As a city, Buenos Aires has internalised violence to the point where it has become structural and endemic. This normalisation of violent behaviour means that it has grown to become part of our culturally accepted norms.
We live in a constant state of violence, perpetuated by an extremely high level of belligerence permeating all levels of society. It’s important to take this into account when analyzing the case of Luis Chocobar, the Avellaneda policeman who fatally shot and killed a mugger who, along with an accomplice, stabbed a US tourist in an attempted theft, leaving him seriously wounded. As President Mauricio Macri lends his support and voices in favour of “mano dura” and even the death penalty rise to the surface, we should acknowledge the progressive institutionalisation and normalisation of violence in Argentine culture, and at the same time contemplate its causes and potential reduction.
As anyone who has walked them knows, the streets of Buenos Aires are a violent place. The most evident expression of this phenomena can be observed from a car. As a driver, the constant threat of a bus or a taxi engaging in a reckless manoeuvre requires diligent awareness, and tension of course, which leads to daily insults with other drivers, motorcyclists, and, particularly, pedestrians. There’s also the insistent menace of facing an aggressive windshield cleaner who, skillfully, surprises you with a squirt of soap, wiping the glass against your will only to force you to pay up or face unwarranted verbal – and even physical – violence. Not to mention the frequent roadblocks generally organized by professional protesters, armed with Fernet Branca, masks and sticks, and the risk of falling prey to theft which could begin with your phone and end with your car or even your life. Even policemen, looking for a bribe, force us to remain vigilant.
As a city, Buenos Aires has internalised violence to the point where it has become structural and systemic. This normalization of violent behaviour means that it has grown to become part of our culturally accepted norms, meaning the behaviour is then replicated by others, particularly children. Thus, it has become normal that kids as young as 13 smoke free base and then hit the streets, armed, to rob and steal in order to pay for another dose. We are equally unimpressed by reports of crooked policemen organising kidnap gangs or their bosses receiving royalties from drug-traffickers in order to operate in their jurisdictions. This violence isn’t only physical, nor is it just an issue of crime. We see it in the way people speak to each other, particularly in the media, and we also see it in the football pitch, as every edition of the Superclásico sadly demonstrates. Cognitively, we are reinforcing the behaviour throughout the population.
Politically and socioculturally, the grieta or our domestic version of polarisation, is the measure of the normalisation of violence. Pundits and politicians, entrenched in their ideological position, utilize aggressive forms of communication to preach to the choir, which in turn reach the intended audience through mass media and social networks, perpetuating the “filter bubble.” Within this context, violence becomes a universal tool, abused by the government in its repression of protests in vicinity of Congress, and by protesters who defiled the Plaza del Congreso and hospitalised nearly 90 police officers.
Just before 8am on December 8, police officer Luis Chocobar, dressed in plain clothes, shot and killed Pablo Kukoc, who had stabbed Frank Joseph Wolek a reported 10 times along with a friend. A video shows Kukoc, who was 18 years old, running away from Chocobar as he falls to the floor. He would eventually die four days later in Argerich Hospital from two bullet wounds to the lumbar region and the thigh. Chocobar was arrested, released, then charged with homicide due to the “excessive use of legitimate defence.”. Last week, President Macri and Security Minister Patricia Bullrich received Chocobar at the Pink House, said they would “take care of those who take care of us,” and put legal resources at his disposal. Bullrich told reporters the administration intends to change the Criminal Code in order to make it more difficult to prosecute police officers in engagements with delinquents. “It’s not legitimate defence, it’s fulfilling the duty of a public servant,” she explained, arguing it’s not the police but the criminals who generate situations of violence.
Cabinet Chief Marcos Peña tried to explain that the government isn’t in favor of “trigger happy” policies, while presidential adviser Jaime Duran Barba told journalist Ernesto Tenenbaum that his polls indicated “people want brutal repression against criminals,” and “the immense majority [of people] want the death penalty.”
The Chocobar affair, like the case of Santiago Maldonado, cannot be looked at objectively for the majority of society, it is part of the tug of war of political interests. Macri, in his weakest moment in the polls since taking office, and after announcing higher than expected inflation and rate hikes for basic services, is making a call for a tougher stance against crime. The opposition, fragmented and politically defeated, accuses the government of trying to impose a police state that represses and repeals the rights of the people.
What’s clear is that the level of violence that Argentines face everyday is extremely troubling. The fact that two kids stabbed a tourist nearly to death in La Boca should generate fear in everyone, while the fact that evidence seems to indicate that Chocobar shot Kukoc in the back as he escaped – and therefore not in legitimate self-defence – should be a matter for the courts to decide. According to the head of Correpi, an NGO looking to eradicate repression by the police, since Macri took power there have been 725 murders by the security forces. At a rate of 1.01 per day, it’s the highest since the return of democracy, compared with the previous record of 0.74 per day during Cristina Fernández de Kirchner’s presidency and 0.58 during Néstor’s. At the same time, the homicide rate is at its lowest rate since 2002, half the 12.3 homicides per 100,000 people of post-financial meltdown Argentina.
In a hyperconnected world where appearance has beaten out truth, we have become programmed to expect and engage in violence. From cyberbullying to murder, we continue to inject violence in every form of cultural expression. And while we need society to respect police and the rule of law, it’s dangerous to give out signs that suggest our tolerance for violence from the security forces is on the rise, particularly with Argentina’s dark past.