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August 9, 2014

Chronicling the chaos: Police beat Argentina

saqueos

Civilians took to arms on the night of December 3, when the Córdoba Police Department went on strike, leaving the streets of Argentina’s second largest city undefended|photo by La Voz del Interior

Twenty-thirteen was a banner year for bad news in Córdoba.

When I arrived in December the local newsstand was plastered with headlines announcing another burst of inflation. A magazine cover featured a photo of President Cristina Fernández de Kirchner posing nude (on purpose) and across the street municipal workers were still sweeping up broken glass from a 35-hour strike of the Córdoba Police Department. The December 3 strike had precipitated an evening of violence, looting and vigilante justice that had left more than 1,000 businesses plundered and one man dead.

Months before, members of that same police force were denounced on local television stations for colluding in a widespread drug-trafficking operation – a dangerous racket that allegedly involved confiscating drugs from unaffiliated gangs and selling it back to their rivals.

As the facts trickled out and the federal public prosecutor from Buenos Aires moved in, police quickly lost control of Córdoba’s streets and the police brass lost authority within its own ranks. One of the officers from the Dangerous Drugs Division – the division involved in the drug ring – ended up dead. Five others were arrested and charged with illicit association, qualified robbery and colluding with drug traffickers, among other charges.

The so called narcoescandolo, which began September 14 with the release of hidden camera footage of police colluding with criminals, and los saqueos, or the lootings of December 3 gave Argentines disturbing answers to the deepest questions about their society. It conjured up newspaper editorials on Enlightenment philosophers Hobbes and Rousseau, and gave unanticipated grounding to dystopic Hollywood blockbusters, such as The Purge (2013).

It seemed to confirm that the only social contract in Argentina is everyman for himself.

Police beat Argentina

“There are no good guys in this story,” says Juan Federico, editor of the Sucesos or the Incidents section of Córdoba’s leading newspaper, La Voz del Interior. I sat with him in a glassed-in cubicle at the high-security waiting area of his employer, where he spoke to me for one and a half hours without pause.

Federico, 31, has spent nearly 10 years at La Voz; he publishes in several Argentine magazines; blogs at Cronicas de la Calle; and in January published a book about narcotraficking in Córdoba called Drogas, Cocinas y Fierros. But he is mostly just a police beat reporter with a pony tail.

The police beat is the most romantic of newspaper jobs. It means driving down dangerous streets with a cell phone and notepad to record the names, dates, locations and commentaries surrounding the day’s crimes – the details from the city’s darkest moments. In Córdoba’s case it means going into neighborhoods where ambulances refuse to go because they are afraid they will be robbed.

In 2013, 90 homicides were committed in Córdoba, Argentina’s second largest city (1.3 million people), according to statistics compiled by La Voz. That statistic is relatively low, especially for the region. Nearby Rosario, Argentina’s third largest city, had 264 homicides in 2013, according to local papers. The city of San Antonio, Texas (1.4 million people) had about 90 murders in 2013.

Federico has made his career by earning the trust of the ‘good citizens,’ as he calls them, his unofficial sources in the neighborhoods. When two kids are caught fighting at school because one’s father shot the other in a gang-related shootout the previous night, teachers don’t call the police. They call Federico.

“Why did they adopt me?” he says. “Why do they call me at 3 a.m. when someone has been murdered? Because when they call the police they get punched, they get robbed, detained. And justice never comes.”

Violence against journalists in Argentina is uncommon, especially compared to Mexico and Colombia, he said, but there is still much to be afraid of. He has at least one death threat following him.

“The worst thing a narco could do is murder a journalist, here in Córdoba, where they have everything served to them,” Federico said.

"(The Lootings) weren't made by an army of one desperate socioeconomic class," Federico writes towards the end of his book. "It was a society in its entirety, that let us see its cracks and, above all, its limitations to build a solid social contract."

Juan Federico, editor at La Voz del Interior in Córdoba, Argentina, has followed the drug trade in his city for nearly 10 years|photo by brandon c janes iv

Federico and his colleagues at La Voz follow protocols, which involve constant communication, relaying their locations and who they meet with. He never goes to an interview unless he knows the area well.

After reporting the death threat in 2009, a Córdoba police officer was stationed outside his door for month, which created a deeper fear, he said. Now they know his neighborhood and his daily routine.

“For a long time, at this newspaper, I have written stories about the drug trade,” Federico said. “For me it always attracted too much attention and I had the most intimate conviction that the police were conspiring with the narcos.”

With reliable sources in the neighborhoods, he learned where, who and how drugs were being produced and distributed in Córdoba. Matching his sources in the neighborhoods with the police reports – the official story – he saw a discrepancy in the treatment of certain gangs.

“There were always certain bandas grandes that never went to jail,” Federico said.

Keeping up the appearances, the police chiefs would occasionally make a big bust, hold a press conference and invite the public prosecutor down from Buenos Aires for the photo op, he said.

Narco-futbolista

In the summer of 2009, 1,000 kilos of cocaine were shipped from Córdoba, Argentina to Spain in the legs of two giant wind turbines. It was an international drug smuggling operation that involved Spanish soccer clubs, Serbian drug lords and a transportation industry leader from Córdoba.

When the drug-filled cylinders arrived in Spain, the Spanish authorities were waiting on the beach.

Spanish intelligence had followed the drugs, originally 2,000 kilos of cocaine, from its origin in Bolivia, through a storehouse in Córdoba, where the drugs were repackaged and loaded into the turbines. The containers passed through customs in Buenos Aires undetected and were loaded onto two barges bound for Spain. A transportation mogul from Córdoba named Oscar Alberto Allende directed the Argentine leg of the trip and was sentenced in 2012 to 15 years in prison for the crime.

When his name was released, Federico began touching his sources in the neighbourhood where Allende lived.

“This guy had been caught a thousand times and whenever the police were ready to perform the raid, something happened to stop it,” he said.

When Federico asked why the drugs weren’t stopped in Córdoba, Spanish authorities said that they couldn’t trust the police in his city.

“They had all of the facts and never wanted to give any of it to Argentina,” Federico said. “They didn’t trust the Argentine police, nor the judges.”

For Federico, this seemed enough evidence to warrant an investigation of the Córdoba Police Department by the federal judge. But no inquiries were made.

“Común y corriente”

One day in September 2013 a man called Juan “el Francés” Viarnes walked up to the offices of ADN, a popular TV news program in Córdoba, with a ready-made scandal in his hands.

The official story is that Viarnes was a civilian – común y corriente, as the reports called him. Viarnes came to Córdoba from Buenos Aires and arranged a meeting with the director of the Fight Against Narco-trafficking Division of the Córdoba Police Department, Rafael Sosa. Viarnes’ plan was to establish connections between Córdoba’s gangs and Sosa’s police division to sell drugs and launder money. Everybody would end up millionaires, he promised. And Sosa allegedly agreed to the deal.

The scheme worked. They set up money laundering “caves” downtown, exchanged the drugs for dollars, and invested in properties in the wealthy suburbs, such as Carlos Paz. But, as is usually the case with these things, it worked too well, and Viarnes and his associates were having trouble laundering the money fast enough.

Juan "el Francés" Viarnes said he arranged a meeting with the director of the Fight Against Narco-trafficking Division of the Córdoba Police Department, Rafael Sosa, to sell work with drug dealers in Córdoba|photo La Voz del Interior

Juan “el Francés” Viarnes said he arranged a meeting with the director of the Fight Against Narco-trafficking Division of the Córdoba Police Department, Rafael Sosa, to sell work with drug dealers in Córdoba|photo La Voz del Interior

Viarnes was arrested on July 19, 2013 for attempting to buy three cars with counterfeit dollars, dollars he later said he received from drug traffickers. “Good fakes,” he said. When he went to Sosa for help, the police executive tried to wash his hands of Viarnes, so Viarnes went to the federal judge to make a deal.

‘Let me free and I will tell you everything,’ Viarnes reportedly said.

Out of prison Viarnes – the man once called común y corriente – outfitted himself with hidden cameras and a new scheme to rat-out his former business associates at the Dangerous Drugs Division; to secretly gather proof of their involvement by filming them shaking hands, calling him by name – proving that they all knew each other and had worked together. Viarnes took the footage to ADN and gave a half-hour interview in which he told the complex story, admitting his own guilt. It aired on September 14.

That is the official story, Federico said. But, after investigating “el Francés” for over a year, Federico doesn’t believe he was as común y corriente as the official reports from the federal prosecutor made him out to be. One court document showed that he called himself an “intelligence agent.”

“A person alone like that, it is difficult to believe that he remains alive, with everything he knows, and after putting together this entire scandal himself,” Federico said. “The story of el Francés is a very strange one and one that is still not completely clear.”

Federico said he had the opportunity to interview “el Francés” once but declined because he didn’t feel safe with the location. “I have qualms about the whole thing.”

Last week the federal judge issued a warrant for the arrest of “El Francés” who has missed the last two of his court-ordered monthly check-ins.

The case of Alós

After the “el Francés” interview aired on a Wednesday, the news that Córdoba police were working with the narcos was not a great shock for most Cordobeses – Argentines love to talk conspiracy. Federico, who had studied it for years, was probably the least surprised. But by the following Saturday the gravity of the scandal had realized.

On the morning of September 7 a police officer in the Dangerous Drugs Division, Juan Alós, who was under investigation for his involvement in the drug racket, was found dead in his car. The bullet passed through his head with the trajectory of a handgun placed upside down in his mouth, according to preliminary forensics. It appeared a willful suicide, but no one believed it.

In the newsroom, Federico turned to a colleague and said, “This story is just getting started. This one will have a long life.”

Narcotrafico in Córdoba had been Federico’s baby since the very beginning of his career and his research on a narco-police connection was voluminous.

“It was as if all that work we had done, all those years, we were now seeing come together at once,” Federico said.

Alós’ case still makes headlines today in Córdoba. WIDOW OF ALÓS INSISTS HIS MURDER WASN’T SUICIDE, a recent headline read. Forced suicide is the most common theory; and public outcry has caused federal investigators to reopen the case.

“What is most important with the case of Alós is the context in which he died,” Federico said. “Whether it was murder, or forced suicide, those are really similar. But he looks like a man who didn’t want to die.” Alós never met his son who was born two months after his death.

Shockwaves were spreading across the country now. Córdoba’s criminal underground also was making headlines in Bolivia, Uruguay and Chile. In Córdoba Capital police officers endured daily verbal abuse, taunting and slander of “murderer,” “narco.” The spray-painted words “narcopolicia” went up on a thousand walls in the city. People were angry, unready to admit that the drug war had finally reached their town.

“It hit hard,” Federico said. “It made everybody afraid. Now we were talking about a police mafia, with drugs, like the tradition of the mafia in Mexico, Brazil; a mafia that has no scruples.”

New leaves turn like old ones

Arrests came. Security executives and ministers announced retirements. Spin jobs were hashed. Federal agents raided police buildings and found marijuana and cocaine lying around undocumented. By the end about 40 police officers from the Dangerous Drugs Division were fired.

“The government had a nervous collapse,” said Federico. The Cordoba Police Department Dangerous Drug Division had acted like a structured criminal organization but, along with their fall, many good police officers in other divisions were taking the blame, especially low-ranking officers working on the streets in public view.

“They were pinning the blame on good people. Good police,” Federico said. “Police who were plugging leaks all over town – that we also reported.”

At that time an entry level policeman was earning just $2,500 pesos a month – about $350 U.S. dollars.

“The police were destroyed internally,” Federico said. “How can you reprimand an officer for using his cell phone, having his hat placed poorly, or his shirt unironed. They’ll just say, ‘The bosses are selling drugs, and you are going to punish me for this?'”

The crackdown also closed many illegal businesses that had provided members of the upper echelon of the police force with much of their income. Black-markets, money laundering schemes, gambling, illegal prostitution had provided bribes for police officials that had long been worked into their family budgets.

Organized police unions began asking the provincial government to raise base salaries to $6,000 pesos, which would have been political suicide for the governor on an election year and after the biggest scandal in decades (the salaries were eventually raised to $8,000 pesos).

Every link in the chain was breaking. A general insubordination ensued and that led directly to the lootings of December, Federico said.

An estimated 21,300 families in Córdoba live in 132 separate informal settlements, or villas miseries, many without running water or electricity|photo by La Voz del Interior

An estimated 21,300 families in Córdoba live in 132 separate informal settlements, or villas miseries, many without running water or electricity|photo by La Voz del Interior

Deep divides

Argentina is country of deep class divisions. Squatter villages or villas miserias spring up in the pockets of land between luxury high-rise apartment buildings and shopping malls. According to La Voz, an estimated 21,300 families in Córdoba live in 132 of these informal settlements, many without running water or electricity

The criminals behind the lootings of December 2013 appeared to come from one social-economic order – the poor and uneducated. However, just as disturbing as the images of the lootings, are the images of the violent backlashes taken by residents of wealthy neighborhoods fighting to defend their homes.

At around 10 p.m. a warning went out on What’sApp and Twitter networks saying the motorcycle thugs would strike at exactly 3 a.m. in the residential areas of town. Residents, mostly college students, of the fashionable Nueva Córdoba neighborhood organized vigilante militias, arming themselves with clubs and building barricades across the entrances of their apartment buildings and streets to stop the thugs.

In one video, posted to YouTube, a pair of thieves is chased by a group of at least 20 young men armed with clubs. One of the criminals trips on a curb and falls to the sidewalk. The video shows the rabble catch-up to the boy, beat and kick him until he appears dead.

Carlos Ferri del Castillo, a student who lives in Nueva Córdoba, said he confronted about ten different thugs the night of the lootings and helped apprehend four.

“We defended the streets like soldiers,” Del Castillo said. “The night was out of control. There were some of us that wanted only to defend ourselves, others that wanted to really hurt someone.”

Córdoba had its night of purge. The next day police went back to work and troops were brought in from Buenos Aires to help secure the streets, but Cordobeses are still working to build back the trust in their communities.

“The lootings weren’t made by an army of one desperate socioeconomic class,” Federico writes towards the end of his book. “It was a society in its entirety, that let us see its cracks and, above all, its limitations to build a solid social contract.”

"Drogas, Cocinas y Fierros," "Drugs, Kitchens and Guns," is a book of reportage by Juan Federico, police reporter at La Voz del Interior, the leading newspaper in Córdoba Argentina

“Drogas, Cocinas y Fierros,” “Drugs, Kitchens and Guns,” is a book of reportage by Juan Federico, police reporter at La Voz del Interior, the leading newspaper in Córdoba Argentina|photo by brandon c janes iv

 

July 12, 2014

Video: Argentina suffering through victory

Families came out in crowds to Córdoba's Patio Olmos to celebrate the Argentine national team's advance into the he Semifinals of the World Cup 2014|photo by brandon c janes iv

Families came out in crowds to Córdoba’s Patio Olmos to celebrate the Argentine national team’s advance into the semifinals of the World Cup 2014|photo by brandon c janes iv

Argentina defeated the Netherlands 4-2 in a shootout, after more than 120 minutes of a scoreless World Cup semifinal. Fans watching the game from Córdoba, the country’s second largest city, described witnessing this victory as “suffering,” which, for Argentines, goes beyond a simple fear of losing. To suffer, in Argentina, is how you win a soccer game.

“We suffered beautifully,” said Diego Valdez, a rabid fan who walked Rondeau Street in a toga made from an Argentine flag.

Even if Argentina wins Sunday, in the final against Germany, fans of the national team will suffer until the end.

“When we have the Cup in our hands, that’s the only way to stop the suffering,” said Emanuel Reynals, who celebrated Wednesday night with his family in front of Patio Olmos, a downtown shopping mall.

Argentines are by nature melancholic. The silence of its crowds – hundreds sometimes gathered before a single television – come to say, “We have all assembled here. Score a goal now or we will explode in angst.” And at each attempt on its goal, women shriek like someone being tortured. Many foul words are uttered.

“Here fútbol is primordial”

Elizabeth Carrizo, a local teacher and fanatic of the Buenos Aires club team Club Atlético River Plate, explained to me how soccer has become an important part of the national psyche.

Carrizo said, as much as anything one might associate with Argentina, such as tango, gauchos or dulce de leche, over the years Argentines have grown to identify themselves with futbol because of the success of its national team. Argentina has won the World Cup twice, competed in the final four times, which is the fourth best record in the World Cup, after Brazil, Germany and Italy.

“For the people here futbol is primordial,” Carrizo said. “So that when we play, we suffer – especially when it is the World Cup.”

Fans of Argentina's national team crowd into the space along Rondeau Street, Argentina suffers through 120 minutes of scoreless play against the Netherlands in the Semifinals of the World Cup 2014|photo by brandon c janes iv

Fans of Argentina’s national team crowd into the space along Rondeau Street, Argentina suffers through 120 minutes of scoreless play against the Netherlands in the Semifinals of the World Cup 2014|photo by brandon c janes iv

Playing to forget

When the World Cup ends (tomorrow) Argentina will have to return to a long set of problems it might have preferred to ignore, and which a World Cup win will do little to solve: A sluggish economic recovery which, after being sued by a New York hedgefund for billions of dollars of unpaid debts, the so called vulture funds dispute, could swing the country back into recession. The country has the worst Standard and Poors credit rating in the world, CCC-. And the Vice President faces corruption charges by the high court.

I heard a woman interviewed on the street by an Argentine TV station who said that if Argentina wins the World Cup the vulture funds will not matter anymore (I don’t think she was referring to the $35 million purse FIFA awards the winner). A win may provide the country with a much needed release, but suffering in Argentina will never go away; because even when it wins it suffers.

July 1, 2014

VIDEO: Soccer matters most

IMG_0184

Tonight Matias Piazza, my soccer watching buddy, asked me, “In all of your travels have you ever known a country where the passion for the futbol is so strong?”

He was referring to the euphoria passing through the city of Córdoba tonight, as it celebrates Argentina’s nail-biting victory over Switzerland today. Even as the 2014 World Cup has put fans from all countries on full display, I ask, Could there be a place were soccer matters more than Argentina?

“I think that the soccer here is more than in Brazil,” Matias said.

(below is some raw video of the crowd at the bar where I watched the game. Suggestion: turn down the volume before hitting play)

That it was Tuesday and I slept late didn’t seem to matter because, approaching noon, nobody was picking up their phones. There were many bad things to think about in Argentina this morning: the Vice President has been formally charged by the high court for corruption and abuse of power; the country has finally caved in to demands from a New York hedge fund (called fondos buitres or vulture funds here) and a multi-year lawsuit that reached the U.S. Supreme Court to pay the first $1.6 billion of interest payments in order to avoid defaulting on loans from 2001. Experts say the country is likely to pay $30 billion before clearing its debt. But none of those stories ran on page one of today’s newspaper, because all anyone wants to talk about in Argentina right now is the Argentine Selection and the very real possibility of it winning the World Cup.

Today Argentina beat Switzerland 1-0 in the first of the single elimination rounds, the Octavos, and advanced to the quarterfinals.

Patio Olmos Mundial

The scene in front of Patio Olmos in downtown Córdoba will be a perpetual parade until either Argentina is knocked out or wins the World Cup 2014. If they win this spot will be very dangerous.

It was ten minutes before 1 p.m. and the streets of Córdoba were deserted. Restaurants and bars normally full at this hour had closed their doors, employees gone to some place holier than “work” to watch the game.

I kept walking. Block after block of empty streets. Only the convenience stores were open. Behind robber bars, distracted attendants were adjusting their chairs for the opening kickoff, which they would watch on a TV set between stacks of alfajores and potato chips. I knew, from previous experiences, that the official contingency in Córdoba, Argentina’s second largest city, would congregate in front of Patio Olmos, so I had a friend reserve a seat.

I took my place just at kick off, my barstool like a floatey chair in a calm bay of blue and white flags and Lionel Messi jerseys; a rabble of grimy soccer fans come down from the rough neighbourhoods of the south, young men painted to look like blue and white indian warriors, old men seated in lawn chairs outside the bars – the cheap seats – wearing jump suits and watching the game on a scramble of widescreen TVs someone had hung haphazardly at the corner of the avenues.

We, the collective consciousness of soccer love, sat through an agonizing 117 minutes of stiff Swiss defense. As has been the story with all of Argentina’s games, opponents have smartly fixated on nothing more than shutting down Argentina’s offense, shutting down Lionel Messi.

Somewhere in those final moments (the overtime went to 120 minutes and then the game were to be decided through a shootout, which is as arbitrary a way of deciding the game as flipping a coin) a woman yelled, “Haga la *pulga,” – “Do the flea,” and the 5’7″ striker, crowded by defenders pushed the ball to his skinny companion Ángel Di María, who shot it through the back of the net.

The town erupted. Small bombs were lit in the street by thuggish teenagers but their sounds were lost in the thunderclap of shouting and the pounding of our fists on table tops. Men kissed other men they’d only known an hour. Women were besides themselves as if someone had proposed marriage. And the steady rhythm of yelling captured us all.

IMG_0189

Fans of Argentina’s Selection crowd the streets of downtown Córdoba after its win over Switzerland to advance to the quarterfinals|photo by brandon c janes iv

I remember an announcer saying (in Spanish of course) “Saint Paul needed and angel today and he found it in Angel Di Maria…. This announcer’s heart is going to burst from his chest.”

Before long, we were all out on the streets, rich and poor, coverered in flags and dancing together, celebrating survival. Youths continued throwing their bombs into the crowd, which would scatter each time like synchronous fish at the sign of danger. And then, after it burst, we would all scream and crowd together.

“Brazil is the mythical land of soccer,” Matias said. “We know how to play and how to play well when we are there.”

Hard to believe it is only Tuesday.

*Pulga is one Messi nickname
September 16, 2013

Peregrinación político: A trip into Bolivia’s social revolution

Doña Meayar Amanda of Salta, Argentina,remembers celebrating the Miracle of the Virgin festival in her home city since she was 9 years old | photo by brandon c janes iv

Doña Meayar Amanda, 74, of Salta, Argentina, remembers celebrating the Miracle of the Virgin festival in her home city since she was 9 years old | photo by brandon c janes iv

After standing for nearly 18 hours in the Plaza 9 de Julio in downtown Salta, Argentina, the pilgrims finally ceased their songs of prayer and I repaired to a small cafe to read the reportages of Alma Guillermoprieto, a Mexican journalist who covered this region for the New Yorker magazine in the early 1990s.

Being here is only preparation for my trip to Bolivia today.

I have arrived in Salta during this bizarre festival of pilgrimage, when the streets of this dry, mountain town of about 600,000 inhabitants have boiled over with Catholics – one newspaper estimated 400,000 – many of them in full gaucho garb. Newstramp estimates about 200,000 of them came to sell empanadas.

A group of young pilgrims, who had walked for two weeks to Salta in matching church t-shirts, told me the story:

In the 16th century a six-day-long earthquake threatened the town. On the seventh day, a dutiful priest took the statues of the Virgin Mary and Jesus out of the church and the earthquake stopped. Every year since Catholics have decended upon Salta to parade the statues around the block and atone for their sins.

In traditional Gaucho garb, an Argentine cowboy leads his horse to the Salta town square on a multi-day pilgrimage to celebrate the festival of the Miracle | photo by brandon c janes iv

In traditional Gaucho garb, an Argentine cowboy leads his horse to the Salta town square on a pilgrimage to celebrate the festival of the Miracle | photo by brandon c janes iv

Covering the revolution

Before I had a chance to sew it on to my sweater, I lost a patch of the Uruguayan flag that I had bought for my trip to Bolivia. Like Che Guevera before me, I was hoping to enter Bolivia incognito – disguised as an Uruguayan.

After fighting in the revolution in the Congo, Che disguised himself as the middle-aged Uruguayan doctor Adolfo Mena Gonzáles in order to start the failed Bolivian guerrilla revolution.

Of course, I am not going to Bolivia to start a revolution. I am going to cover one.

The Boliviarian Revolution, the phrase invented by the late president of Venezuela Hugo Chavez, has been used to describe the socialist experiment active in the Americas and loosely based on South American liberator Simon Bolivar’s writings.

During his life, Chavez joined with Bolivian President Evo Morales and Ecuadorian President Rafael Correa in an alliance of South American nations, which would focus its policies on helping indigenous people and the poor – two words in Bolivia that, until recently,  have been synonymous.

Populism and freedom of expression

Morales has a strong hold over the majority of the 10 million citizens of Bolivia. More than 80 percent of Bolivians are either Quechua, mestizo or Aymara, according to the U.S. State Department.

Until 1939 Bolivia’s indigenous were excluded from the political process by discriminatory suffrage laws.

Morales’ presidency has empowered indigenous Bolivians more than ever before. However, journalists still do not have access to government information and face violence from pro-government supporters.

In 2011 there were 46 assaults on journalists reported in Bolivia, according to the Bolivian National Press Association or ANP.

In October a radio journalist was set on fire during his live radio program about 400 kilometers (250 miles) from Salta, in the Bolivian border town of Yacuíba.

Last week Bolivian journalists protested a bill that would allow government ministers, mayors, city council members, municipal authorities to withold information from the public that they consider sensitive, according to infobae.com.

The proposed bill sparked protest in at least five Bolivian cities.

When Guillermoprieto was writing, in 1991, Bolivia rivaled Haiti as the lowest standard of living in the hemisphere and the province of Potosí – one of my first stops – there were just 5,000 motorized vehicles serving a population of nearly 700,000.

Bolivia remains South America’s poorest nation today, with an annual per capita income of US$5,200 – the per capita income in the US is US$50,000. The country also ranked 108 of 179 in the 2011-2012 World Press Freedom Index.

I should be at the border by noon.

September 11, 2013

A culture of secrecy: Argentina’s history of corruption remains unchecked

Graffitti in Buenos Aires reads, "To dream without fear - Kirchnerist poetry." The word dream is scratched out and replaced with "to rob" | photo by brandon c janes iv

Graffitti in Buenos Aires reads, “To dream without fear – Kirchnerist poetry.” The word dream is scratched out and replaced with “to rob” | photo by brandon c janes iv

 

In the 1990s articles about government corruption and scandal sold a lot of newspapers in Argentina. However, over the last two decades, as most major Latin American countries passed their first freedom of information laws, Argentina’s Congress has yet to be sold on government transparency.

This cultured country of 41 million people remains, along with Bolivia, among the only countries in South America which have not adopted a so called acceso de información, or freedom of information law, which would give journalists, lawyers and – as is the case in most countries – average citizens the right to request information about its government.

Last night I took a old-fashioned cage elevator up to the eigth floor office of Argentina’s Asociación por los Derechos Civiles, a civil liberties NGO based on Avenida Cordoba in Buenos Aires. There I met with Ramiro Álvares Ugarte, director of acceso a la información.

A bright, young lawyer, educated at Colombia University in New York City, Ugarte was quick to disparage the current administration’s lack of transparency.

“You want to access public contracts, and you can’t, you want to access the names of federal employees and you can’t, you want to access information on how much they get paid and you can’t,” Ugarte said.

“There are ways of doing it but no mechanism in place to enforce them.”

In both 2003 and 2011, a transparency bills were brought before the Argentine Congress and failed. Ugarte now believes that the hope of a comprehensive anti-corruption law remains distant.

Ramiro Álvarez Ugarte, director of freedom of information at the Association for Civil Rights in Argentina, believes the fight for a right to freedom of infomation in his country has a long way to go | photo by brandon c janes iv

Ramiro Álvarez Ugarte, director of freedom of information at the Association for Civil Rights in Argentina, believes the fight for a right to freedom of infomation in his country has a long way to go | photo by brandon c janes iv

Kirchnerista paradox

Ugarte, who lobbied for a freedom of information law in 2011, said the bill failed because Argentina President Cristina Fernandez Kirchner and her Frente para la Victoria or FPV party did not support it.

It is a paradox, he said. Fernandez, is a neo-populist – which is considered extremely liberal – but she has such illiberal policies, such as not supporting transparency in her administration.

Although there is no law in the books, journalists have gotten into the habit of simply suing the Argentine government in order to get the information they need – a process that is time consuming and cost prohibitive for most people. But  in many cases it is also successful, Ugarte said.

ADC helped defend journalists in a lawsuit that forced Presidents Fernandez to divulge her salary, which was curiously low.

“If you have to go to court to access information than the freedom of information is not really a right,” Ugarte said. “That’s not enough.”

A 2003 presidential decree – during Christina Kirchner’s husband Nestor Kirchner presidency – granted some rights to citizens to request information. However with the decree – which is not a law – it is easy for the government to deny a request on spurious grounds, Ugarte said.

Ugarte said, the biggest challenge is that no government agency or authority takes responsibility for processing the requests, such as the the Comisión defensor Ciudana y Trasparencia in Chile, which has the authority to force other government agency’s to cough up information.

“If you don’t have anybody in charge of it, in a country as large as Argentina, nothing is going to happen,” Ugarte said.

‘We don’t have the tool and so the lying goes on’

The Argentine government’s refusal to admit the true rate of the country’s hyperinflation over the past few years, see Monday’s Not adjusted for inflation: Argentina’s black market currency, is a good example of how a lack of access to government information permits blatant lying by the government, Ugarte said.

Journalists requested reports from the federal statistics institute, INDEC, to show how they calculate inflation but the bid has been unsuccessful.

Independent analysts say that, since 2007, the Argentine peso has inflated 137 percent. The government says prices have gone up just 44 percent over that same period, according to the Economist magazine.

“There is a simply a lack of adequate means of fighting that,” Ugarte said.

“If you had a mechanism, these public authorities would be entitled and embpowered to question a public officials that are blatantly lying.”

“We don’t have the tool and so the lying goes on,” he added.

So why haven’t Argentineans – always prone to protest – risen up against it? I asked.

“Because, people are just so tired of hearing about it, they have gotten fatigued,” Ugarte said.

“Unfortunately, it may take something really big, a really big scandal to get a law passed.”

AFTERTHOUGHT added after original posting

It appears not much has changed since 1991, when New Yorker magazine reporter Alma Guillermoprieto wrote about what she called the “experimental nature of democracy” in Argentina,

“No body knows the rules of the game here, and no body knows what is supposed to happen if the game folds.”

All though we only spoke about politics briefly, I think Ugarte would agree with that.

—————————————————————

* this post’s headline is from a book written by Edison Lanza and produced by El Centro de Archivo y Acceso a la información public or CAinfo in Montevideo, Uruguay called “Conquering a Culture of Secrecy.”

September 9, 2013

Not adjusted for inflation; Argentina’s black market currency

Black market money changer looks for U.S. dollars on Avenida Florida in downtown Buenos Aires, Argentina. Hyperinflation and manipulated statistics by the Argentine government has caused the U.S. dollar to sell for nearly twice the official exchange rate | photo by brandon c janes iv

Black market money changer looks for U.S. dollars on Avenida Florida in downtown Buenos Aires, Argentina. Hyperinflation and manipulated statistics by the Argentine government has caused the U.S. dollar to sell for nearly twice the official exchange rate | photo by brandon c janes iv

BUENOS AIRES – Argentines have long been known for their passion for wine, steak and tango. But the object of desire lately has been the U.S. dollar, which sells for about double the official exchange rate on the black market here.

One brief stroll down Avenida Florida in downtown Buenos Aires and you will hear a veritable Palestrina of shady black-market money changers singing, “Cambio, cambio caballero, cambio,” in a thousand different tones.

The Argentine government has imposed stiff regulations on trading with U.S. dollars here – an anti-U.S. policy, characteristic of the populist Argentine Presidenta Christina Fernández Kirchner.

Venezuela also has such a policy, which is meant to keep money inside the country and steer investors back home.

It doesn’t help that the Argentine peso – which officially exchanges for AR$5.7 to the dollar – is worth less than half of what it was five years ago.

Strapped for cash, I sold a U.S. $100 bill on Avenida Florida this weekend for $940 Argentine pesos – nearly twice the official exchange rate. The official rate is what you pay at a bank, ATM or with a credit card.

Black market boon for newstramp? – not so much

It doesn’t take long for the thrill of doubling your money in 30 seconds behind a magazine kiosk to wear off, when you realize shortly that the market beat you to the punch.

I spoke with several Porteño merchants in this port city on Sunday, who told me that most every business in Argentina fixes its prices to the AR$10-to-US$1 exchange rate – regardless of what the government tells them.

Such a revelation gives you an idea of how far the ripples in the local economy go.

Most every aspect of Argentine life is disrupted by the country’s false currency figures, said Carlos Gonzales, a salesman in Buenos Aires’ San Telmo neighborhood.

A common complaint is that, when Argentines want to travel abroad, obtaining foreign currency is nearly impossible. As a result, many purchase U.S. dollars or Euros on the black market (from guys like me) but have to pay double the price.

“I have relatives in foreign countries that I can never go visit because I can only get a couple hundred dollars,” Gonzales said. “What can I do with $200? Nothing.”

The noble lie

A January article in the Economist magazine titled, “Don’t lie to me Argentina,”  called the Argentina’s inflation coverup an “extraordinarily elaborate deception.”

For some Argentineans, their government lying about its currency is a metaphor for Kirchner’s presidency and party politics; For other’s it is more forgivable.

Laura Paris, who co-owns a mate company in Buenos Aires, said that she likes “Christina” and her policies – just not the currency fiasco.

“Sure, she makes mistakes, just like every president of every country, because there are things that you have to solve diversely,” Paris said. “I like to live in this country because anyone can find work if you have the drive, and other parts of the world aren’t like that.”

Comparison’s between Kirchner and Eva “Evita” Peron have been made.

Cristina Fernàndez Kirchner, presidenta of Argentina

Cristina Fernàndez Kirchner, presidenta of Argentina

Friends, foes

As the shop owners and I discussed money and the actions of Argentina’s liberal presidenta, the word “Chavismo” inevitably came up.

Kirchner’s presidency, along with that of Bolivian President Evo Morales, Ecuadorian President Rafael Correa and the life-after-death policies of the late Venezuelan president Hugo Chavez all have shown a focus on helping indigenous and poor in their respective countries – so called populist ideals.

Evita’s husband, Juan Domingo Peron, who was the 29th and 40th president of Argentina, was considered a populist.

According to an August report by Merco Press, a south atlantic media agency, money drawn from the Argentina’s Central Bank to support social programs during the Kirchner administration has greatly devalued Argentina’s currency. The article also predicted that the country would fall into depression in 2014.

Jorge Panzar, a semi-retired businessman from the south of Argentina and a member of the opposition, said that the country’s currency problem was a result of a big ego on the part of the politician in power.

“It is pride,” he said. “She values only herself, and for the rest of us, we have to pay.”

Photo courtesy of Wikipedia