At least a dozen provinces around Argentina have squatter issues at present, but attention over the past week has fallen especially on Entre Ríos Province.
The reason? The stellar nature of the figures heading the two sides of the tense land dispute there in the Santa Elena area – former Agriculture minister Luis Miguel Etchevehere, whose family owns the invaded property, versus militant social leader Juan Grabios championing the squatters in alliance with Etchevehere’s sister Dolores.
Hundreds of local farmers, reinforced by others from neighbouring provinces (especially Buenos Aires and Santa Fe, with Córdoba’s agricultural sector joining them in declaring a “state of alert”) have been demonstrating on Etchevehere’s behalf for over a week now, including during days of heavy rainfall. On Monday, Grabois dubbed his family a “mafia clan” who had “kidnapped” the sister.
Over the weekend, the Etchevehere family successfully challenged local judge Raúl Flores, who last Friday had rejected their request for the eviction of the occupied fields.
Flores, who admitted to being a specialist in family law rather than property litigation, is to be replaced by María Carolina Castagno, according to reports.
Nationwide both the centre-right opposition and farming lobbies have turned this issue into a test case for property rights, blasting the Frente de Todos national government for its lack of any decisive intervention, with a basically ambiguous stance.
Angry farmers have threatened to cut roads across the country in protest, evoking memories of past conflicts.
Asked for his stance on the dispute, Agriculture Minister Luis Basterra described it as “basically a family matter, where the court decisions should be respected.” He accused Etchevehere, who served two years in former president Mauricio Macri’s government, of gratuitously politicising the situation.
The provincial government has also adopted a low profile, likewise interpreting the conflict as a family spat. Leonor Etchevehere, the former minister’s mother, commented: “I don’t hear [Entre Ríos’ Peronist Governor, Gustavo] Bordet defending property rights.”
Grabois insists that the squatters have a perfectly legal right to the land as part of Dolores Etchevehere’s family inheritance, of which she voluntarily ceded 40 percent in advance to the homeless.
The family argues that the ex-minister’s only female sibling no longer belongs to the board of directors administering their properties, having signed a document relinquishing her shares (under duress from her “machista” family, according to the woman).
Over the weekend, Etchevehere claimed that 30 to 40 of the squatters had tried to overrun the ranch-house itself, quite apart from the adjacent fields.
The dispute dates back to October 14 when militant followers of Grabois first moved in.