The cries for justice and accountability echoed loudly in the city of Rosario on the evening of 8th September 2016.
Following an August demonstration sparked by the senseless slaying of 22-year-old Marino Bertini, proud rosarinos from all walks of life gathered together again in early September to protest the violence that has plagued the city for the last half-decade. Rosario Sangra – ‘Rosario is Bleeding’ – was the cry. A cold winter’s breeze did little to stop thousands marching in unison to the provincial government headquarters, in a symbolic reclamation of the streets that have been taken from them through a sustained campaign of violence, corruption, and institutional complacency.
“Criminals have taken the streets and deaths are increasing every day. It is impossible to manage!” proclaims Gabriela Giménez, the sister of homicide victim Edgardo Giménez. “The people, us, the families of victims, those who have been touched by this violence, have come out because we can’t bear it anymore. We need a political solution for this to change… we can’t take things into our own hands.”
Edgardo was a 34-year-old shopkeeper living in Granadero Baigorria, a tiny suburb on the northern edge of the city, when he was killed during an attempted robbery in October 2014. He left behind a young wife and two young daughters. “He was working in the family business when five criminals came in and shot at him 32 times, of which two hit him… he was in surgery for six hours before he passed,” says Giménez.
This kind of violence is all too routine for the citizens of Argentina’s third largest city, home to around 1.3m people including the greater Rosario area. With a 2015 murder rate of 12.2 homicides per 100,000 inhabitants, the province of Santa Fe has a ratio that far outdistances the next closest province of Buenos Aires (7.4 per 100,000 inhabitants). Rosario, with a 2011-2014 average homicide rate of 17.7, and a 2015 total of 224 murders, is in a league of its own.
In recent years the violence plaguing the city has received its fair share of national, and even international media coverage. The majority of the attention has focused on Rosario’s well-chronicled position as a hub for European-bound narcotics, and the violent disputes that have periodically erupted over control of the drug trade. The buzzword rhetoric is often salacious in nature, and paints the perception of a reality dominated by drugs, gangs, and corruption.
While it is true that drug trafficking does pose a very real threat to the security of Argentina, for those who desire to go beyond vague proclamations of “the new Medellin” or click-bait coverage of Rosario’s “narco-granny”, it is evident that the root causes of violence are more complex and diverse than they appear.
Ju-sti-cia! – Ju-sti-cia! – Ju-sti-cia!
The demands of those who marched in August and September, many of them personally touched by violent crime, were aimed directly at the state institutions responsible for citizen defense and the distribution of justice. Asked for her opinion regarding potential solutions to the violence, Giménez highlighted the complicated relationship between government, law, and the need for judicial will.
“There are punctual solutions, such as effective convictions, but these convictions need to be carried out to full term. Right now, when there are convictions, they [the criminals] only do three years of a 15-year term. They get out early, and they go out and kill again.”
A recent study on this topic by the National University of Rosario indicates that the city suffers from a significant deficiency of judicial resolve. Reviewing homicide cases from two impoverished neighborhoods in Rosario from the period of 2008-2012, the study found that only 22% of homicide cases involving males between the ages 18-25 ended in convictions, with only 55% of cases even having been investigated.
Miguel Angel Pereyra, Rosario resident and father to the slain Marisol Pereyra, also allocated a portion of the blame to the various institutions of state and provincial power:
“The government is an accomplice to all of this, from the state to the judges, there is a complicity… that is why the citizens feel helpless. Day-by-day, the crimes are terrible and we don’t have a response. That is why we have taken to the streets.”
“First it was only the family members of the victims, we marched to reclaim what had happened to us. Now, it has unfolded into society because it is happening to everyone. The population has come together. Rosario has stood up, and Santa Fe also, because this has to do with the entire province. We can’t tolerate it anymore. That is why we are here to say ‘Enough, we want solutions!’”San Lorenzo resident Alberto Perassi, who marched in solidarity with both Giménez and Pereyra, understands their sentiments all too well. He has been fighting his own battle for truth and justice since the September 2011 disappearance of his daughter, Paula Perassi. His case is particularly jarring as it highlights another infamous and all too common aspect of Santa Fe’s criminal justice system: state corruption and police involvement in criminal activity.
Of the eight detained suspects that are implicated in the alleged abduction and forced abortion of a six-week pregnant Paula Perassi, five are provincial police officers from San Lorenzo Regional Unit XVII. Beyond the alleged involvement of law enforcement, Perassi has long been critical of the judicial handling of the case, especially the perceived complacency on the part of the presiding judge, Juan Jose Tatau. After five long years of fighting for justice, Perassi remains skeptical that the provincial police and their accomplices will be held accountable given the depth of the alleged corruption.
“In my case, five police officers have been processed as accomplices to her [Paula’s] disappearance. Inside the police headquarters of San Lorenzo they know exactly what happened to Paula. The more time passes, the more it becomes clear. They have covered it up because it touches the highest levels of the province.”
Now required to travel with security and wear a bulletproof vest due to the death threats he has received, Perassi laments the lack of accountability on the part of the provincial power structures.
“This march is the only weapon we have to ask that these things change. The things that have happened to us, those of us who have lost people, we are never going to recuperate those people, but at least we can make a change.”
In the aftermath of the mass demonstrations of August and September, Santa Fe Governor Miguel Lifschitz and the federal administration led by President Mauricio Macri came to a security agreement to deploy around 3,000 federal troops in Santa Fe and Rosario.
The deal likely comes with a feeling of déjà vu for the citizens of Rosario. In April 2014, reacting to a spike in violent crime, ex-President Cristina Fernández de Kirchner authorised the mobilisation and deployment of 3,000 federal troops to Santa Fe. Working in cooperation with a variety of other federal units, the gendarmerie (border control police) were stationed in 25 neighborhoods throughout the city of Rosario, in what then Santa Fe Governor Antonio Bonfatti described as a plan to “pacify the society.”
The gendarmerie conducted pacification operations within greater Rosario, including its most dangerous neighborhoods, from April 2014 until December 2014, when the national government abruptly decided to end the “peace plan” and withdrew the remaining federal forces (estimated at the time to be 1,500).
After only five months of having the provincial police back on the streets, 1,500 gendarmerie troops were sent back to Rosario in April 2015 with the hope of increasing security and fostering cooperation between provincial and federal forces. In the aftermath of President Macri’s 2015 election victory, these forces were again removed from Rosario and sent back to patrolling Argentina’s borders. The streets of Rosario, left once again to the patrol of the provincial police, slowly but surely began to succumb to high levels of violence.
Beyond the missions proclaimed purpose of population domestication, the gendarmerie were deemed necessary to compensate for the inept and increasingly corrupt provincial police.
It was only three weeks prior to the deployment of the federal forces that an assassination plot aimed at Federal Judge Juan Carlos Vienna was foiled. Judge Vienna had recently incarcerated 36 “Los Monos” drug traffickers, and was allegedly targeted for his uniquely tough stance on crime. The plan implicated at least one police officer from the provincial Brigade of Judicial Police Division, the same provincial division that federal forces would eventually dissolve in April due to their continuous “problem procedures.” During the tense negotiations to the latest agreement, Federal Security Minister Patricia Bullrich criticised the Sante Fe government for lacking the will to “cleanse” the provincial police force.
Yet while the deployment of federal forces has been hailed as a sign of the State’s commitment to increased security, the positive impact of this ‘boots on the ground’ approach is less certain. Juan Pablo Hudson, an investigator for the National Scientific and Technical Research Council (CONICET), does not believe that the figures from the first intervention in 2014 are entirely convincing.
“If a balance is carried out in concrete figures, it is clear that what they [the gendarmerie] quieted was the feeling of insecurity and not the actual violence. Neighbors were relieved, but the killings decreased by only 5% when compared with 2013, one of the most violent years of the history of Rosario… From April to December there were still 160 murders.”
As a member of the Organisation of Urban Investigations, and author of a recent non-fiction novel chronicling life on the outskirts of Rosario, Hudson has unique insight into the intricate reality that is the city’s violence – one more complex than sensationalist headlines and even hard statistics suggest.
“In Rosario not just anyone is murdered. According to the statistics, the majority of those killed are poor youth who are under the age of 30, and who live in the outskirts of the city. In the city centre the homicide rate is very low, almost at the level of the main cities of Europe. And yet, while the statistics show a decrease in the homicide rate in the last three years, this does not mean that the city is any more peaceful.”
The violence affecting Rosario has festered for years in the poorest neighborhoods on the outskirts of the city. It was only very recently, when it began to penetrate the social conscious of the middle class – represented by the mainstream media – that the government was forced to take definitive steps to curtail it. And yet, lost in the noise of the political agenda is the hard truth that no mobilisations are likely to occur on behalf of the citizens of the “barrios” that the gendarmerie will soon patrol. Worse still, the people of these areas are often portrayed as the perpetrators of violent crime rather than the victims that suffer from it the most.
“Rosario’s poorest neighborhoods are most affected, but the spread of violence to richer parts of the city has pushed the issue up the political agenda.” – The Economist (September 2016)
For Hudson, the recent measures taken in the name of security actually ignore the complex socio-economic factors that define and encourage urban violence. Other specialists, such as Dr. Claudio R. Puccinelli, professor of procedural law at the National University of Rosario, say the city’s high levels of violence and crime are grounded in the ongoing marginalisation of large segments of the population, and the drug culture that has developed as a result:
“People live in systems of social exclusion where they are marginalised. They get together in marginalised groups and form gangs. They start out as neighborhood friends, and turn into groups of criminals. Our culture has to develop through education, because if not, it is impossible that these problems will be solved. With no culture, no education, no work, and no housing, nothing will solve itself. These social issues are so widespread, that drugs have actually become the trigger for struggle. Why? Because you earn more money selling drugs than you do going to work. With that, there is no solution.”
As the third major gendarmerie-led pacification attempt in as many years is now underway in Rosario, some are asking the critical question:
Is there another way?
“They call for an increased police presence, but they don’t insist on education? What defense does the State provide to the poorest neighborhoods? What real defense do they offer?”
Those are the words of Franciscan Sister María Jordan, nun and spiritual administrator of a Franciscan mission in Empalme Graneros, one of the poorest and toughest neighborhoods on the northwest fringes of the city. Throughout her 20 plus years living and working in the neighborhood, a place where the majority of Rosario’s citizens will never set foot, Sister Jordan sees the reality of violence and marginalisation from a different vantage point than most.
“The exclusion of the poor, especially the adolescents and the young, often those without education, training, and family values, provokes a rebellious spirit in their humiliated hearts. This anger is due to their inability to meet their basic needs… It is not completely the fault of the State, as the family has an indispensable role in shaping the future of the youth. However, that doesn’t change the fact that the majority of the families we know living in the villas [slums] are living in humiliating and frustrating situations.”
After spending almost his entire life in the neighborhood of Barrio Toba, another impoverished community located in Rosario’s southwest, 30-year-old Mauro Ezequiel Cueva is used to political neglect.
“We understand that the politicians only worry about the city centre, and not a humble neighborhood like ours. Whenever there are elections, all the politicians appear and they promise many things. I never think about it because it is a mockery. They come here, they use the people, and if they win they will never return.”
As an employed construction worker with a place to call his own and a happy family, Cueva considers himself lucky. His mother left his father and his family when he was only four years old, and from the age of 14-24 Cueva was heavily involved in drug use and violent activity. He says that one day he was forced to look into his daughter’s eyes and decide whether he was going to “be a father,” or “die from using drugs.”
“Here you get killed for nothing, for your cell phone, for your shoes… and the police never appear. Yes they will send the gendarmerie, but this will do nothing if there is no education. The police will not force a mother or a father to give their children training. If parents do not have an education, then their kids will look for any kind of refuge from this life, and the first thing that they find is drugs.”
Given the interdependent and delicate relationship between crime and poverty, some recent statistical studies focusing on economic and social development in Argentina should be a cause for citizen concern.
New statistics released in September by the National Institute of Statistics and Census (Indec) revealed that nearly one-third of Argentina’s population is living in poverty, with just over 6% of the population qualifying as “indigent.” This means that 8.8m people (32.2% of the total population) are living below the poverty line in urban areas. The Indec numbers are closely analogous to a recent Catholic University of Argentina poverty study, as well as 2015 poverty estimates for the city of Rosario (32.6% and 30%). These studies also coincide with the release of another Indec report indicating that Argentina’s national unemployment rate stands at 9.3%, with Rosario leading the way for urban centers of poverty at a rate of 11.7%.
Troublingly, these figures continue to trend upwards as the Argentine economy slides into recession in 2016. Though the problems in Rosario precede the Macri administration, Hudson worries for the future, and what will come from the government’s increasing use of “tough on crime” rhetoric.
“My great fear is that Rosario will be transformed by the local and federal government into a repressive laboratory of the popular sectors. The greatest risk is that the real growth of violence will be used as an excuse to repress, through all kinds of security measures, the protests against the neoliberal economic model designed by this government.”
For Hudson, the answer, as always, is pragmatic and blunt:
“What the left typically says is that education and work are need, and that is very good but does not solve the problems and circumstances that they [the marginalised] face. We need to reform the police, control them with political power, and stop them from acting with total autonomy. We need to reduce the flow of arms, the business that drives the police and drug trafficking… Slowly rebuild the community and the social ties that mitigate confrontations.”
He pauses for a moment. “It is no easy task.”