April 23, 2014
Sunday, December 8, 2013

Córdoba looks in the mirror of chaos

Border guards arrive at Córdoba military garrison on Friday
By Dante Leguizamón
For the Herald

CÓRDOBA - The incidents in the province of Córdoba in the last few hours have left Peronist Governor José Manuel de la Sota’s — one of the fiercest opponents of the national government — security policy in check-mate, and they may point to an intense final month of the year throughout the country. After what was seen in Córdoba, several provincial police forces staged similar protests, and the ghost of lootings began to appear in different areas of the country.

Those who know about the Córdoba police’s internal situation assure that last week’s conflicts are the result of a two-year escalation. What’s certain is that Córdoba society began to see signs of what might happen in November.

Although Governor De la Sota has said on national media outlets that the police’s sit-in protest had “surprised” him as he made his way to Colombia for a regional summit for provincial leaders, few people were unaware of the problem in this province. Throughout November, police officers’ wives — officers are prohibited from unionizing, so as occurred in 2005, their wives were the ones that began to voice demands—had already staged several marches for wage hikes. The tension was so clear that in two of those marches they reached the Police Headquarters, taking over the building to demand being heard.

Finally at midday on December 3, Preventive Action Command (CAP) officers, who patrol the streets, were the ones to decide to stage a sit-in at the headquarters. A few hours later, several members of the CAP’s nine other bases began to adhere to the measure. Then motorized officers and even the canine division arrived. At 4pm, not even administrative personnel were working any more.

Córdoba — which De la Sota has governed since 1999 with an interval led by his political partner, Juan Schiaretti, between 2007 and 2011 — has applied a security strategy that mixes principles of the Firm Hand with a marketing strategy. This combination aims to criminalize certain sectors of the population, which generally have low income and a complicated social situation, in order to send a message to the middle class that containing such sectors will mean they are safer. Raising the number of police officials from 10,800 in 2007 to 22,000 was necessary to sustain this policy.

From September this marketing strategy that sought to depict Córdoba police as the best force in the country suffered a strong setback. The motive was what is known as the “Narco-scandal,” an investigation by the federal Judiciary into a case of alleged police corruption, as part of which the now former Dangerous Drugs Division head Rafael Sosa remains under arrest, among other high ranking officials. As result of that scandal, and to send a message of authority when he still sought to be a future presidential candidate for dissident Peronism, De la Sota requested the resignation of his Security minister (former police chief Alejo Paredes), also sacking high ranking officers in the provincial police force. This was followed by the appointment of a technician, Alejandra Moneoliva, as minister, and César Almada as chief of the 22,000 police officers. The police led by Almada, a man for whom rhetoric is not a strength, stands accused as responsible for the death of nine youngsters who died in unclear episodes. The same force is accused over the death of 14 people while under police arrest. This is an institution that, between 2006 and 2013, rose its total annual arrests through the Misdemeanours Code (Código de Faltas), which allows for the detention of minors simply for wearing a hood or cap or meandering on the street without being able to explain where they are headed, from 11,000 to 77,000.

In that context, on the evening of December 3, the streets of a city regularly patrolled by police on every corner, were effectively free of officers, with a governor away on a trip. Then the unexpected happened. Radios started to receive messages about lootings, first at some supermarkets close to low income sectors, then at larger outlets and finally at technology stores and other towns in the provincial interior. The darkest night in recent years was arriving. A negotiation channel was set up. The police officers met with their chief with their lawyer, Martín Ortiz Pellegrini, with whom they had already collaborated in 2005’s sit in, and brought him a 15-point demand. They requested improved salaries, but also better food, contributions toward work clothing, less working hours, no punishment for the strike and even that the force release a statement saying that not all Córdoba police was involved in the “Narco-scandal.”

Almada granted 14 points of the demand, but said he had no margin for action on the wage issue, which was like throwing a tank of petrol onto a fire. Upon hearing the news, police sirens were set off to a deafening level at the 4 and 5 CAP facilities in the neighbourhood of Cerveceros, where the protest was concentrated. When the noise came to a halt, a policeman not in uniform stood on the hood of one of the cars. He was an NCO who had participated in the 2005 affair, spoke to his colleagues:

“You know this already, lads: “This is a wage demand. Let it be clear,” he said, adding: “Let’s not surrender any ground. For now, no getting drunk, and no firing of weapons or fooling around. They are looking at us, and we must show strength and unity.”

The message was responded to with a song “Police, carajo / Police, carajo!” The strike continued and one of the wives summarized what was ahead: “Now we prepare to spend another night without police.”

The provincial government did not want to ask the national government for help in the shape of sending Border Guards, and the national government did not communicate with those in charge of the government to offer assistance.

The chaos

It remains unclear how the events began. Some talk of armed structures, and there are unconfirmed suspicions that police officers may have sponsored them. The first lootings were seen between 4pm and 5pm on Tuesday, and they then began to multiply. The official count was of 1,000 assaulted shops and losses of around 300 million pesos. Almost seven supermarkets and 30 shops have said they will need months to recover and open their doors again, postponing their employees’ holidays.

The postcards show residents looting the shops at which they were shopping earlier. The owners of these businesses were seen crying because they were robbed at gunpoint, while others armed themselves to protect their property. The most terrible incident was suffered by Javier Rodríguez, a 20-year old who arrived dead from his hometown of Ciudad Evita to the Emergencies Hospital with a gunshot to his back, which was lodged into his shoulder blade.

Acording to witnesses, the bullet was fired from a Renault Clio with tinted windows that residents say are used by police who patrol the neighbourbood under cover. The licence plate corresponds with a police vehicle.

If what happened to Rodríguez was terrible, what happened to Federico Hernández was dreadful. When rumours of house lootings began to be disseminated by the media and on social networks, different sectors decided to arm themselves, form barricades and prepare to resist. The National University of Córdoba’s Canal 10 TV channel interviewed two girls from Nueva Córdoba, a central neighbourhood where many students live. They explained that they were forming barricades because they heard people were coming to attack them. When they were asked who was coming, they answered: “Them, the motorcycle-thugs.”

One of “them” was Federico Hernández, who was walking around Nueva Córdoba with his friend Alexis when he started to notice things were being hurled at them from apartments. When they reached Independencia and Peredo street they were met with a multitude armed with sticks. Alexis and Federico tried to show their DNI identification, but someone said: “Hit him anyway” and some 100 people began to hit him. He ended up at the Emergencies Hospital, and later he was taken to the 4th police precinct, where he was mistreated by police, taken to prison the next day, and finally released without receiving so much as an apology.

At 1am, the governor arrived in Córdoba, and once again stoked the fire: “There is no money for anyone,” he said, but hours later he sat down to discuss the issue with the police officers’ wives and their lawyer. Close to 11am, he called a press conference, gathering as many as possible to applaud him, announcing an accord that incorporates 2,000 non-remunerative pesos for December and January, meaning a gross salary of 8,000 pesos. In February, that salary will be incorporated to the wages.

Currently, the city is full of police. Four prosecutors are investigating the developments and are said to have identified 100 looters. At press conference, De la Sota announced he will hunt down the criminals and unveiled a hotline and email for people to collaborate. Until now, there was no self-criticism by the provincial government, which finally called for help from the national government, requesting Border Guards. With the presence of 22,000 police and more Border Guards every hour, there are still false rumours of further lootings and armed residents can still be seen on the streets,

Córdoba is increasingly unsafe.

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