2002 was a dark year for Argentina. The country was picking up the pieces from the economic and political crisis that had exploded in the last days of 2001. Poverty and unemployment were at an all-time high, and the sight of people rummaging through rubbish looking for something to eat was a common one. So were protests, all day, every day: desperate pleas for work, food, change, dignity.
One of these protests would be tragically different.
The murders of Darío Santillán and Maximiliano Kosteki at a roadblock on the 26th June 2002 would change the course of Argentine history.
‘Piquete y Cacerola’
The piqueteros became a feature of the political landscape in the late 1990s. As traditional party politics were seen as little more than a façade for businesses and corruption, and unemployment and poverty became a reality for millions of people, alternative ways of political expression came to the surface.
It all started in the oil towns of Cutral-Co (Neuquén) and Tartagal (Salta) between 1996 and 1997, both greatly affected by the mass layoffs resulting from the privatisation of oil company YPF. Thousands of people gathered and set up pickets on major roads, lighting up tires, and spontaneously forming assemblies to debate the next steps to take. The piquetero movement was born.
A new social subject was protagonist in these protests: the unemployed worker. In a society organised around labour relations – typical of the post-war industrial model – and where political activity was largely linked to unionism, the unemployed were effectively marginalised, living at the fringes of society. Economically, socially and politically they were isolated. They had no expression channels, so they created their own.
The piquetero practices of roadblocks and assemblies spread throughout the country and into Greater Buenos Aires, where they had to coexist with, and try to displace, deeply rooted political practices of the so-called “traditional politics”.
The riots of December 2001 brought the still marginal piqueteros and the pot-banging middle classes together. During the months following the collapse, a large part of the political activity concentrated around the citizens’ assemblies and the piquetero movements. The chant ‘Piquete y cacerola, la lucha es una sola‘ (‘Pickets and pots, the struggle is the same’) summarised the visibility and recognition the piquetero movement had gained -and which they had never enjoyed before.
Darío Santillán and Maximiliano Kosteki were part of the piquetero experience and were immersed in the rebellious atmosphere sparked by the December riots. Whilst, at the age of 21, Darío was already a seasoned activist, Maxi joined his local MTD (Unemployed Workers’ Movement) at 22, and spent the last few months of his life actively dedicated to its cause.
Darío and Maxi never met. They only came together once, as Darío came to Maxi’s aid when he was lying on the floor of the Avellaneda train station, bleeding to death. That last gesture of solidarity cost him his life
Shooting to Kill
As the piquetero groups made their way to Avellaneda on the cold morning of the 26th June 2002, they were aware that this protest would be different. The plan was to block Puente Pueyrredón, one of the bridges that connects the capital with the province of Buenos Aires, as part of a larger mobilisation that included roadblocks in other parts of Buenos Aires and the country. They were asking for an increase in subsidies, a food plan for the unemployed, supplies for schools and hospitals, the release of jailed piqueteros, and an end to repression
But the government, headed by Eduardo Duhalde since January of that year, had already warned that “any attempts at isolating the city would be considered an act of war”. The piqueteros had already had run-ins with the police during their protests, and one of them had been killed during a roadblock a few months earlier. The repressive attitude of the government was hardening, but the piqueteros hoped that it would not be able to get away with open displays of violence in the capital, as it did in the provinces. Even so, many groups asked for the children and older ladies (who were the heart of the MTDs) not to join them.
As the piqueteros approached in two large groups, armed with sticks and slingshots, the Buenos Aires police and naval prefecture blocked the bridge. Face to face with the police, one protestor ran from her group and tried to hit a policeman, superintendent Alfredo Fanchiotti, whom she claims was about to open fire on one of the groups. This gave the police the excuse they were waiting for to start the repression.
Just before 12pm, the police opened fire. The protesters were chased down the streets of Avellaneda, and even though they tried to execute an orderly retreat, panic took over. It soon became clear that, as well as rubber bullets, some policemen were using live rounds. Describing the incident, a court later ruled that they were shooting “with the intention to kill the protesters in front of them, who were running away with their backs to [the police]“.
One of those protesters was Maximiliano Kosteki, who, as he turned around to see if the police were still after him, was shot twice in the thigh and once in the chest. He was carried by one of his comrades to the Avellaneda train station and left there, fighting for his life.
At about 12.40pm, Darío’s group was retreating when he suddenly decided to go back towards the train station, where he knew some protesters were being ambushed by the police. When he saw Maxi lying on the floor in the station hall, he leaned over him to try and help him, yelling at everyone else, including his girlfriend and his brother, to leave as the police were entering the station.
When superintendent Fanchiotti and his underling, corporal Alejandro Acosta, entered the train station, Darío’s girlfriend and brother managed to run to the platform and jump onto an incoming train. Darío tried to do the same, but as he ran away, he was shot repeatedly in the back, from a distance of 1-2 metres. After, his body was dragged outside by the policemen, who kicked him and demanded that he get up. Maxi’s body was also dragged outside and they were both put onto the back of a pick-up truck and taken away.
‘The Crisis Caused Two New Deaths’
That was the infamous title on the front cover of Clarín newspaper, on the 27th June 2002. Not Fanchiotti, not Acosta, not the police or president Duhalde, but “the crisis”.
Immediately after the events, the government tried to blame the deaths on the piqueteros, claiming that it had all been the result of a fight amongst different factions of the movement. The mainstream media played its role by spreading this information, even against their own photographic evidence, which clearly showed the police attack.
The claim did not last and soon enough it was dropped. The evidence against the police was overwhelming, as it became clear during the trial, which started in May 2005. The photographs and film recordings taken by the press on the day played a key role and in January 2006, Fanchiotti and Acosta were both sentenced to life in prison for the murders. Seven other policemen were convicted for attempted murder and five for obstruction of justice.
“We are now going after Duhalde and all those who were politically responsable [for the murders]!” Alberto Santillán, Darío’s father, yelled as he heard the verdict. Ten years later, no one else has faced trial for the Avellaneda massacre, as it came to be known.
There were, however, political consequences. One week after the deaths of Maxi and Darío, president Duhalde called for early elections, to be held in May 2003 -instead of October. The tragedy put an end to his hopes for reelection, and Duhalde’s political career has been in decline ever since.
The new government, led by Néstor Kirchner, took a different approach to dealing with piqueteros. Shortly after taking office, Kirchner met with delegates from the piquetero movement, who found the president’s attitude positive, as he had considered them “legitimate interlocutors of the social problem”. It is also believed that the Avellaneda massacre, and its political fallout, influenced the Kirchnerist governments’ stand on police repression; since 2004, federal police (managed by the national government) have not been allowed to use firearms to contain social protests.
This practice, however, has not spread to other, provincial police forces around the country, as evidenced by continuing reports of violent repression and murder. Away from the capital, unfortunately, the lessons from the atrocious murders of Maxi and Darío seem to have gone unnoticed.
Mariano Pacheco was Darío Santillán's comrade and friend, and is the co-writer of his biography. The 26th June 2002 found him on the front line, repelling the police attack. He still often wonders how he managed to come out unscathed, whilst many of comrades were wounded, jailed, or even killed.
"I had participated in the 20th December riots, so that wasn't my first direct experience of being in protests supressed by the police. I started my political activity quite young, with people who had been involved in politics in the '80s and '70s, so just from hearing them talk I knew that in a dangerous situation you have to look forward and never back, face the situation and not run away -the opposite of what most people do. In that sense, I kept a very cool head, and only about two hours later did I realise what had just happened.
Darío, on the other hand, had a more passionate reaction to go back [to the train station] and stay there. A comrade says that Darío was upset because, during the 20th December riots, he felt like he hadn't lived up to his own expectations as an activist. He had been deeply marked by that experience."