After 12 years of center-left rule under Néstor Kirchner (2003-2007) and his wife Cristina Fernández de Kirchner (2007-2015), Argentina took a decisive turn to the right in November 2015 with the election of Mauricio Macri, a former businessman and mayor of Buenos Aires from 2007 to 2015.
If the first decade of the 21st century had seen left and center-left governments dominate the Latin American political scene — a period that is often called the “Pink Tide” — Macri’s election marked the beginning of a regional shift to the right. Since then, the left has faced many challenges and setbacks in Latin America. Those include, among others: the controversial removal of Brazil’s first female president Dilma Rousseff by parliament in August 2016, followed by the current judicial attacks aimed at preventing former President Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva from running in the upcoming presidential election; the recent election of right-wing, multibillionaire and former president (2010-2014) Sebastián Piñera in Chile; and the confrontation between Rafael Correa and his successor, ex-Vice President Lenín Moreno in Ecuador.
Meanwhile, in Argentina, the resurgence of the right and the implementation of Macri’s neoliberal project has not only been synonymous with constant assaults against social rights, but also of increasing levels of state violence.
Presidentially Sanctioned Trigger Happiness
On December 8, 2017, Frank Joseph Wolek, a 54-year-old American tourist, was violently assaulted while visiting the working-class neighborhood of La Boca, located in the southeastern part of the Argentine capital Buenos Aires. Among those who witnessed the altercation was Luis Chocobar, an off-duty police officer. As they were fleeing the scene, Chocobar shot one of two assailants, 18-year-old Pablo Kukoc, twice in the back. Five days later, Kukoc died from his injuries in one of the capital’s hospitals.
Two months later, on February 1, 2018, Chocobar was officially invited to the presidential palace by President Macri. Also in attendance at the meeting were Patricia Bullrich and Cristian Ritondo, federal and provincial ministers of security, respectively. The event ended with President Macri tweeting a picture of himself shaking hands with Chocobar, who was in his police uniform. While the police officer was, at the time, being prosecuted for “excesos en la legítima defense” (excesses in legitimate defense), President Macri’s post on social media made his position on the matter extremely clear: “I wanted to offer [Chocobar] my full support, and tell him that we are with him and that we trust that the justice will absolve him of any charge,” further adding that he was “proud” that the police forces included such “courageous” members as trigger-happy agent Chocobar.
However, the meeting went far beyond being a simple public relations operation publicizing the government’s unconditional support for the use of excessive lethal force by the country’s security forces. The objective was to set up the scene for what Minister of Security Bullrich described as a “doctrine change.” Arguing that the current judicial framework works on the misguided assumption that “the policeman is always the guilty one” and that “the delinquent is right,” Bullrich affirmed that Chocobar had “acted as he had to act.”
She then presented the government’s plan to reform the penal code. This move would eliminate the notion of “legitimate defense” in the case of police operations so that the use of lethal force would now be considered an integral part of police duty. According to this new doctrine, police officers like Chocobar would enjoy the “benefit of the doubt” when it comes to killing people. The minister of security affirmed that the government’s goal was to “shift the burden of the proof” in favor of the police. Opposing the idea that the use of lethal force should automatically result in the prosecution of the police officer, she argued that the government’s penal code reform would finally provide the security forces with assumption of innocence, of which they are supposedly currently deprived. Parliamentary debate on the proposed reforms will likely take place later this year.
Two weeks later, when the charges against Chocobar were raised to “aggravated homicide by the use of a fire weapon in excess of the fulfillment of a duty,” the government reaffirmed its position, with President Macri pointing out that he “didn’t understand the ruling.” He gave his full support for the “new doctrine” defended by his minister of security by hinting that he’d rather have people like 18-year-old Kukoc shot dead than escaping, adding, “We believe that the police need to protect us, not the murderers and delinquents.”
Police Brutality and the Mapuche Community
The administration’s embracing and promotion of the most brutal forms of police violence is only the latest episode in a sequence which has seen the Macri presidency marked by several highly publicized cases of violent deaths at the hands of the police.
Many commentators were quick to point out that the day Chocobar was invited to the presidential palace marked the six-month anniversary of Santiago Maldonado’s disappearance. On August 1, 2017, 29-year-old Maldonado was taking part in a protest organized by the Mapuche community Pu Lof en Resistencia de Cushamen in the Southern Argentine province of Chubut. This local Indigenous community had been involved in a struggle over land claims against Benetton Group for a number of years. The Italian multinational corporation controls about 900,000 hectares of property in Patagonia, a portion of which has been claimed by the Mapuche community as part of their ancestral land. While the Mapuche’s ownership rights over their land is supposedly recognized and protected under both the Argentine law and international conventions, the actual application of said rights has proven extremely difficult to secure, as they tend to clash with the interests of powerful capitalist actors like the Benetton Group.
On July 31, 2017, local Indigenous communities had set up a roadblock to protest against the detention of their leader, Facundo Jones Huala. Maldonado, a craftsman and tattoo artist from the Buenos Aires province, was taking part in the protest out of solidarity with the Mapuche people. On the second day of the roadblock, the protesters faced a violent opposition from the National Gendarmerie forces — federal security forces under the authority of Minister of Security Bullrich. As the dust settled on this violent encounter, many Indigenous people found themselves either in prison or in the hospital. Maldonado, on the other hand, was nowhere to be found.
During the weeks following Maldonado’s disappearance, tens of thousands took to the streets of Buenos Aires, Rosario and Córdoba. Several of those marches were violently repressed by the police, with dozens of people being beaten up and/or arrested. Solidarity gatherings were also organized in Rio de Janeiro, Paris, Madrid and New York City.
As the days went by without any news about the young artisan’s whereabouts, Argentina began to relive the darkest days of its history, when “forced disappearance” was common practice during the 1976-1983 military dictatorship. It is estimated that 30,000 people were disappeared by the military junta. Under the rallying cries of “¿Dónde está Santiago Maldonado?/Where is Santiago Maldonado?” and “Aparición con vida/Return him alive,” Maldonado’s supporters used slogans reminiscent of those used 40 years ago by protesting mothers of “disappeared” children (Madres de Plaza de Mayo) under the last military regime.
With pressure mounting on the Argentine government from both the domestic population and the international community, it took 10 days for President Macri to mention the event, only doing so in the most laconic terms. Meanwhile, Minister of Security Bullrich unequivocally sided with the security forces, accusing the human rights organizations of using Maldonado’s disappearance for political reasons and claiming that taking any disciplinary measure against those in charge of the police operation would be “an injustice,” as there supposedly were “no signs that the Gendarmerie had had any involvement” in Maldonado’s disappearance. While it had been two months since they had last heard from him, Bullrich asked Maldonado’s family members to remain “patient,” saying that the situation was “complex.”
Eventually, 76 days after Maldonado’s disappearance, his body was finally found in the Chubut River, which runs alongside the area where the federal Gendarmerie’s attack took place. During those 76 days of suffering and uncertainty, Maldonado’s relatives were not honored by an official invitation to meet with the president; on the contrary, they were subject to illegal surveillance from the police forces. A federal court is currently investigating those activities to determine whether the police might have received its orders directly from Minister Bullrich. To this day, the circumstances surrounding Maldonado’s death in the midst of the Gendarmerie’s repressive operation remain unclear.
On November 25, 2017, as Maldonado was being buried in the Buenos Aires province, the Gendarmerie launched another violent operation to dislodge a Mapuche community that had settled on disputed lands in the Rio Negro province. During the operation, Rafael Nahuel, a 22-year-old Mapuche, was shot in the back by the police. He died later on that day. Once again, Bullrich assured the Gendarmerie of her total support. She described the local Mapuche communities as “violent groups that don’t respect the law, don’t recognize Argentina, don’t accept the state, the constitution [nor] our symbols,” and affirmed that the police’s actions had been legitimate and adequate. Pointing out that she did not see any reason to doubt the Gendarmerie’s version of the events, Bullrich made clear that the state would not take any further action to investigate Nahuel’s death, concluding “this upside-down world has come to an end.”
Pension Reform and Repression
Indigenous communities are not the only ones facing increasing levels of repression from the federal security forces. In Macri’s Argentina, police violence has become a common way to deal with those opposing the government’s neoliberal policies.
The highly contested pension reform that was passed at the end of last year probably represents the best example in which social and police violence work in tandem. The most radical and far-reaching of Macri’s austerity policies thus far, the legislation would change the formula used to calculate pension increases based on inflation rates. Based on the new model, 17 million retirees would see their pension reduced by 8 percent in 2019. Between 70 and 80 percent of Argentinians rejected this highly regressive measure. In the midst of a national strike and massive popular protests that brought half a million people to the streets of Buenos Aires, the government called upon 900 gendarmes (in addition to the hundreds of police forces already mobilized) to surround the Congress so that the parliamentary debate would be able to take place.
The violence with which the security forces, led by the Gendarmerie, met the protesters reached levels unseen in the country since the tragic days of the December 2001 crisis. In an atmosphere described by the newspaper El País as one similar to a “conflict zone,” the repression hit indiscriminately. Among the hundreds of people that suffered from police violence, at least two opposition legislators had to be hospitalized and more than 20 journalists were wounded, including Pablo Piovano, a photographer for left-wing journal PáginaI12, who was shot more than 10 times with rubber bullets at very close range. The chaos outside Congress was such that the parliamentary session had to be interrupted and postponed to the next day.
This extremely violent episode even led National Deputy for Buenos Aires Elisa Carrió — one of the most important members of Macri’s ruling coalition — to question Bullrich’s decision to mobilize the Gendarmerie for this operation. The outcry following the security forces’ brutal repression led the government to refrain from using the Gendarmerie again in the following parliamentary session. After more than 12 hours of intense debate, the government’s proposal, which would reduce social security spending by about USD $5.5 million, was approved by a mere 10-vote margin.
The Neoliberal Centaur-State
The pension reform episode is emblematic of a much broader process that has seen both social violence and police violence increase exponentially during the first two years of Macri’s presidency. One of the most recurring themes of Macri’s economic policies have been the constant and dramatic increases in the price of public services.
In the first months of 2016, electricity, gas and water prices went up by between 300 and 700 percent, as the government cut back on the subsidies of the Kirchner era which the new administration described as “gifts” that would have turned the country into Venezuela. Since then, those prices have kept rising. As a matter of fact, new price increases have been implemented with such frequency that keeping track of each price hike has become virtually impossible. It is estimated for instance, that between December 2015 and February 2018, electricity prices increased, on average, by 1,700 percent. Bus tickets in the Argentine capital have followed a similar trend, going from three pesos in 2015 to their current level of eight pesos, and are set to reach 10 pesos in June (a 2,300 percent in three years).
Additionally, the government’s decision to slash into public investments and to drastically reduce the public sector payroll led unemployment rates to increase by 23.5 percent since 2015, reaching 8.4 percent in 2018. Furthermore, while poverty rates have remained stable under Macri, extreme poverty and inequality are both on the rise, with the richest sector of the population capturing 33.2 percent of the national income (an increase of 8.85 percent since 2015) compared to 1.9 percent for the poorest sector (a decrease of 13.6 percent since 2015). All in all, according to a recent report from the Universidad Nacional de Avellaneda, under Macri’s presidency, Argentina became the South American country suffering the sharpest decrease in terms purchasing power.
As the various repressive episodes described above show, those negative social trends occur against the backdrop of a stark increase in police violence that is fully and enthusiastically supported by the president himself. According to the grassroots organization CORREPI, which documents every case of police violence in Argentina, while security forces killed one person every 28 hours at the end of the Kirchnerista period, this dreadful figure rose to one death every 23 hours under Macri. Facundo Ferreira, an 11-year-old boy living in one of the most marginalized neighborhoods of Tucumán, became the latest victim when he was shot in the back by the police as he was riding home on a motorcycle driven by a friend on March 8, 2018.
Macri’s Argentina has become a perfect example of what sociologist Loïc Wacquant describes as the neoliberal “centaur state, guided by a liberal head mounted upon an authoritarian body,” as eager to promote a laissez-faire attitude with regards to social inequalities as it is to deploy its implacable iron fists when it comes to dealing with the consequences of those policies among the most vulnerable sectors of society.