Repression Intensifies in Argentina After President Empowers the Military

Weeks after Argentina signed a deal for a new $50 billion loan from the International Monetary Fund (IMF) and only days after hosting G20 leaders in Buenos Aires, Argentine President Mauricio Macri issued a decree July 23 that would allow the country’s armed forces to intervene in questions of domestic security.

The decree violates laws passed after the country’s last military dictatorship – an authoritarian military junta that took power in a coup in 1976 and used force and repression to silence all opposition – ended in 1983, which limited the role of the armed forces, and points to a disturbing trend of militarization and repression under the right-wing government. The decision sparked immediate outrage from human rights organizations and social movements who have since organized massive protests around the country.

In his statement, President Macri referred to issues of “national security,” drug-trafficking and protecting the national border to justify giving the military expanded powers. He also stated a more general need for the armed forces to “modernize” in response to 21st century threats, including “internal threats.” These statements have worried many human rights organizations who fear a return to the type of repression experienced under the dictatorship – when armed forces were likewise allowed to intervene in domestic issues.

According to the Center for Legal and Social Studies, the decree is in violation of the Defense and Security Laws, a series of laws that separate national defense from domestic security, considered fundamental to Argentina’s democracy and necessary to prevent a return to the state terrorism of the dictatorship. During that period, the state and the armed forces were responsible for the “disappearance” of 30,000 people from 1976 to 1983: kidnapping, torturing and murdering them using similar rhetoric about “internal enemies.” In a statement against the decree, the Center argues that, “This new paradigm builds the idea of internal enemies and increases violence. Involving Armed Forces in interior security puts at risk the civilian government and human rights.”

Other human rights organizations and social movements have also expressed outrage at the decree. A joint statement signed by various organizations, including the Mothers of Plaza de Mayo, the Grandmothers of Plaza de Mayo, and Sons and Daughters for Identity and Justice and against Silence and Forgetting states:

The objective of the Executive Power is to increase the levels of internal repression with the false argument to “protect strategic objectives,” construct an “internal enemy,” silence social protests, and contain the growing mobilizations that, throughout our entire country, are confronting the Cambiemos Government’s policies of hunger and misery today. The brutal structural adjustment underway, in line with requirements imposed by the International Monetary Fund, seriously affects the fundamental rights of our people. Repression will be the only response to the growing rejection that those politics provoke in society. From the human rights organizations, we are issuing a warning that involving the Armed Forces in domestic security violates the existing legislation, seriously harms the social consensus constructed after the return to democracy and the due respect to human rights, which we have fought so hard for throughout all these years.

These organizations were some of the many that participated in marches and mobilizations around the country in response to the president’s decree.

Violence at the Heart of Neoliberalism

In the 1970s, state violence was necessary to impose a new economic order. The dictatorship targeted its violence not only or even primarily at leftist guerrilla movements but against workers and workers’ organizations. As many Argentinean researchers have shown, the dictatorship restructured the entire economy, shifting it from one based on import substitution policies to one based on finance and foreign investment. Horacio Verbitsky, an investigative journalist and director of the Center, wrote in Vida de Perro that the military junta “put in practice financial and commercial instruments that modified the economic structure of the country,” referring “to the beginning of the process of the financialization of the economy, which shifted the emphasis placed on production during the previous cycle, and opened up the economy, which contributed to the destruction of thousands of industries.”

The military junta also took out multiple loans from the IMF during this time. These policies destroyed many burgeoning Argentine industries and left the country in a cycle of debt that would take decades to begin to recover from. As Verbitsky and Sztulwark emphasize in Vida de Perro, they were also immensely unpopular at the time and would not have been possible to implement without the brutal repression of all opposition.

There is a long history to the use of state violence in Argentina to implement unpopular economic policies, and especially IMF mandates. As historian Bruno Napoli argues:

Each time that Argentina has signed agreements for standby lending arrangements with the International Monetary Fund, the government in power has unfurled the banner of national security as an underhanded excuse to repress any protest against those agreements. The state responses ever since the first IMF loan, from 1958 to the present, have included arbitrary arrests, assassinations, and forced disappearances. But especially the construction of an “internal enemy” always at hand: subversives, anti-patriots, infiltrated Marxists, activists … are some of the figures invented by the state to justify structural adjustment and repression.

Napoli’s text documents how, since 1958, different Argentine governments have used the armed forces to repress opposition to IMF mandated restructuring of the economy.

Repression Under Macri and Today’s “Internal Enemies”

Today there is a similar concern that the Armed Forces will be used to allow President Macri to continue to implement disastrous and unpopular neoliberal policies. The Cambiemos government has already drastically increased the price of public utilities and public transportation, while cutting pensions as well as generally shifting resources away from developing national industries. Cuts to public spending have led to unemployment and salary cuts for state employees, or, as in the recent example of two school employees who were killed in a gas explosion in an underfunded and dilapidated school in the province of Buenos Aires, sometimes even death. The new agreement with the IMF only promises more of the same neoliberal policies and austerity measures.

Since taking office in December 2015, the Cambiemos government has already deployed increased state violence against social movements, Indigenous communities and the poor. In one of the most emblematic examples, the young artisan and anarchist Santiago Maldonado was disappeared a year ago this month while attending a protest with the Mapuche community of Pu Lof en Resistencia de Cushamen in the province of Chubut, where the Mapuche were involved in an ongoing struggle with the Italian Benetton Group over land rights. The Argentine Gendarmerie brutally attacked the protesters and during the repression, Maldonado went missing. His disappearance provoked memories of the force’s previous disappearances under the dictatorship, leading to massive protests across the country. Maldonado’s body was found 76 days later in the Chubut River, but the government has still not provided adequate answers as to where he was during that time nor an independent investigation into the Gendarmerie’s actions.

Then in November of last year, as Maldonado was being buried, state forces launched an attack on another Mapuche community in the province of Rio Negro. This time, a member of the Naval Prefecture shot the young Rafael Nahuel in the back, and he died a few hours later. Instead of investigating Nahuel’s death and holding the gendarme who murdered him responsible, the current government has continued the long tradition of inventing “internal enemies.” It fabricated a “Mapuche terrorist” organization in southern Argentina, using this imaginary enemy to discredit the Indigenous struggles against land grabs by transnational corporations.

These cases point to an increasing militarization of the Patagonia region, a region that not only contains the ancestral home of the Mapuche people but is also rich in natural resources, including Vaca Muerte, the world’s largest shale play outside of North America. Several transnational corporations have already begun hydraulic fracturing ventures in the zone, infringing on the human rights of local communities and causing environmental damage.

To this militarization we can also add increased US military operations in the region with the opening of a new “humanitarian” base in the province of Neuquén. The base has been criticized by local social movements, who, noting the base’s proximity to Vaca Muerte, warn that US military presence will likely be used to protect the interests of transnational corporations in the region and further repress social movements. This is not the US’s only military presence in Argentina: Since President Macri’s election, the has also established bases in the provinces Salta, Ushuaia and Misiones. As in other countries in the region, the US has a long history of collaborating with the Argentinean armed forces to suppress human rights in the country.

Urban social movements have also faced violent repression under the Cambiemos government. In December, protests in Buenos Aires against pension reform were met with water cannons, tear gas and rubber bullets fired at close range, turning the city into a battlefield. In February, President Macri and Security Minister Patricia Bullrich made heavy-handed police intervention into the official security doctrine when they invited police officer Luis Chocobar to the presidential house. A few months earlier, Chocobar, while off-duty, had shot a teenager involved in an assault and robbery in the back as he fled the scene, ultimately leading to the boy’s death. At the time of his invitation, Chocobar was being prosecuted for excessive use of force, yet President Macri and Minister Bullrich did not hesitate to express their support for the officer. Last December, the Coordinator against Police and Institutional Repression issued a report documenting that on average security forces killed one person every 23 hours during 2017.

Continual Defiance to Repression

Yet, despite these repressive measures, resistance to the reforms imposed by Cambiemos has been strong. In May 2017, the Supreme Court issued a ruling that could have reduced sentences for many of those convicted of human rights abuses during the dictatorship. Relatives of the victims of the dictatorship expressed concern that the Court’s decision was part of a campaign by President Macri and the ruling party to downplay the violence of the dictatorship, in some senses setting the state for the recent decree on the armed forces. However, half-a-million people protested the ruling in Buenos Aires alone, with additional protests across the country, forcing the government to pass a law to prevent applying the Court’s ruling to repressors.

The feminist movement has provided some of the most consistent and profound resistance to the Cambiemos government, as well as, more generally, to neoliberal policies and the violence used to implement them. The Ni Una Menos (Not One Less) movement emerged in response to the disturbing rate of femicides in Argentina and has been responsible for organizing enormous marches for women’s rights, as well as three separate women’s strikes against gender violence. The movement has been able to draw connections between the multiple types of violence that women face, from everyday harassment to brutal femicides, and the capitalist economy based on the devaluation of women’s labor and especially, its neoliberal variety based on debt. They were the first to publicly protest President Macri’s opening up of negotiations with the IMF. In a statement the group released at the time, they highlighted the relationship between the public debt, the precariousness of labor and violence against women:

As women, we know, we have learned in our everyday lives, what it means to be in debt. We know that with debt we can’t say no when we want to say no. And that the state’s debt always spills over to subjugate us. And our children. And our grandchildren. It exposes us to higher levels of precarity and to new forms of violence. To take out this debt, the state promises programs to make labor flexible and reduce public spending that disproportionately affects women.

The organization clearly articulates that having the armed forces in the street won’t make women safer, but puts their lives at greater risk. Instead, they are positing another idea of security: one based on an ethics of care and mutual support, ensuring bodily autonomy, and putting an end to the economic system based on exploitation and inequality.