The story of Darío Santillán mirrors that of many victims of the economic policies of neoliberalism in Argentina. For many of those who grew up in the 1990s, the future was filled with uncertainty. Abandoned to their fate in the impoverished suburbs of the big cities, few could see light at the end of the tunnel.
However, in a decade that came to be known for its rejection of everything political and for a heightened sense of individualism, there were people who chose collective action over individual despair. Darío Santillán was one of them.
Telling Darío’s Story
Darío’s story usually begins where it ends. His name entered the public conscience exactly ten years ago, on the 26th June 2002, when he was murdered by the Buenos Aires police, at the age of 21. As part of a piquetero movement, he was participating in a protest demanding better living conditions at the peak of the social and economic crisis. The protesters were ambushed by the police and in the repression that followed two of them were killed: Darío Santillán and Maximiliano Kosteki (universally known as Maxi and Darío).
Darío’s death speaks volumes about his life. Not only because he died fighting for the cause to which he was deeply devoted. But also because he showed commitment to the values he defended -solidarity, sense of community, camaraderie – until the very end. Whilst everyone else was running for their lives, Darío decided to face the lethal fire and risk his life to aid a dying Maxi.
Darío has become a symbol of social and political struggle. Always alive in the memory of his fellow activists, the tenth anniversary of his death became a timely excuse for the release of a book about his life, ‘Darío Santillán: El militante que puso el cuerpo’.
How to make the extraordinary shine through the ordinary? How to single out an individual when he fought for the values of the community? How to emphasise the heroic acts of a person when you know too well that there is no such thing as heroes, only hard workers? Those were some of the dilemmas faced by the writers.
Mariano Pacheco, one of the authors of the book, which he describes as a “political biography”, explains that one of the main premises of the book was to avoid portraying Darío as an exceptional being. “Darío’s experience happens within a collective frame, it doesn’t make sense to make him stand out or to create an exceptional figure, which he wasn’t. He did have some prominent features, like many others.”
Pacheco is more than a biographer. He was friends with Darío since they were both teenagers growing up in the lower-middle class suburbs of the Greater Buenos Aires, and he shared many of his political experiences. It was thanks to him that Darío came in contact with political activism and in 1998, at the age of 17, got involved in his school’s student union.
The Piquetero Experience
The second half of the 1990s witnessed the development of alternative ways of political organisation, the most notable of which were the piquetero movements.
Unlike the very first piquetero experiences of 1997/98 in the oil provinces of Salta and Neuquén, where many protesters had been members of the strong YPF workers’ unions, those in the province of Buenos Aires achieved what for many was impossible: to organise groups of unemployed workers without recent unionist experience. “The traditional parties, the left-wing parties, the sociologists in academia; they all said that it wasn’t possible to organise that social sector. Yet it was organised and it had much political and cultural productivity,” says Pacheco. This also meant that the Buenos Aires piqueteros did not inherit certain habits from traditional unionism, and leaned towards more horizontal organisational structures.
This was the type of organisation where Darío cut his teeth politically. He helped organise the unemployed workers’ movement (MTD, after its name in Spanish) in his southern suburb of Don Orione, a life-changing experience not only for him, but for everyone involved. The MTD carried out political activities, such as road blocks and negotiations with the government in order to obtain welfare funds, as well as social activities like a community wardrobe. But primarily, the MTD had an important impact in terms of social cohesion. The neighbourhood became a true community, where those who had lost their job could engage in productive activities and, above all, share their experience with people in the same situation.
Darío dedicated the last couple of years of his life to tirelessly work for the MTD. His commitment was such, that in 2001 he moved from Don Orione to the extremely precarious neighbourhood of La Fe, also in the southern Greater Buenos Aires. He swapped the relative comfort of his family apartment for a squat, and continued his political activism with the poorest of the poor.
Despite the importance that he placed on his political activities, Pacheco insists that one of the premises of the book was to show that Darío was also a regular guy with multiple interests. “We wanted to talk about his political experience,” he says, “but we didn’t just want to leave it at that. Many people see militants as robots, as guys who only care about their organisations, when there is also something much more rich, related to cultural interests, to other kinds of feelings that have to do with the life experience of a person, and we were very interested in emphasising that.”
The Avellaneda Massacre and its Aftermath
The piquetero groups became famous because of their methodology of blocking major roads in order to force negotiations with the government and obtain benefits such as welfare plans for the unemployed. However, that was only their most visible face, the most urgent of their demands, and often there was much more to them. Not only did they have an important social role in their neighbourhoods, but they also developed a political outlook.
Pacheco explains that the political side of the piqueteros was expressed through their horizontal organisational structure and, mainly, through education. Their aim was to train a new generation of activists, and to promote political education. This was an area that Darío was particularly interested in, and one that he helped develop during his time at La Fe. Whilst he had become an avid reader, especially keen on Che Guevara’s diaries, he did not think of education simply in terms of books. The MTD placed great importance in encouraging debate, and inciting people to think and speak for themselves.
By June 2002, Darío was living in La Fe. It was a politically intense period, hot on the heels of the December 2001 riots and president Fernando De la Rúa’s resignation. At this time, the MTD’s immediate concerns regarding welfare, as well as their longer-term debates on education, gave way to some very urgent political interventions. As the traditional political system disintegrated, the piqueteros were suddenly at the forefront of the political scene, together with the middle class ‘citizens’ assemblies’.
The failed blockage of the Puente Pueyrredón bridge in which Maxi and Darío were killed, was part of a massive nation-wide demonstration. The government’s reaction to it, and the threats previous to the protest, highlighted its importance.
In the short term, the murders of Maxi and Darío contributed to the demise of then-president Eduardo Duhalde’s government. But ten years later, some longer term consequences of the so-called Avellaneda massacre can also be appreciated. Pacheco sees the events of the 26th June 2002 as both an end and a beginning. On one hand, they marked the limits of the increasing political radicalisation within the popular classes, and of the use of political violence. On the other, they produced a long-lasting political change, by making it clear that repression is not a sustainable way to hold on to power. “De la Rúa left in a helicopter, Duhalde brought the election forward and Kirchner took office saying ‘I won’t suppress social protest’”, Pacheco points out.
Symbolically, it is not just Darío’s life and his death that have become icons of resistance, but also the struggle of his and Maxi’s families, friends, and political organisations to bring justice in a country where cases like this are too often left unpunished. Thanks to the tireless mobilisations and public pressure, those responsible for the deaths of Maxi and Darío were convicted for their crimes.
The posters announcing the activities to mark the tenth anniversary of the massacre, however, point out at what still is the main unresolved issue: punishment for those politically responsible for the murders.
Once again after ten years, the social organisations will meet up at the Avellaneda train station -renamed ‘Maxi and Darío station’- to demand the end of impunity for those who hold the maximum responsibility for their deaths. They will also remember the example of these two ordinary, extraordinary young people as they invoke their memory through the mantra: ¡Maxi y Darío: presentes!