Police officers in Buenos Aires Province escalated their protests on Wednesday, with a group congregating outside the Olivos presidential residence.
The move sparked controversy, criticism and action, with President Alberto Fernández vowing in a televised broadcast to meet their demands for salary increases and greater protection against Covid-19.
However, in comments that were backed by politicians on both sides of the aisle, the Peronist leader also demanded respect for institutions and expressed unhappiness at how the demands were delivered to officials.
"Every claim has a way of being made, not just anything is valid, not everything is allowed when making a claim," said the president, after several hours of a protesting had died down.
"I ask you amicably, democratically, to put aside this attitude," he added, surrounded by socially distanced mayors from the province, including those both from the ruling Frente de Todos and opposition Juntos por el Cambio coalitions.
The protest began on Monday as a group of active and retired officers made wage claims to the provincial authorities in a rally at Buenos Aires Province Governor Axel Kicillof's official residence in La Plata.
Demonstrations continued on Tuesday at various locations across the province, but Wednesday's rally took a political turn, when a group of police officers stationed themselves in front of the presidential residence, demanding to be let in to see Fernández, despite the fact that the policemen have provincial and not national jurisdiction.
Officials admit that salaries have fallen behind with promised rises. Some officers say their pay is drastically undervalued, with overtime hours working out to just 40 pesos an hour in some cases.
"Just as people have their families, so do we. And a family has to be supported. A salary of 35,000 pesos (US$448) is the basic basket [of goods], it is useless," a serving officer named María told the AFP news agency.
Fernández said in his address that the officers' claim "is fair," adding it was "necessary to give an answer."
He asked the police to "accompany us in this difficult moment" in "the effort we are making."
Tensions rose throughout the day as protests dominated news coverage in the morning and afternoon. The demonstration at the presidential residence drew even more attention, with some social organisations and government supporters vowing to head to Olivos to demonstrate in favour of democracy.
"I appreciate all the expressions of concern and affection that I have received. We must face problems and solve them in peace and with good sense. I hug those who want to come and accompany me and ask them not to forget that we are in a pandemic. Let us not increase the risk [of contagion]," Fernandez later tweeted.
Leaders from Juntos el Cambio also posted their condemnation of the rally on social networks. rejected the demonstration outside the presidential residence.
"It is not the manner or the place. The presence of police officers at the presidential residence in Olivos is unacceptable," tweeted Buenos Aires City Mayor Horacio Rodríguez Larreta on Wednesday evening.
Rodríguez Larreta, seen as a more moderate figure within the opposition, has worked closely with the president on efforts to tackle the coronavirus pandemic.
The protests by provincial police officers, which were organised without a central leadership and drew support from retired and former cops, has drawn considerable attention, coming at a time when Argentina is registering its highest daily infection numbers yet of the virus crisis. Rallies drew considerable backing and even created images of working officers attending with their regulation weapons and patrol cars.
Earlier on Wednesday, tens of officers met near a strategic command post near La Matanza.
"We want a solution immediately, we are not asking for miracles, we are asking that this conflict, which has solutions, be unlocked," said officer Alberto Díaz, dressed in camouflage gear.
The provincial police force has around 90,000 serving officers to guarantee the safety of some 17 million inhabitants of the region, the nation's most populous and extreme, in terms of inequality. Police leaders say that salaries are unacceptably low, especially given they are serving on the "front line" of the fight against Covid-19 in Argentina.
"The protest is fair and legal. Police salaries are not enough to live on," a spokesman for the protesters, Luis Tunil, told the C5N news channel.
The provincial government said that on Thursday it will announce salary bumps and improvements to working conditions. According to reports, the Fernández administration will use money from Argentina’s so-called "coparticipation" provincial funding scheme. The country's provinces depend on transfers from the central government for a substantial portion of their revenue.
"The trigger for the claim was the announcement of investment in security but with nothing for salaries," Nicolás Masi, a police delegate, told FutuRock radio.
Fernández said that US$460 million would be deployed to improve security in the province, which has seen a sharp rise in crime.