not be as open to strangers or offbeat art experiences,” he says. Also, in those early days, there were still plenty of organisational issues to figure out.

Marquez declined. The Aurorans forged ahead, regardless. It was a classic case of being told that you cannot do something, not believing it, and doing it anyway.

They surveyed various sites, always coming back to the lakeside near Bragado. There were problems: one visit the shoreline was dry, but the next, it was under water. A stand of trees was ideal for a shady gathering area, except that it was covered with thick, waist-high grass. They planned a late-night dance area far enough away from the main camp so that people could sleep, which meant that they needed a path between them.

Plus, they did not yet have a Man to burn – the ceremonial highlight of the event.

One by one, problems were solved. A month before the event, two people who read about it on Facebook, Ezekiel Harsanyi and Jato Cheko, appeared out of nowhere and offered to build a Wickerman. Bands asked how much they would be paid to play. They were told that they would not be paid, they would have to bring all of their own gear, and unfortunately, that the organisers were too cash-strapped to offer free tickets to musicians. The bands came anyway.

The core team arrived five days early, and worked morning until night, preparing the grounds for the event. Fabric was stretched between trees to create an outdoor cathedral effect. The grass was cut. Lights were strung, tents raised, and painted mannequins strewn across the landscape. A truckload of porta-loos arrived. Seven Red Cross volunteers set up a tent for on-site medical service. (The most serious injury was a finger cut while opening a can.)

Outside of camp, in the soy field, a circular clearing was cut. The Man rose.

Finally, cars began to bump down the rutted road and unload: portable parillas, vanloads of musical gear, projection equipment, martial arts mats. The first night, a psychedelic band played by the man. The Brits in the camp put on their raver gear. Drummers painted their faces. There were more musical instruments, it seemed, than people.

Aurora was on.

Aurorans (Photo: Jato.cheko Fotografía)

Aurorans (Photo: Jato.cheko Fotografía)

Over the next three days, there were bands (Vidrio, Van Daniken Experience, Las Casas) and homegrown music of all types. At least two new love affairs started and at least one Surreal Moment occurred per day: a freakily-dressed guy handed me a nut which looked wholly ordinary but, when cracked open, had a paper printed with a zen koan inside. A plane, out of nowhere, appeared over the soy and flew the length of the camp so low that I thought he might clip the tent tops. DJs played. Workshops. Hours with nothing to do but fly kites.

Don’t Call It Burning Argentina

The event was billed as both Aurora, and as ‘Burning Argentina’. The online post that caught my eye promised, “The very first Burning Man experience in South America.” The tag line worked. Had it been called anything else, I would never have sent an immediate email to the contact address with the Subject line: ‘Puede Ser?

Four days before the event, BMOrg caught wind of what was going on and had a few legal-sounding words for the organisers. This is not as Machiavellian as it may sound: one of BMOrg’s key functions is protecting the brand and reputation of Burning Man, and preventing unscrupulous third parties from cashing in on the name by selling t-shirts, jewelry, and other schwag with the BM name or logo.

When they heard about Burning Argentina, they sent what may be the world’s nicest cease-and-desist letter, requesting that the local organisers stop using the Burning Man name, logos, etc. They complied, and Aurora was born.

Aurora Vs Burning Man

Was Aurora like Burning Man of today? No. Do the organisers mind? Not one bit.

Burning Man draws 60,000 people, many of whom spend large parts of their year preparing for the event. The magnitude and variety of the art defies comprehension. The bigger dance domes dwarf the largest clubs in all of Argentina. Many attendees are bound to each other through years of history and self-invented tradition.

Yet Burning Man, too, was once small. When I first stumbled across the event, in the first of 14 visits, in 1991, there were approximately the same number of people as in Aurora.

The biggest difference was not green fields vs. desert, it was the lower level of ‘edge’. Missing were the guns, nudity, explosions, heroic drug consumption, overt danger, and deliberately amplified freakiness. One afternoon, at Aurora, a group of us went for a swim in the lake. Wearing swimsuits.

“Of course, it will be different,” says Regalado. “We are Argentines, not Americans. We think in limits.”

Emiliano Gonzales Portino (photo courtesy of Aurora)

Emiliano Gonzales Portino (photo courtesy of Aurora)

“We do not need people to be freaky,” adds Portino. “Some of that comes from ego, and we do not need that.”

Matheus, as he often does, sums it up: “We want people to explore, but also to be comfortable and loved. Besides, people need to learn. There are no role models for this here.”

To be fair, many of these activities have been ironed out of Burning Man, also. Genuinely dangerous activities are frowned upon, so guns, bombs, and late-night high-speed drives are banned. People use drugs, but the police presence is so heavy that overt displays, or accepting offers from a stranger, are out.

The Spark Lives On

Where do they see the event heading? On one hand, they do not want to reach too far, too fast. “I like small. I would not want it to grow too quickly. We are still learning lessons,” says Fernando.

Next year, there is talk of a large communal truck, which will make transporting elaborate camps and large scale art much more possible. As always, everything depends upon the people. The US event is a hodgepodge of overlapping groups: artists, builders, hippies, musicians, ravers, kinks, and queers. Will they all find their way to Aurora? If the organisers reach out to them, will they come? Does it even matter, in the early years, who shows up, as long as someone does?

The Nevada desert has a power to strip away pretense and embellishment, and lay bare what would otherwise remain disguised. A dramatic setting of that magnitude is not necessary, but it helps. Argentina is rich in deserts, but how far will porteños travel?

The Aurorans hope that people will take a bit of magic back to their everyday lives. It has already changed theirs. Nearly a month later, they are still smiling. Regalado and his wife have tickets for this year’s event in Nevada. Potino will attend Going Nowhere, one of the best of the regional events, this summer in Spain.

Before Aurora, they hoped that another world, where art replaced greed and people practised compassion instead of capitalism, might exist, even for a few days. Now, they know.

The Man Burns

On the final evening, drums sounded in camp. A slow, laughing procession ambled down the path, through the trees, and ended at the Man. Torches were lit. Firelight shimmering across their faces, the organisers approached their creation. Flames caught, paused, rose.

Gracefully, the Man burned.

Far to the north, this is the cue for wild abandon. Dancers whirl, drummers pound, eyes go starry with visions and, for many, it is the moment when the old year passes and the new year begins.

At Aurora, the crowd was unsure. Some cheered, some laughed. Everyone knew that this was ‘the moment’, that there was meaning, but not exactly what it meant. Finally, the figure fell and folks filtered back to the dance area or their camps. Following the bacchanalia of the two previous nights, the last evening was relatively quiet. Just before dawn, the rain began.

People huddled under tents in the grey light, sipped mate, stared at the rain, and packed. It was a quiet crowd, compared to the last few days, but a happy one.

By then, earlier questions no longer mattered: whether this was or wasn’t Burning Man, who you came with, who you knew before. It was Aurora, now. The first one ever.

I walked out, soggy and satisfied, with two people unknown to me a weekend earlier, but who were now friends.

Lead image by Jato.Cheko Photography.

Posted in Art, TOP STORY, Travel1 Comment

Latin America News Roundup: 1st April 2014

Costa Rica drought (photo: Manuel Kasper-Claridge)

Costa Rica drought (photo: Manuel Kasper-Claridge)

Costa Rica Votes to Protect Water as ‘Public Good’: The legislative assembly in Costa Rica voted last night overwhelmingly in favour of a new Water Resources Management Bill designed to regulate the use and control of water. The law, which requires a second vote, establishes water as a public good, and access to it as a basic human right. The bill will also create at National Water Directorate (DINA) to manage state control over water resources and prevent the privatisation and export of the good. The bill was developed as a popular initiative, after being originally presented by environmental groups that had gathered more than 150,000 signatures, equally 5% of the electorate. Costa Rica is vulnerable to rising temperatures, which could create major water shortages in the country’s northwest, according to the IPCC. Recent local studies highlighted the threat the the country could lose up to 85% of its drinking water supply in the next 50 years.

Bolivia – Government Postpones Mining Law Debate After Protest Deaths: President Evo Morales today ordered the suspension of a Senate debate over a new mining law after violent protests left two dead. “To avoid unnecessary and violent actions by mining co-operatives we have decided to postpone the debate over the new Mining Law,” said Presidential Minister Juan Ramón Quintana in a statement earlier today. Yesterday, mining cooperatives blocked major roads, including accesses to La Paz, in protest again a modification to the Mining Law, which has already been approved by the lower house of Congress. Violence erupted when security forces moved in to clear the roads, with two protesters shot dead and around 20 police officers injured. The new law would permit only the Bolivian state to sign contracts with private investors to exploit natural resources, effectively banning cooperatives – which have special tax benefits – from doing so. The independent mining sector, made up of approximately 100,000 miners, is a traditional ally of the Bolivian government.

Brazil – Work on São Paulo World Cup Stadium Suspended: Construction on the Arena Corinthians stadium in São Paulo has been halted “indefinitely” after the death of a worker on the weekend. The Regional Supervisory Office for Work and Employment in São Paulo state suspended construction work on two temporary stands at stadium after finding security flaws during an inspection earlier today. “We will only continue with the construction when there is a guarantee that workers can operate in safe conditions,” said the Supervisory Office representative Luiz Antonio Medeiros. On Saturday, Fábio Hamilton da Cruz became the seventh person fatality during construction work at world cup stadiums, and the third at the Arena Corinthians, which is scheduled to host the opening match on 12th June.

Posted in News From Latin America, Round Ups Latin America0 Comments

Argentina News Roundup: 1st April 2014

Supreme Court Justice Raul Zaffaroni (photo courtesy of Ariel Darder)

Supreme Court Justice Eugenio Raúl Zaffaroni (photo courtesy of Ariel Darder)

Widespread Condemnation After Wave of ‘Lynchings’: Politicians and judges have expressed concern after several new cases of lynchings of suspected muggers around the country in recent days. Incidents have been reported in the cities of Rosario, La Rioja, General Roca (Río Negro), Córdoba, Santa Fe and Buenos Aires, where a group of locals apprehended and took turns to beat a young male in Palermo after a street robbery. Supreme Court Judge Eugenio Zaffaroni said that the lynchings amounted to “aggravated murder”. “It is one thing to detain a subject using a certain degree of violence to do this. Kicking someone to death is something else,” said Zaffaroni in a radio interview this morning. Last week, three lynchings were reported in the city of Rosario, including the one in which 18-year-old David Moreira was beaten to death by a group of up to 50 people after alleged attempting to rob the bag of a young mother. So far none of the attackers has been identified.

Meanwhile, today Buenos Aires Mayor and opposition PRO party leader Mauricio Macri condemned the violence while claiming that “when the State is absent, people get desperate”. His statement echoed comments yesterday by opposition legislator Sergio Massa that “it has to do with the message that comes from the State.” Last night, in launching a plan to combat addiction through a network of education and prevention centres, President Cristina Fernández de Kirchner called for “voices that bring calm, not vengeance and hate.” The president added that “the best antidote to violence is ensure that many people feel included.”

Once Crash Train Driver Claims Innocence at Trial: The driver of the train that crashed into Once station killing 51 people today testified today in court that he did “everything possible” to stop the train. “I did everything in my power, please believe me,” said Marcos Córdoba, who was the first among the 29 accused to testify in the trial. Córdoba claimed he tried to brake manually as the train entered Once station but when that did not work, he instinctively ducked down and grabbed hold of the accelerator handle to brace for impact. “I was not drunk or high. I had not been to any party and the night before I rested well,” added the 27-year-old. Some 380 witnesses will be called during the course of the trial, which began on 18th March and is expected to last up to a year.

Menem and Cavallo Charged Over La Rural Sale: Ex president Carlos Menem and his former economy minister, Domingo Cavallo, have been charged with theft of public assets for the sale of La Rural. The charges come after the Federal Court in Buenos Aires today revoked a previous acquittal and ordered the judge on the case to place an embargo Menem’s assets, two months after the Supreme Court ordered the investigation be reopened. “The evidence gathered indicate that the accused took part in an operation jointly, thereby avoiding the necessary intervention of Congress,” said the ruling. The property in Palermo was sold by presidential decree to the Sociedad Rural in 1991 at a “throw away price” of US$30mn, according to the court. Subsequent investigations estimated the value of the property at over US$130mn.

Posted in News From Argentina, Round Ups Argentina0 Comments

Buenos Aires Gears Up for BAFICI 2014

Buenos Aires Gears Up for BAFICI 2014

This Wednesday marks the start of this year’s BAFICI, ten straight days of screenings of films from all around the world. Whether you are looking for sexploitation, serious documentaries, classic pictures of yesteryear, or top picks from the indie film circuit, this year’s BAFICI has it all, with a selection of more than 400 features and shorts.

(Photo courtesy of BAFICI Festival)

(Photo courtesy of BAFICI Festival)

The festival kicks off with ‘The Congress’, directed by Israeli filmmaker Ari Folman. For the second consecutive year, the opening film — previously relegated to an exclusive event for BAFICI dignitaries — will be shown at the Parque Centenario amphitheatre in a free outdoor event on Wednesday 2nd April (8pm). The decision on this more inclusive beginning to the festival belongs to Marcelo Panozzo, who is back for his second year as BAFICI’s artistic director.

If your Spanish leaves a lot to be desired, BAFICI is the perfect place to become acquainted with Argentine cinema, since all of the Spanish language films are subtitled in English. There are more local titles than ever this year, with three Argentine films making it into the International Competition (‘Algunas Chicas’ by Santiago Palavecino, ‘La Salada’ by Juan Martín Hsu and ‘Mauro’ by Hernán Rosselli). There is also an exciting lineup in the Argentine Competition, with plenty of anticipation around films like ‘Historia del Miedo’ (Benjamín Naishtat), ‘Ciencias Naturales’ (Matías Lucches), and ‘El Escarabajo de Oro’ (Alejo Moguillansky). Oh, and don’t miss a chance to see some classics from the golden age of Argentine filmmaking in the retrospective of comedic director Carlos Schlieper.

Besides the Argentine and International Competition, there’s the Avant-Garde and Genre section, which always promises some wild things you never would have imagined on the big screen. This year’s offering includes ‘G/R/E/A/S/E’ by Antoni Pinent, a deconstruction/collage/appropriation of the seventies musical film with John Travolta and Olivia Newton John. Portuguese filmmaker Miguel Gomes is back to premier his short film ‘Redemption’, after his feature film ‘Taboo’ was one of the most commented of the 2012 edition of the festival. Another strange film in this section is a half-documentary, half-fictional account of people coming and going to a temple in Nepal, Manakamana, which is also the name of this film by Stephanie Spray and Pacho Velez.

Israel is the guest country at this year’s edition, with an a wide variety of films from the country as well as a retrospective on Uri Zohar, a prolific director who made nearly a dozen films critical of the history of the Zionist nation, including ‘The True Story of Palestine’ (1962) and ‘Every Bastard is a King’ (1968). Other directors treated to a retrospective this year include Rita Azevedo Gomes (Portugal), Jean-Stéphane Bron (Switzerland), Robert Fenz (United States), Cao Guimarães (Brazil), and B-movie master Frank Henenlotter (United States).

'La Salada' by Juan Martín Hsu is one of three Argentine films in the International Competition (photo courtesy of BAFICI)

‘La Salada’ by Juan Martín Hsu is one of three Argentine films in the International Competition (photo courtesy of BAFICI)

In a year of two major international sporting events (the Winter Olympics and the World Cup), BAFICI has added a Sportivo section with a well-selected list of films about sports. It includes pictures like the Hungarian war drama ‘Two Half Times in Hell’ (Zontán Fábri) where Nazi soldiers take on Hungarian servicemen on the soccer field, and a classic Argentine film about soccer talents, ‘El Crack’ (José Martínez Suárez). ‘Head Games’ (Steve James), another film in this section, documents a topic that has become particularly pressing in terms of American football, but also other sports as well: the long term effects of repeated head injuries. James’s earlier sports documentary, ‘Hoop Dreams’, is also included in the Sportivo section.

The number of film premiers at this year’s festival is also noteworthy, with directors like Júlio Bressane, Raya Martin, Kelly Reichardt, Alan Resnais, Jean-Luc Godard, Edgardo Cozarinsky, Ti West, and Takashi Miike all showing their new films at the 16th BAFICI. For the youngest BAFICI goers (or the youngest at heart), there is a pre-debut of two much-awaited sequels, ‘Muppets Most Wanted’ (James Bobin) and ‘Rio 2′ (Carlos Saldanha) and the usual list of animated films from across the globe, not to mention a special section, Retro UPA, dedicated to classic cartoon films by the United Productions of America.

All in all, no matter what tickles your moviegoer’s fancy, there is bound to be a film or two for you at this year’s BAFICI. As always, tickets for the hottest films often sell out, so buy in advance online on the official BAFICI website, or in person starting 3rd April at any of the BAFICI locations: Village Recoleta, Village Caballito, Centro Cultural San Martín, Malba Cine, Planetario, Fundación Proa and Arte Multiplex Belgrano (the free outdoor BAFICI screenings will take place at the amphitheatre at Parque Centenario, but tickets are not on sale there). Finally, if you have a valid student ID, you can get into the free press showings (provided the theatre doesn’t fill up with journalists, which it rarely does); pick up a schedule at the BAFICI press room at the Centro Cultural Recoleta.

Check back with The Indy for film reviews during the festival and happy viewing!

Posted in Film0 Comments

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