Inside the park before the night battle

Walking through the park.
It’s the Friday morning after the night before. Thursday evening, a young man, topless but wearing a red tracksuit and baseball cap, captured TV cameras’ attention in Villa Soldati’s Indoamericano Park, pulling a gun out from under a T-shirt in his hand. Friday morning, Human Rights Day, headlines confirm the third death of a 37-year-old Bolivian in the immigration and housing conflict which started last Sunday when hundreds of families took over the public space, aiming to set up home there.

Was that topless young man prepared to kill? Who knows. All that’s known the following morning is that despite the shootouts and clashes between police and squatters, it’s now a lawless zone — the Federal Police have been pulled out and the Metropolitan Police is monitoring it from outside the park gates.

Heading to a south-western part of Buenos Aires some say has been left to its own devices by the city government, short high rises dot the horizon, some works in progress, others spanking new. This is the ringside view of the Indoamericano Park, from where residents have been watching the 13-hectare green space being occupied by Bolivians, Paraguayans and Argentines from nearby slums such as Villa 20 and the 1-11-14.

At least three have died. Paraguayan Bernardo Salgueiro (22) and Bolivian Rosemarie Puja (28), who were shot Tuesday night when police evicted squatters from the area, and Juan Castañeta Quispe Thursday evening. The violence has been out of control. But a sense of calm permeated Friday morning, at least prior to the lunchtime thunderstorm and before sunset. Dogs are walking their owners, city Mayor Mauricio Macri’s workers are planting trees and the area seems stable. Cameramen are lined up, awaiting action, while Metropolitan police hover in the background.

Walking past the new blocks of flats, a man, probably of Bolivian origin, is having his bag searched by three men. A woman lazily eyes the exchange. The group, from the Nueva Chicago football club hooligan gang, finish the inspection and tell the man to walk back from where he came from. He does so. A passive-aggressive encounter that doesn’t develop into anything further. This time.

Dante, who lives in front of the park, says to the Herald: “Let me know when I can divide up Plaza de Mayo. Really. This park is our public space, but this week our homes have been attacked by squatters armed with sticks, because they’ve tried to take them over. Our president, who I didn’t vote for and won’t vote for, should be here sorting this out, instead of attending a rock concert to mark the Bicentenary today.” (Friday’s concert was eventually postponed.)

Occupation. Past the city workers busily planting trees in front of the new flats, the occupied zone is six blocks up Escalada Avenue. Under a cluster of trees, some two-man tents are set up, painting a picture of a picnic spot somewhere far from conflict.

A closer look, and the different coloured tape marking off “plots” of land become evident. Pass the trees and the roundabout, and the occupation begins. Initially, it looks like the aftermath of a pauperized music festival. Handmade tents sit within the boundaries of their chosen plots. Black bin bags, umbrellas, blankets, even a paddling pool, all contribute to create something that denotes a presence. José Batlle y Ordóñez road, lined with palm trees which the creative are stripping of branches to build teepees, divides the park. Trains rumble by every few minutes. But up close it looks like a refugee camp, tapes fluttering in the wind, people tidying up their few possessions and playing the waiting game for promised provisions such as water.

Road ahead. Standing on the railway bridge looking down at the fairly peaceful chaos Friday morning, people are curious and talkative. Walking back towards José Batlle y Ordóñez, a man with a scythe is hacking away at long stubborn grass, preparing his marked-up plot. Lightning flashes and some start to leave the park, two women dragging four mattresses under the bridge along the path that leads to Villa 20. Others gather their things to shield them from the rain while a piebald horse nibbles at grass, guarding a plot.

Taking refuge in his teepee, Freddy deigns to leave relative dryness to talk to the Herald. The Bolivian, who has lived in Argentina for seven years, says: “We were renting for 400 pesos a month in Villa Lugano and my handyman work comes and goes so we can’t afford to rent any more. We are three families here with our kids. We’ve been here since Sunday night and we’re hoping Cristina (Fernández de Kirchner) will give us a solution. We were evicted on Tuesday, but we came back because we don’t have anywhere else to go.

“It’s hard being here. Vagrants come and try and take our plots away from us. But we’ve divided up the land with the intention of doing something, for the kids. Now I’m not paying rent I can use that money to build, even if it is brick by brick. I just hope Macri’s heart softens and that he sees what’s going on.”

There are hundreds like Freddy, sitting in their makeshift homes, trying to keep the wind and rain out and stay firmly rooted to their plot. But as the falling water becomes heavier, it truly is a picture of misery, hundreds of people hanging in there in pitiful conditions for what they know is a public space — hoping for a solution.

Friday evening. Reports of a unconfirmed fourth death fly in after a field battle between the park dwellers and angry residents. Nine, however, were injured.

Following a meeting between city and national government, by yesterday afternoon the Border Guard and Coast Guard had been sent into the park to take control. But the people with their tents will still be there today.

A wake in the slum
Bernardo Salgueiro’s wake is taking place in Villa 20. The 22-year-old Paraguayan, who lived in Barracas and was shot dead on Tuesday, the night of the park eviction, is laid out to rest at his sister’s pale-blue house some 150 metres into the slum. His eldest brother, Aníbal, tells the Herald: “It’s hard for me to talk, but we feel like we’re drowning. We’re poor people with a family to maintain. No one has offered us any help. I just want justice. And quickly, so we can continue with our lives.”
Candle wax has melted onto the cement floor in front of the raised coffin where Bernardo lies. A single enormous wreath from “Your friends and family” occupies a back wall, and his sisters cry gently. Bernardo’s mouth is stuffed with cotton wool and mourners touch his now-cold body, paying their respects in the humble living room.

“I know it’s wrong”
“Do you know if there’s any water left?” asks Cristina. The 59-year-old cartonera has cordoned off a plot for her 13-strong family under the trees, an Argentine flag waving wetly in the storm. “We were living in Villa 1-11-14 in a one-bedroom place, but I can’t afford the 600-peso rent. I’m a cartonera and porteña and live off the free dining halls. I hope we can build a hut and live a bit better here. If only people could open up their hearts and send us some help because Macri is looking the other way. I know this is a public space and what we’re doing is wrong, but we don’t have anywhere else to go. This is the only option I’ve got.”

First published in the Buenos Aires Herald 12 December, 2010.

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