‘The Worst End’. That is how national daily Página 12 described President Fernando de la Rúa’s resignation on 20th December 2001.
At the premature end of his presidency, the country witnessed the worst state violence since its return to democracy in 1983. In total, 39 people died throughout the country, including five at the hands of police in the very centre of Buenos Aires.
The iconic image of the president ‘fleeing’ by helicopter from the roof of the Casa Rosada shortly before 8pm would become a powerful symbol of the demise of the government, and the chaos Argentina’s political class found itself in.
But it was the last few hours of De la Rúa’s 740 days in office that would remain imprinted in the minds of those who lived through it.
“It seemed like something was going to happen,” says Damián Neustadt, at the time a 25-year-old freelance photographer living in Caballito.
Like many in Argentina, on the morning of the 20th, Nuestadt woke up expectant. In Buenos Aires, the unprecedented protests of the previous night had unleashed a new social force, as exciting as it was unpredictable. With the cry of “El pueblo, unido, jamas será vencido” (The people, united, will not be beaten) at doors of the Casa Rosada, the public had defied the president’s curfew and forced Economy Minister Domingo Cavallo, the architect of convertibility and the corralito, to resign.
At the same time, the aggressive police response, using rubber bullets and tear gases to clear Plaza de Mayo in the early hours of the morning, had left an air of tension as the new day began.
Nuestadt had joined the masses and taken photos of the police response. “I returned home at 5am, slept a little, and then went back to the Plaza in the morning with extra rolls [of film],” he says. Sensing that something big was about to occur, he also took a radio with him, so that he could find out quickly if a coup d’etat had taken place.
Soon after arriving, at around 9:30am, he witnessed the first of many acts of police brutality that day, which he would document in some 250 photos.
The Repression Begins
When Neustadt arrived, groups of protestors—some still remaining from the night before—were mingling in the square. Among the most conspicuous were the Madres de la Plaza de Mayo, who gathered as they had for more than two decades for their weekly Thursday vigil in remembrance of those disappeared during the last military dictatorship.
This particular day, the Madres, who defied a murderous military regime, were also out to protest against the state of emergency decreed by the president the night before.
Virginia Lattanzio, 60, who had stopped on the Plaza de Mayo as she made her way to work in the city centre, witnessed what happened next.
“Around mid-morning, the mounted police came and rode their horses right over the Madres without a care. It was terrible,” she recalls, still incredulous almost ten years later. “There wasn’t any provocation that they [the police] responded to, they ran directly over people who were sitting down sharing mate.”
The documentary ‘Argentina: Ahora o Nunca’ by Canadian Brian Hunter, who was living in Argentina during the crisis, also captured the police repression.
“I remember the helpless feeling of seeing an 80-year-old woman being beaten by a mounted police officer,” says Neustadt, pointing to one of his most memorable photos from that day – the white headscarf of a Madre in the foreground facing down eight policemen on horseback.
“I realised this was a breaking point; not just another day. And the public began to perceive it too: they saw the violent repression on the tv and came to the square with their arms held up to show that they were not doing anything violent.”
An Absent Government
As the square was filling with people, the government was engaged in a last ditch attempt to reach out to the Peronist opposition — which held a majority in both legislative houses — and broker an agreement to exit the crisis. Following Cavallo’s lead, the entire cabinet had offered its resignation as a gesture to the Peronists; clearing the protests from the emblematic Plaza de Mayo was another key prerequisite to opening negotiations.
Stories from inside the Casa Rosada that day tell of an increasingly isolated president, left powerless and indecisive as his government disintegrated around him. One particularly striking anecdote included in journalist Lucio Di Matteo’s book ‘El Corralito’ is that of President De la Rúa sat alone in his office watching cartoons as the violence outside escalated in the early afternoon.
The political chaos of that day has left unclear who was ordering the police to use such brutal force against peaceful protesters. De la Rúa maintains that he was not responsible, stating in a recent interview with La Nación that he only found out about the deaths in the city centre an hour after leaving the Casa Rosada.
A trial due to begin in June of next year will assess the responsibility of high-ranking members of the government in the violence and murders of that day (De la Rúa was cleared of criminal blame by the courts in November 2010).
Neustadt has been called to testify due to his proximity to the police throughout the day. Soon after the first outbreak of violence against the Madres, he witnessed the conversation between a federal judge and the police officer in charge of operations in the square – Jorge Palacios, who would later be charged with political espionage soon after being named chief of the newly-created Buenos Aires Metropolitan Police by Mauricio Macri in 2009 – in which the forces were ordered to retreat and allow people to voice their protest.
The order was ignored, however, and protected by the national state of emergency, the police launched new waves of attacks. A running battle ensued, with the police clearing the square with increasing force, only for the crowds of protestors to return. Without any government action, the violence intensified through the afternoon.
“I had never seen the police so out of control,” recalls Neustadt. As he took photos of Eduardo de Pedro, a friend and member of human rights groups H.I.J.O.S being bundled into a police car (where he was beaten and threatened with death), an officer put a shotgun in his face and advised him to stop and leave. At another point, when Neustadt was left isolated after the square had been temporarily cleared, he received a heavy blow from a police baton: “now that you are alone, what are you going to do?” jeered the officer.
“They [the police] were not worried at all about the photos – I was right in their faces, you could see their ID number. They were more annoyed that I was there taking photos than about the photos themselves,” adds Neustadt, describing the impunity with which the police operated that day.
The worst of the violence occurred between 3pm and 5pm. By that stage, more hardened protesters were hurling rocks at police, who were no longer responding with just gases and rubber bullets, but firing live rounds directly into the crowds. In clashes near Av. de Mayo and Tacuarí, three protestors – Gastón Riva (30), Diego Lamagna (27), and Carlos Almirón (24) – received fatal wounds.
The president’s final speech, soon after 4pm, in which he appealed once more to the Peronist opposition to form a unity government and failed to mention or condemn the police aggression, only fuelled the violence.
“It all exploded after the speech,” says Lattanzio. “People were hoping and expecting the president to take control of the situation […] But he said nothing, just threw the blame [at the Peronists] and played the victim.”
Soon afterwards, a fourth victim, Gustavo Benedetto (23), was shot in the face after protestors on Av. de Mayo and Chacabuco were fired upon by police and security guards sheltering inside the HSBC building at the corner. Benedetto’s mother and sister, who were watching the events unfold on television, saw him being loaded into an ambulance, bleeding heavily and unresponsive.
It was only when news that De la Rúa had resigned circulated, around 7pm, that calm began to return to the streets. Even then, there was time for one more killing: Alberto Márquez (57) was gunned down by police as he sat with other protesters on 9 de Julio. Unlike the other deaths, where the shooters have never been identified, four individuals from the Internal Affairs department of the Federal Police are on trial charged with Márquez’ murder.
Around that time, Neustadt returned home after developing his photos, some of which were published in newspapers around the world the next day. “I didn’t know about the killings; I found out when I returned home. And then I had a bit of a panic attack for having been so close, especially as I had a one-year-old daughter.”
Despite that, he says is glad he went and was able to document the events of that fateful day.
“I had the feeling that I needed to be there, taking photos that might be of use later […] For me, the difference that day with other historic moments in Argentina is that the public were out on the streets for real, for themselves, without any direction. It’s clear that some later exploited the events for their own gain, but at that moment, for those two days [19th and 20th December], that’s how it was.
“I don’t think a country has many moments like that in its history.”
Lead image by Sub Coop