“2009 was not just another year. It started with a new Miguel Bru that was Luciano Arruga, and finished with a new Walter Bulacios that was Ruben Carballo. Police repression and violence grew to the point of taking the life of someone every 24 hours.”
Any student of Argentine history is familiar with the dictatorship of the 1970s and 80s, and the thousands of students, unionists and activists that were “disappeared” by the military regime. Victims were kidnapped from their homes or the streets, tortured and murdered, and their bodies never discovered. The episode is a polemic subject in the nation’s history, and an issue of national shame and mourning.
A subject which is less-publicised, however, is that state violence and repression did not end with the return of democracy in 1983. Federal and provincial police forces continue to routinely use extreme violence and torture against suspects and detainees in their facilities, which often results in the death of the victim. A 2008 Amnesty International report exposed Argentina as one of the 81 countries in the world which still routinely practiced torture and mistreatment against those detained in police custody or the prison system.
As in much of Latin America, this violence is directed primarily towards young impoverished males living in villas (shanty towns), and is not confined to exceptional cases; NGO CORREPI (Coordinators against institutional and police repression) claim that since 1991, 2,896 young people have been “executed” while under the custody of the Argentine federal police. The Argentina Independent set out to investigate this grave phenomenon; that of those “disappeared under democracy”.
Where Is Luciano Arruga?
On 31st January 2009 Luciano Arruga, 16, left his home in Lomas del Mirador in Buenos Aires Province to meet with some friends. He asked his mother for some money to do so, and when she couldn’t spare any change left to ask his sister, who lived around the corner. This was the last time that Luciano’s mother was ever to see her son alive.
The events of that night are disputed, but witnesses claim that Luciano was picked up by the provincial police, taken to a destacamento (an unofficial police station) located in the neighbourhood and beaten to death. Other witnesses testify that they saw Luciano enter the destacamento, and that they heard shouts and pained screams from within that evening. His body has never been recovered.
Since then his family have campaigned tirelessly for his reappearance, and the arrest of eight police officers active in the neighbourhood who they suspect were directly involved in his disappearance. Currently however, all eight remain at liberty, and indeed still work in the same area.
Vanesa Orieta, sister of Luciano, describes her brother as a typical teenager. “He was a young kid full of life and energy everyone in the family used to say exactly the same thing, that he was always happy and joyful. He was 16 years old, he was working in a factory, he had a group of very close friends who he loved going out with, just like everyone at that age.”
Luciano, however, grew up and lived in a villa and, like so many other young kids in villas for this reason was a frequent target for police harassment. Vanesa asserts that “almost all the youngsters in the barrio had problems with the police, they would be hassled and stopped on any pretext. They would stop them most of the time for what we call ‘Portación de cara’. Portación de cara means being stopped for being brown or dark-skinned… this, in popular imagination signifies that these kids are going to end up stealing and robbing. So the police have zero patience with these kids.”
Luciano was frequently targeted by police patrols when on the streets; “they would throw him against walls, onto the floor and call him ‘negro de mierda’ (black scumbag)” Vanesa says. Things came to a head on 22nd September 2008 when Luciano was beaten so badly he ended up in hospital – his family declined to make a formal complaint for fear of further repercussions.
Less than six months later Luciano would be gone, “disappeared”, leaving his family devastated, without even the small consolation of knowing what happened to their son and brother. It appears he was yet another victim of what is termed in Argentina “gatillo facil”; meaning trigger-happy in English, it refers to cases of police dealing with young kids from villas and poor neighbourhoods: they shoot first, knowing that due to the situation of their victims, consequence and punishment are unlikely to follow.
“Gatillo Facil” and its Invisible Victims
But why is this the case, why can youths apparently be murdered with little or no pretext so easily by the force entrusted with their safety and security? A recurring theme amongst families of victims is that police operate under a culture of impunity, and that due to chains of nepotism and corruption throughout the force individual officers will not be held responsible for these actions.
This chain runs from the officer who receives the initial accusation to the judge and government official that rules on it. Abraham Arce, 16, was killed outside a dancehall on 31st May 2009, allegedly by Daniel and Mariano Silva, the son and grandson respectively of current provincial deputy Gustavo Silva. “With the police here, everything is fixed and arranged for them when this happens. In our case nothing has happened, no arrests, no trials, nothing,” asserts Silvia Fereyra, Abraham’s mother.
Another factor is that the mainstream media rarely covers these cases in any detail. For them the insecurity of life in the villas pales into insignificance compared to the insecurity faced by “decent, hard-working” middle-class people – insecurity inflicted by these kids from the villas and poor barrios that is treated like a cancer in Argentine society. There is no sympathy for these youngsters as they are assumed to be thieves or potential thieves already. This is an attitude that filters through Argentine society, further dividing it along lines of wealth.
Even more menacingly, this impunity means unpunished crimes are fated to repeat themselves. Lilia Lucena, the mother of Diego, a 22-year-old resident of La Matanza killed outside a nightclub allegedly by the Buenos Aires police, claims that one of the same police officers that murdered her son was involved in the killing of Luciano Arruga, four years later.
The people fight back
Hindered in seeking justice through traditional methods, family members and friends choose a more direct method of pressure: the escrache. An escrache is a mixture of protest and public shaming designed to force silent collaborators into the open. I attended an escrache in San Justo, close to where Luciano disappeared and commemorating one year of his disappearance, as well as one month from the death of another local youngster, Ruben Carballo, 17 – allegedly murdered by police outside a rock concert after being brutally beaten.
At least 600 people gathered outside the police headquarters of the barrio, including families of at least ten young people it is claimed were murdered by police officers. A march around the station was followed by a sudden release of anger as victims’ families attempted to storm the building; heartbroken mothers, fathers and siblings yelled “murderers”, “gangsters”, “Mafiosi” and other insults at the police within, hoping to goad those responsible into absolving their consciences and providing some sort of explanation as to what happened to their loved ones.
Jesica Francisco’s partner Carlos ‘Caito’ Lopresto, 24, was killed on 28th November 2009, beaten and knifed to death on his way to play football. His killer, believed to be a local veteran of the Falklands/Malvinas War, remains on the streets and the same neighbourhood. When asked what she wanted to achieve by attending the escrache that day, her response was simply one word, which summed up the atmosphere of the entire afternoon: “Justice”.
The Fight Continues
To stop these tragic cases occurring in the future, wholesale changes would need to take place in the culture of the police and security forces; officers need to become more open and accountable in their actions, and not hide behind corrupt practices and secrecy in their everyday duties.
Currently however the political and public will to change policing and tighten control does not exist. The moral panic of ‘insecurity’ means the police are given more licence to act more strongly and decisively- ‘mano dura’, which means strong handling of crime and criminals, is a vote-winner for any prospective political candidate. Gabriela Boada, Interim head of Amnesty International Argentina, asserts that “the current climate of insecurity, what people read in the media about crime and the fear they will be next, undoubtedly justifies in people’s minds cases of violence and torture carried out by police forces”.
Further still, although the Dirty War is now some 30 years behind us, the legacy of such authoritarianism and impunity as enjoyed by the police then still remains in their everyday actions. Vanesa recounts one encounter with the police force that could have come straight out of the military regime:
“One police officer told me that there was no crime in the case of Luciano because he had disappeared, no crime existed. This is language, an attitude extremely similar to that used by the dictatorship when they were disappearing people.”
What is clear, however, is that the families and friends of the victims of gatillo facil and disappearances have no intention of giving up the fight. They will continue staging protests and escraches, writing letters and mobilising until their loved ones are accounted for, and those responsible punished.
For Vanesa Orieta at least, the solidarity between those affected by gatillo facil and those horrifed and angered by these crimes means the movement can’t be separated and destroyed:
“People have joined us in solidarity for the simple fact that cases like these touch all of us, not just the family and friends of the disappeared person. It reminds us of the worst crimes of the dictatorship that still occur under democracy, and this is a subject that makes a lot of people angry. This is why they are mistaken when they kill one of our kids; they kill one, and they face the anger and resistance of all of us.”
For more information on the disappearance of Luciano Arruga, as well as other disappeared youngsters and information on upcoming demonstrations and campaigns, please visit www.lucianoarrugadesaparecido.blogspot.com
The CORREPI website also has many resources about cases of gatillo facil, as well as transcripts of cases where police have been successfully prosecuted. www.correpi.lahaine.org (both in Spanish)