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Detention of anti-IMF protesters signals criminalization of protest in Argentina
Lawyers and activists say dubious evidence and disproportionate charges are a warning sign
The story I’m about to tell is one I’m not pitching to the international media, because one of the guys involved, Jaru Carrero Rodríguez, is a friend of mine. We journalists aren’t supposed to write stories about people we know, because how can we produce balanced, neutral coverage when someone close to us has skin in the game?
This industry has long believed that the best person to cover a story is an objective observer with no stake in proceedings, no connection to events, and who can, in theory, give all sides a fair hearing.
In practice, this platonic ideal is like hunting for a unicorn, because no journalist has a God-like ability to detach from their lived experiences and become all-seeing. I can’t know how I would tell the story if I didn’t know Jaru, and the debate about objective journalism exceeds the scope of this newsletter. But we aren’t Reuters. We’re a small newsletter and podcast and we speak from the heart. And I felt this story needed to be told.
The square outside Argentina’s congress was obscured by thick, black smoke billowing from an effigy of the initials “FMI”. As flames consumed the structure’s cardboard facing and wooden struts, protesters bolstered the pyre with tyres, their faces covered by neckerchiefs to protect them from COVID-19, the smoke, and the authorities.
Inside the building, Argentina’s deputies were debating whether to approve a deal restructuring US$45 billion of debt with the International Monetary Fund (FMI, by its Spanish initials). Taken out by conservative former president Mauricio Macri in 2018, tight payment deadlines and a prolonged recession left Argentina unable to return the money. The centre-left government of president Alberto Fernández has been scrambling to sign a deal to avoid defaulting on a March payment.
But many, including a chunk of Fernández’s own coalition, argue that the debt should be thoroughly audited and, ideally, not paid back. They argue that the deal broke the Fund’s own statutes, it’s not clear what the money was used for, and conditions of the deal, such as massive utilities hikes, will hit the poorest the hardest in a country where over 40% of the population lives below the breadline.
While the tyres blazed, some protesters took their anger out by digging up chunks of paving stone and hurling them through the haze at Congress’s impassive facade. Some of those rocks, by accident or design, shattered the windows of powerful vice-president Cristina Fernández de Kirchner’s office.
As a thick wall of riot police advanced towards the protesters, their curved shields glinting like the eyes of insects, the social movements at the march hastily retreated. A man lobbed a molotov cocktail at the police, injuring one officer.
Over the coming days, at least three suspects were arrested for their alleged involvement in the protests. Montages of them in handcuffs were set to menacing music on news websites. The papers seized upon the fact that one detainee was a Venezuelan migrant and another was on welfare. But their lawyers point to some alarming shortcomings in the actual evidence against them. Activists fear the treatment of these protesters is a signal of what is to come.
Julián Lazarte, a 31-year-old from western Buenos Aires, is in pre-trial detention on charges of federal crimes including public intimidation. Based on evidence from police cameras and media footage, prosecutors say he threw rocks and made the Molotov cocktail that injured the policeman.
But the evidence behind the charges is weak, according to his lawyer, María del Carmen Verdú. As the protesters retreated, footage from behind police lines shows him linking arms with his fellow protesters to block the street and let their comrades escape. A brief clip shows him raising his arm for around three seconds. To the prosecutors, this is evidence that he threw a rock.
“That’s all there is against him,” said Verdú. “In the worst-case scenario, he threw a rock which you can see didn’t break anything or hit anyone.”
A separate video shows two men crouching by a tree, stuffing rags into a bottle and pelting it at the police. Prosecutors claim that anthropometric analysis and a matching tattoo give reasonable grounds to believe one of the men is Lazarte. But Verdú points out that the man in the video is wearing different clothing. The anthropometric report claims the men have similar noses, but the man in the video is wearing a facemask. What’s more, the tattoo is little more than a cluster of shadowy pixels - and it’s on the wrong arm.
Jaru Carrero Rodríguez, a 29-year-old activist and delivery app worker from Venezuela, was also arrested for alleged involvement in the protests. He was initially charged with criminal association, which Argentina’s criminal code defines as belonging to a group of three or more people that exists for the purposes of committing a crime. It’s punishable by between three and 10 years in prison, and is often applied to gangs and corruption rings.
According to Carrero’s lawyer, Martín Alderete, a report from the police’s anti-terrorism division states that none of the footage from the march shows him doing anything violent. But just belonging to the group is enough to be convicted of criminal association, even if the defendant doesn’t commit any crimes with them. So it sets a chilling precedent that Buenos Aires prosecutors are leveling these accusations at members of a social movement for just being at a protest that turned violent.
The case is expected to pass from the city courts to the federal courts, where claims that Carrero’s social movement, CUBa-MTR (Coordinadora de Unidad Barrial-Movimiento Teresa Rodríguez), constitutes a criminal association are likely to be thrown out.
A third detainee, Oscar Santillán, was receiving money through a state support policy. After his arrest, Argentina’s Minister of Social Development, Juan Zabaleta, tweeted that they had cut his payments. Santillán, like the other defendants, hasn’t been found guilty of any crimes. The minister’s comments hit home: many social groups are working-class organizations that march in demand of proper jobs and basic living conditions for their communities. It sent a disturbing signal that anyone who goes to a protest that turns violent could be arrested and have their welfare payments cut.
Argentina took its first IMF loan in 1956 during a dictatorship headed by Pedro Aramburu. The week of the 1976 coup, the Fund approved a loan to the junta. Today, many Argentines feel that deals with the Fund are incompatible with democracy.
Verdú described camping out for a week in 2004 to demand freedom for 42 prisoners who had protested the IMF, many of whom had been protesting former IMF director Rodrigo Rato, who was later jailed for 4.5 years for embezzlement, and was also named in the Panama Papers. There were several arrests after protests against the budget in 2018, the year the present IMF deal was signed.
The lawyers are urgently appealing the detainees’ pre-trial detention. Verdú pointed out to Pirate Wire Services that most prisoners in Argentina haven’t been conclusively convicted of anything. They have no right to redress, even if they’re found innocent or given a shorter sentence than the time they’ve already served. Alderete believes Carrero is in jail now just because he was at the front of the march and got unlucky enough to be identified.
It’s still not totally clear what happened that Thursday in the square: whether the vice president’s office was specifically targeted, by whom, and what will happen next. But the state is sending a clear message that it will throw protesters under the bus to defend its IMF deal.
This week's newsletter is the last one we'll be sending in its current format. Stay tuned for next week's newsletter, where we'll be announcing some changes!
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Spanish words of the week:
necropolítica - necropolitics. First developed by Cameroonian philosopher Achille Mbembe, this concept has been explained as “the economic and political management of human populations through … wars, genocides, refugee “crisis”, ecocide and contemporary processes of pauperization and precarization” in this essay by Antonio Pele
sacar a colación - to bring a topic up, to raise an issue. Boy, do we have issues.