The arrest of social and indigenous leader Milagro Sala in Jujuy has created more controversy and political divisions in Argentina.
Political activist Sala – head of the Tupac Amaru organisation and an ally of the previous Kirchnerist administration – was detained on Saturday as she protested reforms to social spending being implemented by Jujuy’s provincial government, led by Cambiemos’ Gerardo Morales.
The move prompted a critical response from other social and human rights organisations, as well as opposition political parties. They claim the arrest marks the criminalisation of protests, with thousands gathering on Plaza de Mayo on Monday to demand her release.
Morales, and President Mauricio Macri’s government, contest that Sala was detained on independent court orders and accuse her of siphoning off funds for social housing that were distributed through her organisation.
The 51-year-old indigenous founder and leader of the Tupac Amaru neighbourhood association was born in San Salvador de Jujuy. She was raised by adoptive parents until her mid-teens when she moved out and lived on the street. For years Sala survived on the streets until she wound up in jail. When she was released, she eventually became involved in politics and fought against neo-liberal reforms.
In 2001 the Argentine economy was in dire straits. Many of the poor didn’t have enough food and turned to each other for help. Sala, a unionist and activist, mobilised them and brought them onto the streets to protest and Tupac Amaru was born, inspired by the 18th century Inca leader.
The organisation channels government funding to food and housing for around 70,000 people across the country, but predominately in Jujuy. It has built schools, clinics, and factories where it produces goods and employs people. Its social communities are unique from the standard government subsidised housing – Alto Comedero in Jujuy has luxuries like a huge swimming pool, a children’s park with dinosaurs, and other perks the group says people have a right to.
Though Sala’s organisational skills and her ability to rally thousands of people for a cause have given her a great deal of influence in her province, this has also caused a backlash. She has been criticised for a combative style and the frequent use of roadblocks during protests, while her detractors have accused her of monopolising control over state resources and abusing her position for political gain.
In an open letter, Sala responded to her detractors, saying that “…they can’t stand that those who were left unemployed an excluded in the ’90s have organised in cooperatives and built 56,000 houses around the country, schools, hospitals, recreational and rehabilitation centres, sports centres. They can’t stand that our families can have a future with guaranteed work, education, and health (…) They can’t stand that his black colla [Sala’s ethnic group] who doesn’t know how to speak (so they say) has built, together with those comrades, an organisation, a political party, that she runs in elections and gets voted in.”
In the 2015 election she was voted in as a member of the regional Mercosur parliament, Parlasur.
Sala’s arrest is the latest incident in a wider dispute with Jujuy governor Gerardo Morales, of the Unión Cívica Radical (UCR), who came into power in December. The fraught relationship between the two turned even uglier during last year’s election campaign after Morales blamed Sala for creating a “violent culture” in which a UCR activist was shot and killed. (The courts later ruled that there was no political motive to the crime.)
Since 14th December, Sala has led dozens of social organisations in a protest camp outside the municipal building of San Salvador de Jujuy in response to Morales’ plan to reform the way social housing funds are distributed in the province. Tupac Amaru says the governor is withholding salaries and funds, refusing to engage in dialogue, and endangering the livelihoods of thousands of workers in social cooperatives. The governor says the changes are necessary to regulate social programmes, after he accused Sala of stealing money destined for the poor and operating a “parallel state” in Jujuy.
As the stalemate continued last week, Morales signed a decree to eliminate social benefits and revoke the legal status of organisations that did not lift the camp by midnight of Thursday 14th January. “Let Milagro Sala pay for those who remain in the square,” Morales said, adding that Sala would no longer be used as an intermediary to disperse state funds. A number of the original protesters agreed to leave, but Tupac Amaru and at least a dozen other organisations remained.
Sala was arrested on charges of inciting criminal behaviour and disorder. The first charge is related to her leading people to set up the protest camp and blocking roads around the municipal building of San Salvador de Jujuy, something the court order ruled illegal. The second is on account of Sala allegedly encouraging cooperatives to not adhere to the government’s new requirements for participating in social programmes.
“At this moment Gerardo Morales’ police are detaining me, this is like in a dictatorship,” Sala wrote on Saturday in a Twitter post, before starting a two-day hunger strike in custody. Her husband, Raúl Noro, said she was “the first political prisoner of the Macri government,” adding that the provincial governor was leading a campaign to “demonise” Sala.
Sala’s lawyers presented an habeas corpus on Saturday, which was rejected by Judge Gastón Mercau on Monday evening. Prosecutor Mariano Miranda said that Sala would “remain in custody until the protest camp is lifted.” On Tuesday, Governor Morales added a new accusation against Sala for criminal conspiracy, arguing that she and other leaders of social organisations had taken $29m of public funds.
Judge Mercau also ordered that the remaining protesters be cleared from the streets outside the municipal building in the provincial capital. The groups agreed to lift part of the camp blocking roads, but insisted that the protest would continue in the main square until Sala was released and governor Morales opened a dialogue to guarantee ongoing work for the cooperatives.
The situation remains tense, with provincial security minister Ekel Meyer saying that if there was an order to clear the square, the security forces would do so “without using lethal weapons”.
Sala’s arrest received criticism from a number of social and human rights groups, which claim that it sets a dangerous precedent for criminalising the right to protest. A key point, they note, is that Sala was originally detained on charges unrelated to wider accusations of corruption.
The Centre for Legal and Social Studies (CELS) said the arrest was based on “vague” and “arbitrary” interpretations of the law, with worrying implications.
“Following Judge Raúl Eduardo Gutierrez’s logic, based on the evidence available, anyone leading a social protest against a government measure or resolution could be committing the crime of ‘publicly revolting to impede the execution of a national or provincial law’,” read a statement released by CELS shortly after Sala’s arrest. “Criminalising practices related to the right to protest is a move towards a restriction of democratic freedoms and an illegitimate application of penal law.”
Amnesty Argentina also condemned the decision, launching an ‘Urgent Action’ campaign on Tuesday to demand “guarantees on Milagro Sala’s physical integrity, order her immediate release, and end the persecution of her and social organisations.”
Thousands marched to the Plaza de Mayo on Monday evening to demand Sala’s immediate release. The Tupac Amaru association was joined by other social movements, human rights organisations, unions, and Kirchnerist and leftist political parties. Protesters waved flags and brightly coloured banners in a show of solidarity with the indigenous leader, with several speakers criticising the Mauricio Macri administration.
Speaking to international media before leaving for the World Economic Forum in Davos on Tuesday, President Macri distanced himself from the arrest, stating: “There were independent judges in Jujuy that did not consult me or the governor, but acted on pending cases against this leader. She has several cases of violating the law.”
Members of Morales’ UCR also defended the Jujuy governor. “No-one can look the other way about what’s going on in the province,” said UCR legislator Mario Negro. “Everyone knows that there is a parallel state set up by Kirchnerism where Milagro Sala controlled with discretion millions of pesos every month, which she used to discipline thousands of needy families in Jujuy.”
Monday’s march occurred at the same time as another gathering in Palermo – attended by the ruling PRO leadership – to mark the one-year anniversary of prosecutor’s Alberto Nisman mysterious death, exposing once again the deep divisions in Argentine politics and society. With a few notable exceptions, the mainstream media focused their cameras and attention on the Nisman march.