Saturday 21st April: as was his routine, Eduardo Córdoba left home for a rehearsal with the Bolivian folk music group Sikiri Sartanani. On this particular Saturday however, Eduardo was never to make it back home. Later, following a non-violent altercation of words with a bus driver, he was shot and killed at the doors of his local police station.
When the doctor arrived on the scene, he was unable to check Eduardo’s pulse because his handcuffs were clasped too tightly. Only when they were loosened could the doctor confirm that he was dead. His family were not informed.
Eduardo was the latest victim of the all-too-common police violence in Argentina that has come to be known as ‘gatillo facil’ (easy trigger).
Saturday 23rd June: nearly two months later, drums are beating and pipes being sung as Sikiri Sartanani take to the streets to perform.
This time it is no rehearsal. Instead, the performance forms part of a public protest in the barrio against ‘Comisaria 36’, the community’s police station and site where no less than 30 ‘gatillo facil’ killings, including Eduardo’s, are alleged to have occurred in the last ten years.
A crowd of some 150 locals gather in the park to listen to Eduardo’s friends, who organised the event, as they explain what the protest is about and why this action is necessary.
Eduardo’s mother speaks to the crowd. Eyes lower and the music stops. She is overwhelmed. Not only by grief but also by the empowering sense of solidarity and outrage within the community at what has happened to her son. Today, she has found a voice that will be heard.
Banners aloft and with a medley of colourful indigenous flags warming the wintry cool sky, the crowd begins its march through the barrio’s streets. Flyers are distributed, information shared and by the time we arrive at the police station in question, news that was previously hearsay is now common knowledge.
As the crowd approaches the station, songs begin to be sung: “It’s going to stop, it’s going to stop, this habit of killing.” The music gets louder and the tempo speeds up as we round upon the building of Comisaria 36.
Guarding the station are 20 or so police officers, ready and waiting for their public shaming. Stony-eyed, with barely a flicker of emotion, they stand in silence as the crowd jeers and shouts ‘police murderers!’; ‘federal police: a national embarrassment!’
Stencils are painted on walls and pavements that surround the building: ‘insecurity is having the police patrolling the streets.’
One particular motif catches my eye. Around a picture of a Ford Falcon (the patrol cars used to pick political detainees off the streets during the last dictatorship) are written the words: ‘Argentine Federal Police, today as yesterday: repression, kidnapping and torture.’
After half an hour, the crowds disperse peacefully to a nearby park where the sober music continues to play as air chills with the falling sun.
The day had caught me off guard. I had gone with reservations about being voyeuristic: watching someone else’s struggle rather doing it yourself. By the end, I began to feel that the cause not just Eduardo’s, not just his barrio’s, but my own.
I had experienced what is called an ‘escrache’ – a very Argentine form of social protest or public shaming that was started by the group H.I.J.O.S. The organisation’s name literally means ‘children’ but the initials stand for Hijos por la identidad y la Justicia contra la Olvido y el Silencio (Children for identity and justice and against the forgotten and the silence).
It is made up of sons, daughters and families of those that disappeared in the last dictatorship of 1976-83. They campaign for information about what happened to their relatives and for justice.
Argentina has had many military dictatorships but the last one was the most brutal and devastating. It gave giving rise to the country’s Dirty War – the story of which is truly shocking.
Wrought by the military junta against its very own people, some 30,000 are estimated to have been tortured and ‘disappeared’ during the period 1976-83. The real figure may never be known. During the 1970s many left wing groups grew in Argentina, and guerrilla activity became increasingly frequent. In an attempt to stem the rebellion and control and terrify the population, anyone involved in ‘subversive’ activity was disappeared and then held in detention centres, tortured and many finally murdered in grotesque ways including being dropped alive from aeroplanes into Buenos Aires’ Río de la Plata.
After the dictatorship fell in 1983, a façade of retribution was initiated when two of the most notorious dictators – Jorge Rafael Videla and Leopoldo Galtieri – went to prison, but many others faced impunity.
In 1986, the Punto Final law of was passed that banned further penal action against both military and civilians for crimes committed during the dictatorship. The following year, the Law of Military Obedience was also passed by congress, exempting from blame all subordinates for the human rights violations during the dictatorship.
Then in October 1989, President Menem pardoned several military officials including those involved in the coup that ended democracy back in 1976; and then in December 1990, he pardoned the heads of the military junta, who had been held under house arrest since being found guilty in 1985.
So, few of those actually responsible have been locked up or received any form of retribution. It is clear that official justice is something most Argentines don’t readily expect from their government.
Enter the ‘escrache’ – popular, autonomous justice.
The meaning of the word comes from Buenos Aires slang lunfardo meaning to ‘expose’, ‘uncover’ or ‘bring to light’. The idea behind escraches is to bring justice into the social sphere. In the absence of state condemnation, the aim of the H.I.J.O.S. was to promote – at the very least – social condemnation of the crimes of the dictatorship.
By the mid-1990s, the public was barely speaking anymore about the crimes of the dictatorship, and at this time the children of its victims were coming of age and realising the power that they held collectively to oust their parents torturers and murderers who were living peaceful lives within their own communities.
Lucia Garcia, press officer for Las Madres de Plaza de Mayo, said: “The goal was to reinstall the issue on the political agenda and, just as importantly, into the conscious minds of the public.”
On average, the organisation carries out an escrache every two months in the capital alone. Local campaigning and escraches have been very successful. These murderers and torturers discover that they cannot forget the past, they cannot refuse to take responsibility for the despicable acts they have committed and usually, already been tried for committing. Many have moved – only to be re-targeted.
According to Lucia, the impact of the escrache cannot be underestimated. Did they help bring about the annulments of the impunity laws in 2003? “Absolutely, I am sure,” she says confidently.
Much like the escrache in Eduardo Córdoba’s name, a traditional H.I.J.O.S. escrache comes after a good couple of months of local campaigning. After the individual or company is targeted, local groups ‘work the barrio’ to inform more and more people in the area. An important task is to publicise information: when, where and why the escrache will be made.
To this end poster campaigns are normally used. If the escrache is against an individual, the posters have a face of the targeted person, his name, his address, and telephone number. They mention the history of the crimes of that person and the reasons for his freedom. They also include the date, time and place for the demonstration. Well publicised for months before, several hundreds, and often thousands, gather to march to the house of the guilty.
A current photograph of the targeted person is the link between the information of the history, the trial, the past, and the everydayness of the life in the neighbourhood. In the task of building bridges between the everyday and the extraordinary, the picture puts a face to the information that, talking about concentration camps, torture, disappearances, remains otherwise abstract and out of the world of the everyday with which the neighbours are obviously more familiar.
The actual events are lively affairs with drums, puppets, banners and songs. Almost always present are police to safeguard the perimeter of the house in question. To ensure there is no police repression of problems, the H.I.J.O.S. make strict rules for the escraches. They instruct the participants with a series of rules and regulations that make the performance very well defined. They instruct the participants not to damage the property of the neighbours. The only place that is painted is the pavement of the public street, with one exception: red colour will be splashed to the front of the house of the targeted person. This is the mark of the escrache.
The violence of a real escrache is moral rather than physical. For Lucia, it is thought that an individual hiding away in a house behind just a brick wall has committed such atrocious crimes that have the most ‘violent’ impact upon her.
After singing and shouting the crowd disperses peacefully – mission achieved – the repressor is no longer living in peace.
Inés Vasquez, education secretary of the Universidad Popular de Las Madres, points to the popular uprising after the 2001 economic collapse as a key moment in which ‘the characteristics of an escrache changed’. From this time the scope broadened as groups unaffiliated with the H.I.J.O.S. used the escrache format to protest against banks, electricity companies and inept government ministers.
Today, increasing numbers of collectives and individuals use escraches as a way of public demonstration, in what has been called the ‘generalisation of the escrache’. There have been ones against companies like Walmart and Carrefour, against ex-mayor Anibal Ibarra and President Nestor Kirchner’s sister Cristina Kirchner, the minister for education.
Recently Greenpeace carried out a ‘virtual escrache’ on legislators who opposed the passing of an anti-deforestation bill. The environmental organisation used their website to name deputies for each area of Argentina and specify how they voted on the controversial piece of legislation with the aim of shaming them before their voting public.
And there are escraches like the one in Eduardo Córdoba’s name – against an institutional corruption within the police force that dates back to that of the dictatorship. The stencil with the Ford Falcon drawn linked the two periods together as being problems on the same page of history, despite the fact that they are separated by some 30 years of time.
Ayelen Aguilera, an H.I.J.O.S. member at the Comisaria 36 escrache, reiterated the importance that the organisation feels to support all types political and social injustice: “It is all the same institutions that continue with the same impunity. And without legal justice, we have to reclaim and demand a social justice.”
Whoever the ‘victim’ of an escrache might be, the element that nearly always remains is the conception of the neighbourhood as a political space of its own, the forcing of community members into taking a stance and defining their ethical positions on an issue that they previously were not aware of or found easier to avoid.
The fact that as a way of social protest the escrache has been so widely used points to a deep source of contemporary Argentine crisis: the tension between collective and individual responsibility.
The empowerment that this form of protest can bring a community is an incredible feeling for many in a country where the people have every reason to feel frustrated and powerless.
As one chant says: “Si no justicia, hay escrache.”
Photos by Daniel Estrada Rodríguez and Kate Stanworth.