Hundreds of mostly homeless families living in improvised shacks in Buenos Aires Province were evicted by the police on Thursday morning, with violent clashes at the site they had been occupying for more than three months.
Some 4,000 provincial police officers stormed the Guernica encampment in the early hours, tearing down the shacks and miserable refuges of wood and plastic which were then set ablaze in scenes that sparked panic and fury among the temporary residents.
The evicted resisted the raid with stones and other projectiles while the police fired back with rubber bullets and tear gas in clashes lasting several hours.
"It was heart-breaking, people crying and the police couldn't care less if there were kids or elderly people, they burned all our homes the same in their surprise raid," deplored Aída Mabel, 35, surrounded by her family at the site in the partido of Presidente Perón.
Homeless families started constructing their shelters in Guernica in late July, installing themselves in the 100-hectare (250-acre) plot in southern Greater Buenos Aires.
Occupation peaked at 2,500 families, including many with young children, although many agreed to leave before the police operation.
"We left with only the clothes we were wearing... They offered us a shelter but we don't want to go, we want to stay here. We'll be in the street and we'll come back," unemployed domestic worker Marisa, who declined to give her surname, told AFP.
Land occupations have multiplied in Argentina during the pandemic as millions of people have been hit hard by the loss of their jobs.
"They burned everything”
As the operation kicked in, columns of smoke and fire mixed with tear gas as the camp’s poverty-stricken occupants looked on stunned.
Families could be seen weeping, while others used the sheet metal from their makeshift homes as shields as officers fired rubber bullets at protesters. The earth tracks of the neighbourhood served as improvised barricades, which were left sprinkled with projectiles.
Most of the rickety homes, made out of chunks of wood, metal and plastic, were torched while police bulldozed the rest.
"They burned everything, I want them to return my things, I’m really mad, the police hit me and my husband," said Axi Villafuente, 24, who earns money recycling garbage.
"We left with no more than the clothes we were wearing (...) they offered us a shelter but we don’t want to go, we want to be here, we’ll live on the street and we’ll come back," said Marisa, an unemployed domestic worker Marisa, who declined to give her surname.
Juntos por el Cambio lawmaker Cristian Ritondo critised the nature of the eviction, saying it should have been carried out "as quickly as possible" and should not have been allowed to escalate.
"I regret that it has taken so long to carry out the eviction of Guernica. It must be understood that the provincial government rewarded the taking of land, which is a crime," he said.
He also criticised provincial Security Ministry Sergio Berni for attending the operation. The outspoken politician was photographed at the eviction by multiple outlets.
Kirchnerite social leader Luis D'Elía criticised the clearance and compared Berni to Brazilian President Jair Bolsonaro. Speaking in a radio interview and calling the security minsiter a "son of a bitch," D'Elía offered his "total repudiation" of the events earlier in the day.
"All this was badly handled, we all knew it would end with bullets. I regret that this is being done in the name of Kirchnerism," he added.
The occupation had started in defiance of the courts but also at the worst moment of the pandemic which has left over a million infected and more than 30,000 dead in Argentina.
"This is unfair, the only thing we want is a home with some ground, we cannot afford to pay a rent, that’s why we’re here,” said 21-year-old squatter named Agustín.
In recent years, such occupations have multiplied in Argentina, which has been in recession since 2018 and currently has around 40.9 percent of its 45 million inhabitants living below the poverty.
Buenos Aires Province, with 15 million people, is the nation’s most populous and richest region. It also has the largest disparity between rich and poor.
According to the Buenos Aires Province government, 80 squatter invasions had been taken to court by the start of October.
Fire and fury
For some months the provincial government has been negotiating a housing solution with the squatters in order to dissuade them from the occupation, while an NGO of lawyers sought an injunction to protect them from the eviction finally ordered by the courts.
The police gave no information on the number of injured but the prosecutor specified that at least 35 people had been arrested. Local reports suggested at least six police officers were injured in clashes.
Many neighbours of the temporary encampment had shown solidarity with the squatters, providing them with drinking water or food.
The courts had set a Friday deadline for the eviction but the authorities resolved to bring it ahead to the small hours of Thursday.
A helicopter flew over the site while the police advanced amid yells. "We’ll be back!" screamed the squatters as they scattered in the surroundings.
After hours of incidents, the grounds were cordoned off by the police to prevent new entries.
"Here we are now in the street,” said Ramón, 32, another ex-resident. "We don’t know what to do.”
– TIMES/AFP [Reporting by Sonia Avalos]