***Article originally published in Spanish in Revista Mu (Edition 71) ***
At 30,000 each, both communities share the same number of residents. Both, also, follow a specific urban model: those on the outside work for those on the inside. A gated wall separates them, with 200 cameras that, in the name of security, protect private neighbourhoods where, just recently, police arrested powerful drug traffickers. Such contrasts reveal in black and white just one of the main problems urban suburbs encounter: how to live so close in such violently different contexts.
The word “Vigilantes” is written in graffiti across the grey, barb wired wall. An arrow shoots out from the word and points upward at a watchtower with broken glass. On this side of the wall, a few school children and their mothers wave as they pass by. Horacio, who lives on this side but works on the other side, offers a calculation. “Over there, you’re only greeted by one in every 12 people.”
On the other side, in Nordelta, a sticker on the rear window of a car reads: “Don’t envy my life, buy one for yourself.”
What does this nearly three-metre-high wall separate? The neighbourhood of Las Tunas is squeezed in between three private ones – La Comarca, Talar del Lago, and Nordelta – and can only be reached by tar roads yet to be paved with concrete.
Nordelta’s entrance is reached only after crossing a gate and showing ID, by a smooth asphalt road, between palm trees and lakes that leave one unsure if they were made by God or the neighbourhood’s creator, Eduardo Constantini.
Neighbouring Las Tunas does not have drinkable water, nor does it have sewers, natural gas facilities, or 24-hour medical services.
Nordelta is the largest private ‘city’ in South America and includes ten private, gated neighbourhoods. It has a modern health centre complete with primary and diagnostic care, a shopping mall with a supermarket and a cinema, more than 70 local businesses, four office buildings, and an Intercontinental hotel, built at a price of $25 million. There are also gated clubs, including a golf club and a marina home to hundreds of boats and yachts. The city refers to itself as Ciudad Pueblo, and its residents have taken the unofficial demonym of nordelteños.
Las Tunas calls itself ‘barrio’. It is one of the most densely populated districts in Tigre, and one of the most neglected. Its growth accompanied that of neighbouring Nordelta. “Many people from here work over there as labourers, gardeners, or cleaners,” says Ricardo, a mason who makes swimming pools.
Horacio is a gardener who, up until a little while ago, was working at Los Magníficos, a car wash in Nordelta that was revealed at the end of October to have been the property of a drug cartel that operated there – yes, just like in the television series Breaking Bad. Horacio worked 12 hours a day, including weekends, had one day off, and made $3,500 a month.
“It is the same as with mining: when they built the country clubs, everyone thought that the neighbourhood was going to improve, but in the end we stayed the same,” says Ricardo.
At 30,000, Las Tunas and Nordelta each have the same, symbolic number of residents. Las Tunas stretches over 150 hectares, Nordelta 1,600. The wall between them separates an indivisible reality: for there to be rich people, there must be poor people.
The Necessary Evil
Ricardo and Belén’s grandparents used to bathe in the Las Tunas river. Ricardo and Belén would play ball and run about the neighbourhood’s green fields. Today, the couple is going on 30 and has a 18-month-old daughter, Gaia Luna Bahiana, who is growing up next to the same river, one that is now contaminated by the trash from Nordelta’s gated developments, a nearby pulp mill, and two meat packers. The wall, moreover, denies Gaia a view of the horizon.
The family of three is part of the social organisation Fogoneros, which has launched two cooperative ventures in Las Tunas: a furniture shop and a bakery. Fogoneros also has a high school diploma programme for adults, a gender workshop, and a soup kitchen that seats 40 people.
The carpenters are about to deliver a piece of furniture that they had ordered. The bakery is selling hot pastries. The adult education course has finished for today, but you can see the projects from today’s sexual education class. A man’s silhouette displays the following words: dysfunctional, violent, miserable, liars, companion, good father, a necessary evil. Definitions on the female figure read: breasts, cachula, sexy, trash, work, rebel, procreators.
The Eyes of Tigre
Belén attends the adult education course while her daughter goes to the cooperative’s day-care. Her husband, Ricardo, is involved as much as he can, when he isn’t building private pools in Nordelta.
“What a contradiction, right?” he says. “To be in a cooperative and then go and work for the rich.” He laughs and pulls out the Fogoneros‘ newspaper, the Eyes of Tigre. The title on the cover reads “Lights, camera… security? For whom are the security controls meant?” The paper goes on to discuss a recent police raid that dismantled a drug cartel that had been operating for years in Nordelta.
In Ciudad Pueblo‘s gated communities, Los Castores, Marina del Golf, and Santa Catalina, Jesús Antonio Yepez Gaviria, a 47-year-old from Colombia, had been operating alongside his wife and other members of the cartel. His arrest followed that of his trafficking partner John Eduard Martínez Grajales, aka ‘El Doctor’. Also in the cartel were two Peruvians and two Argentines whose names remain unknown. During the raid, at least 114 kg of cocaine were seized, in addition to seven high-end cars. It was ‘El Doctor’ who was running the car wash Los Magníficos.
El Doctor, however, was not the only distinguished business owner from Ciudad Pueblo to be detained. Henry de Jesús López Londoño, a Colombian who goes by ‘Mi Sangre’, was one of the most wanted drug traffickers in the world at the time of his arrest at the end of 2012. He is awaiting extradition to the US. Again, no Argentines near Mi Sangre.
After a series of burglaries close to its security gates, it was revealed that Ciudad Pueblo had invested US$1.2m in safety, including more than 200 cameras and a 24-hour operations centre.
However, the neighbourhood that the media has stigmatised is the one on the other side of the wall, Las Tunas, though the residents are raising their own issues. “Our cooperative was once broken into, and we were robbed of everything,” Belén says. “There’s supposed to be a security camera here in the corner, but it was not working that day. When it’s for their own good, it’s always there, but for the people it isn’t.”
“It is true that there is a problem of violence and insecurity, but it is also true that the media exacerbates the picture,” argues a piece in ‘Eyes of Tigre’. Ricardo remembers that the last time the media actually came to Las Tunas was after a kidnapping took place in 2008. “They only come to Las Tunas for that kind of thing, not because those who live here have a problem or because we are denouncing the flooding and contamination we deal with. In those situations the media is not allowed to come.”
“Who won’t allow them?” Ricardo and Belén respond in unison: “Massa”.
A War of Two Worlds
The last time [former Tigre mayor] Sergio Massa visited Las Tunas was in 2005, accompanied by then-president Néstor Kirchner. Massa was head of ANSES, the National Administration of Social Security, and was also a candidate for congress.
“They were campaigning,” recounts Ricardo. “They arrived in a helicopter and then proceeded to walk around the neighbourhood on foot. The craziest thing is that the streets they were walking on had been paved just three hours earlier.” Belen adds, “It was almost like they were paving as they walked.”
What, then, is the insecurity? “We don’t have drinking water or a sewer system. Only 40 homes have gas, and that is only because they lie in the path of Nordelta’s gas line,” Ricardo says. Las Tunas’ health centre closes at 6pm, says Belén, so access to emergency health services is only possible by taking a bus to nearby Pacheco.
Furthermore, Las Tunas floods whenever it rains heavily. “We are stuck in a kind of pit. They raised the private neighbourhoods and left us below.” Nordelta accelerates the tsunami. “They close the floodgates of the Las Tunas river, so all the water comes down here.”
The last time this happened was during April and May. The floods carried away beds, clothes, children’s toys, among other things. When the arsenic-polluted waters rose to knee level, a combination of desperation and logic compelled Las Tunas residents to break a hole in a section of the wall separating their community from the Nordelta golf course. It was 3:30am and Nordelta’s private security – for whom the drug-traffickers and money launderers do not exist – fought them off with rubber bullets.
Who said the following? “The main problems residents face are those associated with unemployment, malnutrition, high numbers of young people dropping out of school to look for a job, high rates of teenage pregnancy, and a low possibility of acceptance into formal education, to name just a few.”
The answer: The Nordelta Foundation.
The organisation runs a series of social programmes in Las Tunas, funded by donations. Ricardo calls it “pure bullshit”. The group’s new year’s dinner was attended by then-mayor Sergio Massa and his wife. Massa spoke about the local problems of that venture, to which the name Constantini is also attached. Nordelta is also the name of Ciudad Pueblo’s own magazine. Directed by Juana Constantini, the publication covers topics such as decor, latest trends, tourism, art, fashion, food, education, golf, and landscaping.
Walsh and Urondo in Nordelta
In its special tenth anniversary edition, Nordelta magazine included a feature covering ArteBA, which began with the following sentences: “It’s still not for everyone, but it is becoming more and more frequent that common people are inspired to walk through its halls.”
Elsewhere in the publication one reads that the University of San Andrés has begun to offer courses in Nordelta, from philosophy (on “the complex relationship that exists between political power and property”), literature (noblesse oblige: “Works covered include those of the Lamborghini brothers, Manuel Puig, Paco Urondo, Rodolfo Walsh), and art history (“Contents: the fall of Peronism in 1955, in many ways, paved the way for a refreshing outlook in the world of art”).
Also included in this edition is an interview with Ciudad Pueblo resident, football player Matías Almeyda, who confesses: “When I came back from Italy in 2005, I realised this is as close as it gets to a different world.” Another article describes the trend for women to have personal shoppers. An article entitled “With the stick between your feet” features advice from Robert Mojarra Pereyra on how to improve your golf swing.
Healthy People, ‘N’ Number Plates
An editorial in Nordelta magazine describes the typical nordelteño. “He or she is an essentially healthy, sociable, cheerful, and hopeful person. It is one who believes in a project, who delights in the music of birds, the purity of Nordelta’s lakes, the adventure of sailing. The nordelteño is one who chooses to live in an environment that values greenery, wellbeing, and sport, for a life full of nature where one can build their home.”
Horacio, the gardener without the choice to live in such an environment, has written his own take on the editorial:
* “Only one out of 12 people says hello.”
* “They don’t carry bags when they walk their dogs, leaving its droppings right there,” he says, pointing at his workplace.
* “Most of them have a car with a number plate beginning in ‘N’ [from 2013]”
* “The kids are daring. They break things and then tell private security officers: ‘My dad is so-and-so, I’ll have you fired’.”
The best sold newspaper is, by far, [conservative broadsheet] La Nación.
The gated neighbourhoods of Buenos Aires province have their beginnings in the urban planning projects drawn up during the last dictatorship. They flourished thanks to the Urban Highway Plan, which connected peripheral towns with the capital. A second trigger was decree 8912/77 for Zoning and Land Use, which prohibited urbanisation in flood zones but also set aside land for investment for the construction of country club communities. Real estate spectators jumped on these large, available spaces and began transforming them into tempting developments marketed toward the middle class.
Around this time, two local infrastructure and construction companies, DyOPSA and Supercemento, bought 1,600 hectares in Tigre at a cost of US$1 to US$3 per square metre, because they were considered floodplains. Now, each hectare costs between US$800 and US$1,500 [per square metre]. The approval of Nordelta’s development materialised in 1992 with provincial decree 1736/92, under the argument of taking advantage of “lands in deserted areas”. The first walls began to be constructed in 1998 after the incorporation of Consultatio Inversora, a branch of Colsultatio S.A., owned by entrepreneur Eduardo Constantini, who joined the board of directors of Nordelta S.A. and attracted Swiss capital that helped move along the urbanisation.
The first family moved into Nordelta in 2000. Its shopping centre opened in 2005, along with a health centre and its first schools, paving the way for the possibility of a Buenos Aires version of the Truman Show. Its schools include Cardenal Pironio-Marin, Northlands, Michael Ham, Saint Luke’s, and Northfields, with average monthly fees ranging from $3,500 to $6,000.
Today, Nordelta has around 30,000 residents with plans to build enough homes to double that number. However, the sales manager for the community, Fernando Pacotto, says that Nordelta “still does not have the population density necessary” to expand the commercial offer “because everything has to be successful”. For example, the Nordelta location of the Disco chain of supermarkets is currently one of the most profitable in the country. Recently, the Belgian bakery chain Le Pain Quotidien announced it would be opening one of its first locations in Argentina in Nordelta, with large English-language signs.
There is a lot of construction going on. Prices:
* A 38 square-metre apartment facing the river: US$100,000.
* A four-bedroom house on the golf course: US$1.5m.
* Another, in the neighbourhood of La Isla: US$3.4m.
In Las Tunas, the landscape is quite different. The water, accessible only through community faucets, is contaminated with high levels of arsenic, which causes skin and respiratory diseases in the majority of children. Paediatricians warn families not to bathe children younger than five in the water. Though some construction has begun to facilitate easier access to water – with two projects funded by the Nordelta foundation – the water continues to be contaminated.
As mayor of Tigre, Sergio Massa consolidated a management model that sees in the gated community the possibility of [the state] increasing tax revenue (taxes there are much higher) while excusing itself from the responsibility of providing investment, state support, and infrastructure for its citizens. With private investment, Tigre found a solution to the issues of transport, sanitation, public health, and education, meanwhile orienting its expenses toward security (understood as police and surveillance cameras) in its effort to contain and hide behind a wall the other side of the coin: the neighbourhood of Las Tunas.
“People see that Massa has done well for Tigre, planting palm trees and encouraging tourism, and the people vote for all this. People have little awareness; for many years they did not participate in Argentine politics, so they vote for whoever seems most charismatic,” Ricardo says.
On Tigre’s not-so-charismatic Kirchnerist city councillors, Ricardo says: “They were with Massa four years ago and they are just now saying the country clubs are bad. A few days ago they came here and were showing the neighbourhood’s problems, the flooding and all that, but it was part of a campaign against Massa. They never had spoken about these problems when they were with him.”
Perhaps with similar electoral intentions, the province’s Ministry of Social Development released the following data illustrating the municipality of Tigre’s priorities, and showing that Las Tunas is not an exception to the rule.
* Health, community outreach, and human development in Massa’s Tigre made up 29% of the budget, while the provincial average surpasses 58%.
* Additionally, 49,000 homes remain disconnected from the natural gas network.
* A total of 90,000 homes lack sewages.
* Tigre’s infant mortality rate is at 12.9 per thousand, the highest in the north and above the provincial average of 11.5 per thousand.
According to the Delta Assembly and the residents of Villa La Ñata, Tigre’s land concentration can be defined as follows: barely 10% of the population occupies 60% of Tigre’s territory – 148 square km – with 90% occupying the remaining 40% of land. It is also estimated that of Tigre’s 20 km of green shores on the Luján river, there are only nine blocks with public access to the water.
Italian sociologist Ota de Leonardis claims that these kinds of places involve the “territorialisation of inequality”. English rocker Roger Waters, of Pink Floyd, made The Wall to express the mental wall that people build to shut themselves from the world. Philosopher Zygmunt Bauman states: “To fence in oneself in a gated community inevitably translates to excluding everyone else from the worthy, pleasant, and safe places and effectively closing them off in their poor neighbourhoods. In big cities, space is divided into gated communities (voluntary ghettos) and slums (involuntary ghettos).”
As we leave Nordelta, we are once again asked to show our ID. Two owls rest under the shade of a tree, attentively looking at the visitors in the same way as the two guards next to the wall stare us down. Beyond the Northlands school, behind a wall of two metres and to the left, is the road that leads to the Pan-American Highway. A wall also separates the route from the green of the country clubs. Along the wall, an electric fence. And to the right, a tall, hard reed bed, which hides Las Tunas.
Translated by Brendan O’Boyle.