More than 550 police officers serving on the Buenos Aires Province force were suspended on Monday pending dismissal, five months after they launched a controversial uprising over pay.
The suspensions are the result of a lengthy investigation into the circumstances surrounding the mutiny, which took place last September. Those disciplined will receive only half their wages during their suspension and have been ordered to hand in their service weapons.
A large group of police officers seized headlines last year when they embarked on a series of rallies across the province amid a pay dispute with the government. At one point, the demonstrations reached the extreme of encircling the Olivos presidential residence, though President Alberto Fernández was not present at the time.
"They did not fulfill their police mission. They did not comply with the law," said Buenos Aires Province Security Minister Sergio Berni, speaking to Radio Mitre.
He said that their “erosion of the presidential figure” alongside other illegalities, insubordination and dereliction of duty, had prompted the move.
Policemen protesting last September outside the office and residence of Buenos Aires Province Governor Axel Kicillof were likewise among those suspended.
Apart from their defiance of authority, the policemen were also in violation of quarantine measures imposed to tackle the coronavirus pandemic.
A total of 1,800 individuals (out of the 90,000-strong Buenos Aires Province police force) are being investigated for their role in the demonstrations. Authorities, who initially announced the expulsion of 400 officers, before adding another 150 to the list later in the week, have refused to rule out the possibility that others may face disciplinary proceedings.
Some local outlets, however, painted the move as part of a bid to head off protests over similar grievances now brewing via social networks.
Although last year’s protests (strongly backed by ex-policemen previously purged from the force for crimes or indiscipline) were declared illegal at the time, the national government’s immediate reaction was to grant pay improvements (at the expense of Buenos Aires City’s federal revenue-sharing percentage), rather than embark on any punitive action.
But for the last five months the internal affairs office has been investigating "very grave administrative offences," authorities said.
The Buenos Aires provincial police, the nation’s largest, has long had a negative image due to numerous trigger-happy cases among other crimes – a reputation not helped by this week’s femicide death of 19-year-old Úrsula Bahillo at the hands of her former boyfriend, police officer Matías Martínez.
Relations between the provincial government and its police force have been especially tense since January 22, when half-a-dozen officers saluted former Security minister Patricia Bullrich in the Atlantic resort of Villa Gesell. They later claimed that they had been “used” for political purposes.
Berni is said to be convinced that the police see the government as more vulnerable to pressure and blackmail tactics with this year’s upcoming elections.
Last week Facebook and WhatsApp messages started circulating urging Buenos Aires provincial policemen to converge on February 11 in La Matanza (where Berni has his headquarters), Mar del Plata and Pinamar, the latter both Atlantic resorts which are policed in strength during summer.
The protesting policemen saw their pay increases since September (23 percent immediately and a further 6.8 percent in January) as lagging against inflation and still leaving them 30 percent behind their Federal Police colleagues.
News of the incipient protests arrive just after the weekend slaying of a leading La Cámpora militant Eduardo Chantada. The 52-year-old was visiting a friend in Villa Elisa outside the Buenos Aires provincial capital of La Plata when robbers burst in, shooting him in the throat. His friends immediately called the police but there were none in the immediate vicinity, according to reports.
The victim’s proximity to leading figures in both the provincial and national governments made this an especially sensitive case in the current context of police unrest.