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Monday, January 08, 2007


One of the highlights of traveling is always the folks you meet. My trip to Argentina was especially rich in this way and I was lucky that so many people in Argentina speak English and that my L.A. Spanish got me around otherwise. One of the people I was most impressed with is a remarkable woman named Amelia, a music business connection, who I went to dinner with when I first arrived. Our mutual friend Steve, k.d. lang's manager, had introduced us via e-mail. Amelia had been arrested during the time when the generals ran a fascist state in Argentina (the most recent, historically speaking)-- and she's a vegetarian; we got along great. Today she e-mailed me with a critique of a blog I wrote a couple weeks ago about safety in Buenos Aires.


by Amelia Lafferriere

Think back to the ear of Menem, our Arab Muslim-converted-Christian-(for the sake of politics) president (1989-1999), who introduced Argentina to the quick fix policies of neoliberall economic politics with its systemic unemployment policies and de-industrialization. strong introducer(the first after the militars),and Supposedly a close friend and huntig companions of the Bush family, Menem followed the military dictatorship. His policies converted the country into a desert in terms of productive industry and real jobs-- which continued under De la Rua-- and created a deep chasm between rich and poor, nearly annihilating the middle class (a middle class which had been the pride of Argnetina, the only country in Latin America that had managed to maintain a strong and healthy middle class over the decades).

Buenos Aires, where, as you so correctly mention, half of the population live if we put together the Capital and Gran Buenos Aires, started its process of economic and then social degradation. Menem presided over recession, hyperinflation, privitiziation of ultilities and a tidal wave of foreign "investment." Menem's endemic corruption and his quick fix policies got him re-elected but they were catastrophic for the long-term financial and social health of Argentina, leading to bankruptcy and severe dislocation in every sphere of human endeavor. Parallel worlds began to take root-- a world of the rich and a world of everyone else.

Shopping centers and gated communities for the wealthy were sprouting up, here and there-- like gentrified Puerto Madero, funded by international capital... while social welfare was left to rot and whither away on the vine.

People of the suburbs, with no work and no future started to invade the city, sometimes taking empty old abandoned houses and turning to street robbery to get by. The result: growing unsafety and insecurity for the society. (Current policies about this issues are not helping, but that s another song.)

There are a lot of tourists coming all the time and sometimes they are very visible for these desperate people, making them obvious targets, not to say that locals do not suffer this unsafety as well, probably far more, in fact.

Regarding major crime-- like kidnapping and car theft sometimes leading to murder-- it is often that we find bands of ex-policemen working in combination with lumpen proletariat from the exurban villas (barrios), doing all this, most frequently in the suburbs. I'll call this a residual of last military government (what is called mano de obra desocupada, this meaning that these people were employed in kidnaping and robbing people for political reasons and when democracy came back, they had no "legitimate" work... so they changed their targets. We have been in "democracy" since 1983 but this situation continues today.)

What I can conclude is that Buenos Aires at this time has more insecurity and less safety than it had ten years ago. There are neighborhoods that are more exposed , especially those visited by tourists, although all neighborhoods throughout Buenos Aires suffer the situation, Fortunately we can say that so far the kinds of robbery prevelent in Buenos Aires is NOT followed by murder... most of the time. 

Anyway the climax of unsafety of Argentine society comes with the fact that we have a high profile political missing person for over 3 months. Mr Julio Lopez, a worker who had been kidnapped and tortured in the seventies, and who remained alive by chance, has given in the trial to one of his captors ,a miliray government sanctioned murderer named Etchecolaz. After his testimony-- on his way to hear the judge read Etchecolaz' sentence-- he vanished.  

Etchecolaz is now in prison, where he belonged many years ago, but Mr Lopez, a 78 years old man, seems to have suffered a kidnapping for the second time, and we all presume he is dead.

The very idea that this could happen now, is really frightening-- and although it does not affect everyday life on the surface, the way it used to in the seventies, for me is the most serious security and safety problem we have at this moment...

Like in all big cities, but starting in Buenos Aires in the '90s, drugs have become a terrible problem, mostly cheap and low quality drugs that are readily available in the impoverished suburban neighborhoods. That and the lack of opportunities for people are the keys to a developing culture of crime here.

Still, I like to think that the pulse of this city has to be taken in view of the continuous work in the cultural arenas. People are massively working in the fields of music, cinema, theatre, education... putting on festivals. Universities are still free in Argentina and the fact that two graduates have recently won Nobel prizes are a great source of inspiration for many people. Buenos Aires is a place where you find friendly peopl everywhere, where you can spend several hours in a cafe-- and for the price of a cup of coffee, you can read the newspapers of the day, or a book, talk with people who see conversation as a living art, people with open minds who make it possible to have so many different cultural expressions welcome all the time in the city. Still today Buenos Aires is a city with a pacific coexistance of different religions, as Jew (Argentina is the second country in numer of Jewish population after Israel and the U.S.) and Arabs and Muslims. We have often ecumenical ceremonies of all the religions together with Catholic and different Christian churches, together with the Jewish and the Muslim faiths. 

Could this be-- the remains of what Argentina was going to be and didn't come to be, but still a part of it.-- breathing... and helping us all breathe and hope.


I did a piece over at Down With Tyranny if you'd like to look at it from an even more political perspective.


Argentinatraveler said...

Lots of inaccuracies here. I agree that Argentina is great--charming people, wonderful European style cafe life, and changing for the better.

I was in Buenos Aires for three weeks in November 2006 and can report that Buenos Aires is very safe. This blog mixes the past political kidnappings with street crime.

Buenos Aires is very safe because of the extensive street policing--police walking around, not in cars. Private security guards are everywhere, too. The economy is booming, almost 10% real growth in 2006. Because so many people are out on the streets all the time, having dinner after midnight for example, the streets are very safe to walk. Neighbors look out for each other.

As far as language, I speak Spanish, which certainly helps. I stayed in an apartment in Recoleta, near Avenida Santa Fe, a delighful situation which gave me a better idea about how people really live. My friend, who didn't speak Spanish, had problems, although everyone was extremely friendly and helpful. Because Argentina is so far away from the rest of the world, it's not surprising that few people speak foreign languages. Even in Buenos Aires, very few people, even in the upper classes, speak English.

Lastly, Argentina has a large Jewish population, concentrated in Buenos Aires, but is definitely not the largest after the US and Israel. According to most Jewish population estimates, Argentina is number 7. Of the world's approximately 13 million Jews, over 11 million live in the United States or Israel. USA 6.5 million; Israel 5 million; France .6 million; Canada .364 million; Britain .275 million; Russia .275 million; Argentina .2 million. It is true that one sees Orthodox Jews in black walking to temple on Friday nights in Barrio Norte and Once. But, Argentina's Jewish population is less than it used to be. Jews have left Argentina for the United States and Israel due to the political turmoil of the 1976-1982 military dictatorship (many Jews supported, or were accused of being, leftists), and the economic crisis of the 1990s. The Jewish population was approximately 275,000 twenty years ago; it is now about 200,000.

DownWithTyranny said...

Argentinatraveler, let me assure you that the woman who wrote the article you are in disagreement about also speaks Spanish, having been born in Argentina and having lived there for her entire life. Please don't make the mistake of thinking Recoleta-- where I rented an apartment too-- is Buenos Aires.

greekinargentina said...

Your post overall is spot on and I am a foreigner living in argentina for two years now.

Buenos Aires is a very superficial city where image is everything and certainly the last three years we have seen here massive changes in regards to people making huge amounts of money here very quickly.

There is a tremendous amount of resentment as there is a huge increase of visible wealth here.

For example the area I live in Palermo Soho just 5 years was a run down working class area full of tranvestites working the streets all night from Godoy Cruz to El Salvador .Now its been converted into something incredible and boasts over 300 restaurants and bars. Still crime persists and just a few months ago there were a string of famous restaurants robbed at gunpoint customers and all wild west style.

Tourists coming to Buenos Aires are seeing a small glimpse of the realities here and being seduced by a small section of this city where only the very rich live .

Argentina traveller I suggest that you mix your experiences more and ask questions of those people around you as looks can be deceiving .

Xavier said...

I'm looking forward to study in Buenos Aires, but this crime wave has made me doubt of the possibility. I have Argentinean friends, who had been years away from their country and returned only for short periods, who have told me that even them are reluctant in returning. However, from what I've read in the newspapers (El Clarín and La Nación), much of the crime going on is pretty much the same reality most of Latin American countries are living, perhaps with the exeption of Chile, Uruguay, Panama, and Costa Rica (although it is starting to emerge here, in San José). But nothing is more reliable than someone who lives it in a daily basis, and I would like to know how accurate are these descriptions? said...

This article is highly inaccurate in that it is transparently tinted with the remainders of extreme left wing opinions dating back to the late 1970's.

The abundance of torturers our of a job is completely fabricated, and it is well documented that most criminals in the city are poor, marginalized citizens who are in dire straits (surprised?).

The number of Jewish citizens is a common misconception among Argentines, a quick search for that will dispel the rumors.

The bottom line is, Argentina is a country plagues by poverty and lack of police action stemming from a corrupt government.

the only way to solve this problem would be to have responsible, honest people in Congress (doubtful, as most citizens do not posses these values), and a strong police and military presence with a body of employees who truly want to serve their country and not personal gains.

If in doubt, take a look at how other left wing oriented Latin American countries are doing. Not too well.

Sergio said...

Hi, I am from Argentina and I've been living in Buenos Aires for the last fours years. I must say crime is an issue here, but most of the incidents can be avoided if you take some precautions. For example:

1) Never take a taxi in the street, the best way to do it is by calling a known taxi agency. Ask them the number of the taxi they are sending and then wait for that car in particular and take no other.

2) At night walk only through the large avenues and avoid the little side streets. If you want to be on the streets late at night it must be in a large group.

3) Never show your money on the street. After you go to an exchange house go straight to your house and don't stop to chat with anyone.

4) If possible don't take the trains, except the "Tren de la costa" (the train of the coast). All trains except the last one are more or less insecure, specially "San Martín", "Roca" and "Sarmiento".

If you do this you will be fine.

Sergio said...

I wanted to say something else regarding the torturers of the last dictatorship. It is true that they are still around in many institutions like the armed forces or the security forces. What they did was awful and criminal, and it can’t be justified in any way, but it also must be said that nowadays we have a “Left wing government” here in Argentina, which is disturbing the historical vision of those sad years (the 70’s).
In the 70’s there was a small scale civil war between the left wing militants (known here as the subversives) and the army. The subversives were well armed and their ideology was mainly communist. Some famous persons like “Che” Guevara (whom by the way was Argentinean) supported the uprising of the communist revolutionaries. The subversives fought some battles with the armed forces, and also kidnapped civilians in order to trade them for large amounts of money.
Both sides were cruel and unmerciful with the civilians, but right now you can’t say in public that the subversion existed because our president (Cristina Fernandez and her husband) are former members of that organization. Instead of that you must say that the armed forces disappeared people just because they wanted, and that it wasn’t a war but just a matter of the army oppressing the people, which is not true. In some places (like in the universities, where most of the former communist revolutionaries are now) you can’t even say that the subversion existed!!
In the 70’s the people was afraid to leave their homes because of the revolutionaries, not because of the armed forces, that is a reality.
Obviously the tortures and the disappearings that the armed forces conducted were awful wrong, but it can’t be denied that there were communist revolutionaries trying to reach the power by the force too. In a certain way the actions of the militars were a much overreacted counteraction against the terrorist attacks that the communist were organizing.
Right now you can’t say in public that there was a war going on in those days because this is know here as “the theory of the two demons” and you will be regarded as a torturer-sympathizer for defending it, despite the fact that this so called “theory” is the historical truth.

CapnRick said...

Reports of crime in Clarin and La Prensa this week include a Buenos Aires gated community, Monte Grande, sustaining a commando-style attack. The thieves were heavily armed, used 2-way radios, had backup vehicles and used professional.military tactics. They spent 40 minutes cleaning out their target houses, while their tied-up victims watched. Security guards investigating the fence break were quickly overcome, closed-circuit TV monitors and alarm systems too.

This is an important BsAs suburb. The fact that a serious response by local police was net mounted indicates that there is a serious problem. Could it be that the robbers WERE the police?

iroiromau said...

Hola!i found your article very interesting. It's good to hear the nice and bad things about my city,:). I just wanted to make one thing clearer to all foreigners. Although BA and 'porteños' r the visible face of Argentina, it should be taken into account all the differences in comparison with other provinces. Argentina is a large country with different cities, not just in terms of safety but also with different ethnics, policies, geography, spanish accents, etc. I find this very important 'cause we 'porteños' (i've always lived in BA) tend not to make a good representation of our brothers,-__-. That's all 4 now,:). Buen blog!:D,saludos