Sunday, January 14, 2007



After the stresses of the congressional midterms I needed some time to "get away from it all" and empty my mind. I guess I could have done some Zen meditation but ever since I was a kid, I've made a habit of taking to the road in December and going somewhere. These days I write about my trips-- to Nepal, Sri Lanka, Italy, Egypt, Turkey, Thailand, Vietnam, etc-- on my travel blog and I do my best, more or less, to keep the travel and the politics separate. But not always. I mean I was in Argentina; how could I resist hopping over to Asuncion to investigate Bush's recently acquired secret ranch/refuge in the unpopulated jungles of the Chaco in northwest Paraguay? But mostly my trip was to remote places like Tierra del Fuego (down towards Antarctica) and Esteros del Ibera, a pristine, wetland up in the north, filled with alligators, pirhanas and anacondas (but with a wonderful hammock for sleeping and reading away the days).

But the best part of travel for me is always the people I meet and on this trip it was even truer than usual. When I first got to Buenos Aires I met two remarkable women, a mother and daughter. The daughter had just won a Fullbright Fellowship to study in the U.S. and the mother, Amelia, a friend of a friend, had been imprisoned by the fascist junta. She had a lot to say about it. And since they're both vegans, we had some nice dinner discussions about politics in Argentina (when I wasn't hanging out with penguins and alligators and looking for Bush's ranch).

When I got home I wrote a piece on safety in Buenos Aires. Just before I had gone, the Bush daughters had flown from the supposedly nonexistent ranch in Paraguay to Buenos Aires, a major party town and, surrounded by Secret Service agents, wound up being robbed (a purse and cell phone). Like everyone, I thought it was funny. Once I got to Buenos Aires, I realized it isn't quite as funny. Crime is endemic-- and more endemic than it is in most big cities. I mean there's crime in Bangkok, Marrakech, Hong Kong, New York, Paris, Cairo, Istanbul, Rome, Mexico City... even here in L.A., and, as a tourist, it pays to always be alert. But Buenos Aires is in a category by itself.

You can stay at the Park Hyatt and basically never leave America-- and never really get to experience what foreign is all about. Or you can put yourself at some risk. I don't know what percentage of tourists become the victims of crime in Buenos Aires as compared to other big cities, but I sure met an inordinately large number of tourists who had had a problem. And all of my Argentine friends-- from a right wing hotel manager to the aforementioned Amelia-- told me the same thing: crime in Buenos Aires is directed at everyone, not just tourists. My friend in bucolic Posadas has two sisters who moved from Misiones to cosmopolitan Buenos Aires. Both have been robbed numerous times; one was robbed 6 times! Buenos Aires crime isn't all directed at tourists. It's directed at everyone, including tourists. Allow me to leave out the specifics of all the scams and get right to the causes.

There are a lot of theories, although I should point out that most of the huge Latin American cities are crime infested and relatively unsafe. Argentina is a very materialistic place and somewhat superficial to boot. Everybody who's anybody-- or wants to be-- wants to at least appear to be on top of things. That costs money. And of the 11 million residents of the city, a great many millions of them are poor. It looks like a very prosperous city, a very, very prosperous city. But you don't have to go far from the core, away from the Microcentro, from Palermo, from Recoleta, Belgrano, Retiro, Barrio Norte before you run into some serious poverty. Shanties surround the city. And there are sections right in the heart of it you don't want to walk through. A ten minute stroll from the 4 Seasons and Park Hyatt you could stumble onto Villa 31, a ghetto that many Porteños claim is at the root of a good deal of the street crime in town. Along with urban myths about how teenage murderers cannot be legally punished and that kind of thing, you get a picture of Villa 31 being filled with young people sitting around and listening to cumbia all day-- think rap and hip-hop-- and very addicted to Paco (think crack). You'll be hard-pressed to find too much sympathy among Argentines for the residents of Villa 31 and the other villas miserias and their unfortunate inhabitants but here's the other side of the story.

A few days ago Amelia wrote me an email putting the Buenos Aires crime nightmare into context. Her social and political analysis makes a lot of sense. She talks about the economic and social degradation of the middle class through the quick fix globalization policies of crooked, reactionary Bush ally Carlos Saul Menem, president from 1989-1999. His privatization and de-industrialization policies were toxic for the middle class and worse for the working class. The rich did well. Argentina, a country that prided itself on the uniqueness of Latin America's strongest middle class society, suddenly started going down a path of parallel worlds, one for the rich in gated communities and one for everyone else.

"People of the suburbs," Amelia wrote, "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... 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." Here's a piece of Amelia's blog entry that explains it:

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 prevalent 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 military 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...


At 8:46 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Really interesting, but long-winded.
The author wanders from subject ot subject (Bush's daughters, crime, middle-class, Mena, etc.)
Thank you for warning me not to go to Argentina next summer.

At 10:28 AM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Having just been to ARG. myself, I have a slightly different view. My son waas there for a year as an exchange student before I was there for 3 weeks. Of course, the big problem is the economy. The govt. insisted on tying their peso to the dollar for years. But, because of their huge foreign debt, they were forced to devalue the peso, so now it's worth about a third of what it was 6 years ago. But, now the economy has been doing well and more middle class jobs are being created.

The false economy of the 90s led to the fleeing of foreign money because everyone knew the economy would collapse. When the collapse hit, a lot of people lost their jobs and their income took a nose dive. But, it is getting noticeably better as capital is starting to flow and jobs are being created. There is also a lot of entreprenuership.

We were continually warned about crime, but never experienced any. We met literally hundreds of great people and thoroughly enjoyed our trip. Buenos Aires is a huge city of over 8 million people. Of course, there is crime. Personally, I felt safer there than I have in NYC, DC, or Chicago.

ARG has definitely been through a lot. But, most everyone I met, and they were all working class people, were very positive about the country and the future. Also, it helped to get out of Buenos Aires to other parts of the country.

By the way, nice photo of Igwasu falls

At 11:08 AM, Blogger Maya's Granny said...

What hit me when the Bush twins were robbed was that happened with Secret Service around?

At 6:08 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

buenos aires is a very safe city... crime is no more prevalent than in any other major city in the world. but, the people of buenos aires will almost always tell visitors they have a crime problem, forever warning about this. i am not sure what causes the phenomenon... but they just seem to have a tendency to over exaggerate this facet of the city. perhaps it is due to a lack of travel to other major cities around the world?

At 7:32 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

I just got back from Buenos Aires, having cut my trip shortafter being mugged. I was mugged inside of an upscale store in broad daylight. The guy came in choked me and ripped the watch off my wrist. He then ran back into the street and hopped on a the back of a waiting motorcycle. This happended on Defensa Street in San Telmo. I now understand why many stores and restaurants keep their doors locked.

At 2:57 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

My husband and I just returned from a week in Buenos Aires. We stayed in a hotel in Recoletta but we were ALL over town walking and in various cabs from morning until after midnight everyday.

My husband is a photographer and was carrying a large Nikon professional camera AND wearing a Rolex watch (I left my watch in the safe in our room). EVERY time we went into a store or restaurant the people there warned him about both of those items and offered him a shopping bag to put the camera in. He continued to carry/wear the items and no one bothered us.

I've lived in New York, Chicago and now in Mexico and have had my homes robbed in all 3 of these places.

Fate, luck or just a tough looking South Side of Chicago well-built husband/escort kept me (us) out of trouble on our trip and we never felt unsafe or threatened at anytime.

At 10:08 AM, Blogger billandbeaufort said...

Sounds like this was written by the typical California Bush Basher! They never seem to be happy anywhere they go unless the "gated community types" were to give all thier wealth to the poor. Redistribution Communism.

At 10:11 AM, Blogger billandbeaufort said...

Argentina has the largest consumtion of red meat per capita of anywhere in the world, and this guy's friends are Vegans! Tells alot about his politics.


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