Return of the Police State

News & Politics

Dario Santillan was 21. He was building a house of his own, with a group of others who had taken over some abandoned land. Maximiliano Kosteki was 25. He was an artist who was learning how to grow food in the community garden in his neighborhood.

Both were "piqueteros," unemployed workers who have been blocking roads in Argentina for the past five years to protest the country's unemployment rate, which began to climb during the privatization of public companies during the 1990s and has soared to 25 percent.

Both were shot dead last week in a railway station 10 blocks from a piquetero demonstration. At first, government officials said that the piqueteros killed each other. Then the evidence appeared: a photograph of the smiling policeman as he crouched over the body of Maximiliano Kosteki. Witnesses said they watched as police entered the train station in pursuit of fleeing demonstrators and saw the officer pull out his gun and fire point blank at Dario Santillan's back.

"He was shot like a dog," said one witness.

Ninety injuries were reported during the demonstration. Some people were shot with lead bullets. Others were peppered in the back by rubber bullets as they ran from police. Some, like the woman lying on her back whose face was caught by television cameras in a frozen gasp, had swallowed too much tear gas. Witnesses who watched police storming into the headquarters of a left-wing political organization in pursuit of fleeing demonstrators said they hadn't seen anything like it since the military dictatorship, which ended in the 1980s.

As news of the deaths began to break last week, President Dualde remained silent. He and his ministers have been busy for months trying to come to an agreement with the International Monetary Fund, which has asked for additional cutbacks that many economists believe will lead to more loss of jobs. Buenos Aires police commissioner Alfredo Franchiotti, one of the three police who chased the slain demonstrators into the railway station, was shown on television saying that the police had nothing to do with the deaths.

Blood dripped down Franchiotti's face from a punch in the eye by an irate bystander. It was the piqueteros, he said, who cause the violence.

In Spanish this is called "mano duro" -- hard hand. It's what happens after too many people with not enough to eat begin to make too much noise in the streets, when the shouts against politicians become too loud, when the chaos of a collapsing system becomes unbearable. It's also what happened in Argentina in 1976, when military forces took control of the country and during the next seven years 30,000 disappeared.

"Well, at least there was order," some say of that period. Order, security, hard hand: these words are once again being heard in Argentine government and media circles, and on the streets. The powers of the national intelligence agency have been strengthened, police presence has been increased and more activist beatings by police are being reported.

Police recently destroyed a streetcorner soup kitchen in the provinces. Food was thrown on the ground and women and children hauled off in paddy wagons.

Violence and terrorism by right-wing political groups is also on the rise. Recently, protesters at a demonstration against former president Carlos Menem were beaten by Menem supporters. A student campaigning for a low-cost student bus ticket was abducted by two men who carved the initials "AAA" (Anti-Communist Alliance of Argentina) into his chest, a chilling reminder of the '70s.

Government versions of the demonstration and police reaction changed from "a conspiracy of violent piqueteros" and "leftist revolutionary strategies" -- phrases similar to ones used by the dictatorship to justify the oppression of the '70s -- to "police who hunted demonstrators down like animals" once the evidence appeared.

Now, newspapers like Pagina 12 are asking how much Dualde himself had to do with the hunt. Some political commentators have suggested that Menem, in conjunction with the International Monetary Fund and the United States, is trying to destabilize the Dualde government so that he can return to power. Given Menem´s recent visit with the Bush family in the United States and Washington's history of destabilizing Latin American governments, few in Argentina find the theory too far-fetched.

When activists called for a march in support of the slain piqueteros the following day, media commentators suggested that fear of violence would keep people inside their houses. For some, it did. "This has brought back too many memories," said a woman named Andrea.

But despite their fears, 12,000 people marched peacefully and successfully to the Plaza de Mayo one recent evening, chanting,"Tonight, we are all piqueteros."

PNS contributor Lisa Garrigues is a writer based in Buenos Aires.

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