Over five thousand settlers, whose occupation of Parque Indoamericano lead to scenes of violence and unrest in Villa Soldati, have now deserted their camps.
The mass exodus, completed yesterday morning, came after an agreement reached between the city and federal government to create more social housing.
Clashes between the people trying to find housing in the area in the south of Buenos Aires, neighbours and police forces left three people dead and a fourth to be confirmed.
This localised incident highlights a desperate lack of investment in social housing and overcrowding across the city.
Timeline of Troubles
Settlers first started moving into the park land, which is owned by Corporación Sur, on Sunday 5th December. Two days later, federal and metropolitan police attempted to evacuate 200 settlers by force following a court ruling and by the end of the day two people had been killed in the clashes.
The Federal police have denied their culpability in the deaths, saying that they only fired rubber bullets.
President Cristina Fernández de Kirchner spoke out calling for an end to the violence. Aníbal Fernández, head of the national government cabinet, said: “This government does not accept that any member of the security forces can raise a fist against someone that is protesting.”
On Wednesday police forces around the park were overwhelmed as thousands more settlers set up tents and shacks leading to widespread discontent among local residents.
By Thursday local residents had taken to the streets, angry about the vacillations of the city and national governments and afraid that the settlers would stay there, hemming them in with another villa – there are already three in and around the neighbourhood.
On Friday, with more people settling on the land, security forces in absentia and public bickering between Mauricio Macri, mayor of Buenos Aires, and the president’s administration – residents marched into the park vowing to evict the settlers themselves.
With a minimal police presence scenes soon got out of control. Residents claim that their protest was infiltrated by barrabravas – violent hooligans affiliated to certain football clubs, including Club Atlético de Huracán.
The Bolivian community in Buenos Aires claims that a fourth person was killed in the violence. Witnesses say that the ambulance carrying him away was overwhelmed by violent crowds who dragged him outside and shot him dead. These allegations have not been confirmed by the authorities.
With events spiralling out of control police moved back into the area on the weekend, creating a human barrier with riot shields across the Escalada and Castañares, and eventually sealing off the park.
Sebastian, a resident who grew up in the neighbourhood, described the scenes, with violent youths throwing rocks and missiles at police who retaliated with tear gas and water cannons.
He says that what started as a peaceful protest was overrun with violent packs of youths that weren’t from the neighbourhood. “They were sent there by someone – that’s what everyone thinks – maybe a political group. We aren’t stupid, something strange was going on.”
The suspicion was echoed on a national level, with President Fernández de Kirchner saying that the violent clashes in the south of the city “didn’t just get out of hand”; they were “sponsored by someone”.
The following day a degree of calm was restored to the area, with police blocking off access to the park and preventing further clashes. A census was taken to record details of the settlers. As water, chemical toilets and food was brought to the park, local residents began gathering to voice their unhappiness.
It is understood that the people occupying the park initially came to Villa 20 from the provinces and suburbs of Buenos Aires, having paid money to groups who promised them accommodation in the city. Upon arrival people living in the villa turned them away and consequently they moved to the parkland nearby.
Alejandro, who has been living in Villa Soldati for over 20 years, spoke from a residents’ meeting at the bottom of Escalada on Tuesday: “What they’re demanding is legitimate but it isn’t legal. It’s illegal because this is public land. Both the national and city government have abandoned us and we, the residents, are trying to do what we can.
“Every day we’re meeting here between 7pm and 9pm – people are coming together to stop people just settling wherever they like. We don’t have a political agenda – we’re just families that live here,” he said.
Social Housing Crisis
According to Buenos Aires Sin Techo (Homeless Buenos Aires), a report published earlier this year by the Comisión de Vivienda de la Legislatura de la Ciudad, there are over 100,000 suitable buildings standing empty in the city.
Despite this, some 12,000 people live in 150 asentamientos (unofficial settlements), 170,000 live in 16 villas and 110,000 in unsafe buildings. According to the report, there are also thousands living in homeless shelters, and hostels, as well as the untold numbers who sleep on the pavements.
One of Macri’s election campaign pledges dealt with the issue of social housing – he pledged 1,600 new homes in Villa 20 alone, according to Alejandro Salvatierra, a delegate from Villa 15.
There is a lot of frustration amongst citizens about the reality of evicting people from overcrowded housing without counterbalancing it with investment in social housing to solve the shortage.
Macri’s response has been that there is no money to build houses. But Sebastian speaks for a lot of people when he says that the mayor wasted budget money on gimmicks like the metropolitan police force instead of his promises about more social housing.
“The metropolitan police is completely useless – it was the expensive whim of a capricious little rich boy who wanted a police force for other rich people, we never see them around here. People started throwing stones at them and they fled – I feel sorry for them,” he said.
City-National Government Dynamic
Although Macri has taken the brunt of the blame for the violence, the inability of the city and national governments – whose policies are often polar opposites – to work together has made the handling of this crisis even more difficult.
After a series of meetings, public mud-slinging, letters and name-calling, emergency talks were held on Friday night as scenes in Villa Soldati turned ugly. Macri met with Aníbal Fernández – the head of the cabinet – and representatives from the neighbourhood. The cabinet chief later said that the national government had agreed to act as a “guarantor” in negotiations with the settlers.
Juan Carlos, a nearby resident said that while the national and city governments are squabbling publicly, the residents – who he says started a peaceful protest and then got caught up in the violence – are in the middle.
“At this moment individual politics is irrelevant, we all need to work out as citizens of this city how we are going to resolve this… Everyone is doing what they can for now because the state isn’t here. At the moment we feel abandoned,” he said.
Macri has been publicly accused of xenophobia by the Bolivian embassy and Fernández following a statement he made blaming the national government’s immigration policy for the housing crisis in the city in an attempt to shirk blame.
“It seems that Buenos Aires has to look after all of the neighbouring countries and this is unfeasible. Every day between 100 and 200 people arrive in the city and we don’t know who they are, brought here by delinquency and drug trafficking,” said Macri at a press conference.
“The deaths have nothing to do with the evictions in the city – it’s because of insecurity and immigration,” he added.
An embassy spokesman said: “Macri’s comments are creating a climate of xenophobia against the Bolivian community – stigmatising those who are supporting the development and the economy of Argentina.” His comments were echoed by Hebe de Bonafini, leader of the Mothers of the Plaza de Mayo, and other human rights organisations.
While the park has been evacuated after the agreement reached between the city and national governments, many of the key points of the accord have yet to be defined.
The city government has been given 120 days to present a plan to the national government, and a working table has been set up between various organisations including Banco de la Ciudad. It has been stated that one of the prerequisites to apply for any housing will be two years of residency in the capital, and both parties have emphasized that the housing will not necessarily go to those who took the park, but to those who are most in need. Further details have yet to be made public.
Many more eyes will now be watching to see if the governments can fulfill their promises to address the social housing crisis. But with an election year around the corner, the suspicion remains that the handling of the situation was an attempt for both sides to gain political points off one another. But with a toll of three – or possibly four – deaths and staunch criticism off residents in much of the south of the city for their handling of the situation, it seems like there have been no winners over the past two weeks.