As Argentina takes the presidency of the G20 and President Mauricio Macri looks to finally position the country as a regional leader, the spectre of political violence has once again entered the scene.
The ongoing conflict with radicalised Mapuche indigenous groups in the Patagonia is just one example of how the extreme political polarisation evident Argentine society can quickly escalate into a serious stand-off, one that has already left several dead and continues to rip the social fabric apart. And while the Mapuche conflict per se cannot erupt into a full-blown crisis, it is demonstrative of a very Argentine way of acting, with all parties doubling down on the situation rather than looking for solutions.
Last weekend, 22-year-old Rafael Nahuel died from a bullet-wound to the back after a confrontation between indigenous Mapuche protesters and Armed Forces including the Prefectura (Coast Guard), the Federal and local police forces, the Gendarmerie (Border Guard), and Airport Police in the woods of Villa Mascardi, in the Rio Negro Province. Nahuel had joined a protest near Villa Mascardi, in the vicinity of Nahuel Huapi National Park, which was later dispersed under the orders of Federal Judge Gustavo Villanueva.
The “stand-off,” as the government quickly defined it, was instead described as a “hunt” by the indigenous protesters, who felt the fury of the Prefectura’s special Albatross units. Apart from Nahuel, two others suffered gunshot wounds. The lof Lafken Winkul Mapu Mapuche community, made up of about 30 people, had forcibly occupied lands in the national park, claiming the territory as their own through an ancestral claim.
As Nahuel’s family grieves and leftist organisations try to use another death to demonise Macri’s government, referencing the bloody military dictatorship of 1976-83, Defence Minister Patricia Bullrich once again rushed to defend the armed forces she commands. Claiming that the Mapuches had an “arsenal” and had ambushed the Albatross team “in military formation,” she added: “There have been 70 violent acts in the south of our country, we are facing groups that do not recognise Argentina, nor our law or Constitution, and which consider themselves to be a parallel power structure.”
While Minister Bullrich may be right, she would have done well to show a little caution. Only a few months ago, she blindly came out in defence of the Gendarmerie after Santiago Maldonado went missing. Bullrich, who was a member of the Montoneros organisation during the 1970s, which followed a Marxist ideology and used what they believed to be justified violence to murder and kidnap, should be aware that in a country with Argentina’s history of recent political violence it is better to avoid throwing gasoline on a fire. Even if she ends up being right.
The history of Argentina, and of practically every country in the Americas and Europe for that matter, is a history of violence.
Indeed, the so-called “Conquest of the Desert” led by Julio Argentino Roca in the 1870s was a systematic plan to extend Argentina’s borders to the South and subjugate the native and indigenous tribes that populated large swathes of land. Mapuches and others would use guerrilla tactics to attack border towns in what is today Buenos Aires province, stealing cattle and horses, along with women and children, all of which would be traded with Chile. Roca secured territorial sovereignty, giving Argentina one of the world’s largest national territories (and the natural resources that came with it). In recent years, however, many scholars agree Roca’s plan has all the ingredients of genocide.
The Mapuches, most of which do not engage in acts of violence, believe a large portion of the land on either side of the Andes Mountains belongs to them. There they want to build a Mapuche nation that responds not to capitalism and democracy, but ancestral lineage and spirituality. Over the past several decades though, radicalised Mapuche groups have used violence acts including the burning churches and murdering landowners to fight for what they believe to be their sacred grounds, mainly in Chile.
While this behaviour is not mainstream, it has become the face of the conflict to most Argentines, particularly porteños. The Ancestral Mapuche Resistance (RAM) and espeically its leader, Facundo Jones Huala, has become relatively well-known since the disappearance and death of Santiago. RAM, which like the Montoneros and other radical groups across the continent and the world, is proud of its use of violence to generate the conditions for a “rebellion” as it fights for Mapuche land.
Argentina’s close relationship with violence dates back not only to its founding, or to the continued military coups that stained the 20th century. But it is now becoming an endemic problem that must be contained. And the solution isn’t more violence from the state, which, as Max Weber put it, has a “monopoly on the legitimate use of physical force.”
The problem is not hard to see. Take the aftershocks of the fall of the last military dictatorship, like the Carapintada uprising, or how throughout the Kirchnerite governments the country suffered from the political use of “piqueteros” who literally set up pickets in downtown Buenos Aires or across the country. Their faces covered, they would use sticks and burn tyres to take over public space at the expense of the rest of us. Argentina has seen the rise of narco and drug violence too, which directly includes the police and different mafias, turning places like the Conurbano (outer Buenos Aires) and parts of cities like Rosario into Tijuana or Mexicali into treacherous terrain.
Violence is not just physical either. These days, our political narratives have become so one-sided that our level of discourse has descended to yelling at each other to protect empty ideology. “The stances adopted by people when they speak about politics have more to do with feelings and subjective beliefs than the search for truth,” wrote Macri’s star political advisor, Jaime Duran Barba, in Perfil a few weeks ago.
Even the G20 carries fears of violence and while it is clear that the government needs to guarantee safety as the global spotlight focuses on us with the landmark summit (already more 1,000 officers have been sent to Bariloche as finance ministers meet in the Llao Llao Hotel), the Macri administration needs to find a thoughtful solution to violence that doesn’t centre on repression. Rather it should seek to generate inclusion. The ESMA trial that concluded this week is the clearest evidence of it.