The death of five people at last month’s Time Warp festival has once again exposed institutional failings and generated an intense debate over how best to the control Buenos Aires’ nightclubs.
For a brief time one month ago, Buenos Aires’ legendary nightlife seemed in danger of being brought to an abrupt halt as Federal Judge Roberto Andrés Gallardo moved to prohibit “all commercial activity involving dancing and music” in the city.
Gallardo’s ruling – delivered days after five people died of drug overdoses at the Time Warp Festival – was immediately rejected by nightclub owners and the city government, and overturned just a few hours later.
Yet it was another telling moment in a historically fraught dynamic between nightlife and regulatory authority in Buenos Aires. Gallardo’s prohibitive response to the Time Warp tragedy may seem drastic, but it is not without precedent. In late 2004, rock club República Cromañón experienced a fire allegedly set by a flare, leaving 194 dead and 714 injured during an overbooked performance by the band Callejeros. As the entire city mourned, the institutional response that followed was decisive, symbolic, and broad-based: all live music venues and dance clubs were shuttered until they could pass inspections that proved their adherence to more strict regulations.
The aftermath of this large-scale loss – which exposed many layers of institutional failings – in many ways altered the landscape of nightlife in Buenos Aires. More than a decade later, however, evidence suggests the same mistakes are being made. Meanwhile, the diverse reactions, proposals, and reform plans that followed the Time Warp deaths reflect ongoing institutional uncertainty over how to effectively control a resilient subculture.
The hospitalisations and deaths at this year’s Time Warp show—held inside the cavernous coastal venue Costa Salguero—occurred suddenly, but not without warning.
Before several attendees overdosed on PMMA-laced pills, the realities of recreational drug use at music venues had long been understood as inextricable aspect of nightlife in Buenos Aires. Certain subcultures—in this case electronic dance music—are more strongly associated with particular drugs. A 2014 survey by the Argentine Drugs Observatory found that over 70% of attendees at a major electronic festival had taken – or were thinking of taking – psychoactive substances.
The Time Warp event was no different. According to Federal Prosecutor Federico Delgado, drugs were as readily available as “choripans at a football stadium”. The decisive element, according to Delgado, was the “organised sale of drugs” within the Time Warp event. “These things don’t happen just because one or two people are selling drugs,” claimed the prosecutor on local radio. “The conditions must be there to allow it.”
With this in mind, and notwithstanding the arrest of several alleged dealers at the event, the legal investigation has focused on the festival organisers and security personnel. For Delgado, permitting an open market of drugs at the venue was “remunerative” for the organisers, via the sale of drinks among other factors.
Victor Stinfale, a familiar figure known as Diego Maradona’s lawyer with a connection to the Speed energy drink dynasty, was the most high profile arrest in the weeks following Time Warp. It was his corporate affiliation—which he has all but disavowed in interviews—that the prosecution claims ultimately renders him liable for the deaths that occurred at the Speed-sponsored Time Warp event. Stinfale claims that his reputation makes him a “favourite villain” for penal scapegoating, and he remains incarcerated while the courts pursue other allegedly involved parties, including Victor Adrián Conci, the head of festival organiser Dell Productions.
However, several other factors combined to create a particularly unsafe atmosphere for overdosing. The investigation being led by Delgado and Federal Judge Sebastián Casanello cites evidence of overcrowding, poor ventilation, limited access to drinking water, and insufficient emergency staffing as variables that exacerbated the risk that night, contributing directly to the five deaths.
According to the ongoing investigation, a total crowd of 20,513 attended this particular show at a venue only cleared for occupation by 13,000. “The event was oversold, but this is common,” says Jonathan Ryan, who attended Time Warp last month, as he has several past incarnations of the electronic festival. “I go to these parties knowing that it will be very hot, that I will enter and deal with such conditions, because the majority of shows go that way.
“There was no map or sign at Time Warp showing us where to find the emergency station, and it was just a table with a tent and few people on staff,” claims Ryan, adding that he also saw very few venue personnel inside the concert space itself.
It is here where the parallels with Cromañón – cited by Delgado himself – are first evident. In spite of new controls implemented after the 2004 tragedy, itself preceded by a devastating fire at nightclub Kheyvis in Olivos a decade before, persistent negligence has maintained an unsafe environment for concert goers, regardless of whether that danger is posed by fire, overdose, or any unexpected crisis.
There are other echoes of Cromañón in the Time Warp case, particularly in terms of alleged failing by city authorities. Advocate groups like ‘Que No Se Repita‘ (“It must never happen again”), a community of parents united by loss after the Cromañón fire, laid bare many specific details of that incident extending far beyond simple issues of fire safety and exposes a chain of institutional failings that reached right up to then-mayor Aníbal Ibarra.
In that case, three city government officials were eventually handed prison sentences for failing to control safety standards at Cromañón. Last week, the Time Warp investigation honed in on the state with indictments for five city officials accused of not fulfilling their duty to properly inspect and control the event. “The bureaucracy of the local government does not do what it claim to, it does not control what it claims is controlled,” wrote Delgado in the indictment, reported by La Nacion. “And when it comes to explaining the discrepancy between what is filed and what really happens, nobody is responsible for anything.”
The actions of the Navy Coast Guard – under whose jurisdiction the Costa Salguero event fell – have also come under scrutiny, with dozens of officers suspended pending investigation.
Several Coast Guard officers have been directly implicated as facilitating narcotics trafficking after they failed to properly report confiscated substances to judicial authorities. Delgado this week moved to prosecute prefect Alberto Gabriel Pandiani and Naval Department of Drug Trafficking member Nestor David Alarcón Torres on charges of “facilitating” the organised sale of drugs at Time Warp. According to Delgado, Alarcón Torres “did nothing”, delegating control of drugs to the festival organisers.
The possible link between festival organizers and the naval prefecture calls into question issues of bribery, collusion, and other such illegal partnerships between private business entities and public safety officials. However, there is no hard evidence so far to confirm this speculation.
While the legal probe continues, the issue of recreational drug use as a personal responsibility has problematised the broader debate over drug reform, and as a result, blame has shifted constantly in the weeks following the Time Warp tragedy. Stinfale made his opinion clear in court when he asked, “what fault does the organisation bear for these self-destructive kids?”
Meanwhile, in the aftermath of the Time Warp deaths, Buenos Aires Mayor Horacio Rodríguez Larreta insisted that the city would take further measures to “defend the thousands of people having fun healthily every night.” While encouraging for those who abstain from drug use in nightlife, the framing of Larreta’s goal implicitly blames individuals who consume recreational substances for their own demise.
In this climate, the Time Warp event has made conditions ripe for the imposition of anti-drug agendas and broad symbolic proposals. One of those under debate is the creation of a special youth district (‘Distrito Joven’) which would potentially relocate all of the city’s major nightclubs to the Costanera Norte. Despite the proposal’s origins months before the events of Time Warp, Director General of Youth Policy Fabian Pereyra insists that his plan “will help to create a controlled space” in order to ultimately “disassociate drugs and alcohol” from nightlife. The quick fix rhetoric of Pereyra’s pitch won him cross-party approval in the legislature, notably just after the emphatic wake-up call provided by the overdose deaths at Time Warp.
Aside from the doubts now over the Navy Coast Guard that operates in the area, critics say this type of response ignores deeper problems. “Prohibition, closing nightclubs, or moving things around in nightlife doesn’t make sense,” says Enzo Maqueira, an advocate for reform in nightlife and the author of the popular novel ‘Electrónica’. “Particularly in Argentina, the way that businesses relate to their clients as consumers is a facet of capitalism that we need to look at from an anthropological and sociological perspective,” he adds.
Maqueira is not alone in questioning corporate organisers’ priorities, as many have decried their disregard for human safety as an exploitative means of maximising profits. Rather than these new proposals for controlling nightlife, he says the real solution would be “to change the culture of how these drugs are consumed at these events”.
“I don’t think this will happen,” he adds, “so the second possibility would be legalisation and better regulation of these drugs, so that there could at least be reduced risk associated with the consumption of these substances.”
However, this view does not fit with President Mauricio Macri’s anti-drug platform, a central pillar of his reform plans, pertains directly to the issue of drug use and trafficking at Time Warp. Regardless of whether ecstasy was bought, sold, or consumed by the now deceased attendees inside the venue or beforehand, a strict crackdown prevention response best fits his presidential rhetoric.
Similar issues abroad have not seemed to subside with hard line drug prevention policies, but rather the opposite. Decriminalisation and anonymous testing policies implemented after comparable tragedies have made many festivals safer in parts of Europe and the United States respectively. In 2013, for example, the inaugural US TomorrowWorld festival “went off without incident”, at least partially as a result of these progressive measures.
Organisations like DanceSafe and Bunk Police in the US work to ensure the wellness of concert goers by acknowledging the realities of designer drug use, but the same progressive steps may not be currently possible in Argentina. Just one week after the Time Warp event, municipal officials in Rosario unanimously approved a harm reduction proposal to test pills on site at clubs and festival grounds, despite the tricky legal details of federal possession laws. A recent electronic festival in Rosario took several measures to improve concert conditions for attendees, including deliberate below-capacity booking, free available water, and a fully-staffed medical tent. Even with these improvements, there were four hospitalisations and 20 arrests for drugs, and other festivals scheduled for May were suspended.
“I think that wider reforms like those proposed in Rosario would be welcome,” says Maqueira, though he acknowledges that decriminalisation, legalisation, and other regulatory overhauls are not easy to argue among most municipal or federal policy makers. Nevertheless, Maqueira insists that “prohibition, closing nightclubs, or reorganising nightlife doesn’t really make sense,” suggesting risk-reduction policies as a pragmatic path forward.
In the wake of these incidents, the push and pull between institutional and public responses reveals a cycle of widespread complacency and outrage. The debates that take place between these two extremes highlight both an optimistic tendency for broad reform and the strong stigmatisation of certain subcultures that resist simple policy fixes. An undercurrent of corruption pervades the debate at all levels, raising concerns among many whether reforms or laws can truly effect change at all.
Compromises that ultimately emerge from the trial and error of proposed reforms will dictate the future of nightlife in Buenos Aires and beyond. Every new reform can only increase safety if the private enterprises that comprise the business side of nightlife comply with them, or are at least properly controlled by the state even as the memory of this year’s Time Warp fades. The challenge of encouraging festival organisers, venue managers, and security providers to prioritise welfare may seem insurmountable when profits are pitted against personal safety. Even so, the shared hope of many is simple and all too familiar: que no se repita.