Letter from Buenos Aires

Virginia Tognola begins her series from the Argentinian capital with a reflection on the strange nature of security in the big city.

Illustration by Sarah John

In Buenos Aires it seems that the cultural landscape changes with each passing year. When I came here 10 years ago, it was the place to be, thronging with tourists, attractive to migrants, with people enjoying its public art and cafes. But, marked by a brutal economic crisis and ongoing pandemic, the picture has become greyer by degrees.

Today each city block has its rough sleepers, sometimes groups, known as ranchadas, clustered under ramshackle self-built roofs. People lucky enough to have homes do not seem particularly animated either; on public roads the faces are tired, sad, often gazing into the distractions offered by mobile phones. This is the general urban climate, although from time to time we find a bit of hope: a group of people in a park dancing to cumbia blaring from a car, another group at an intersection handing out food and offering a helping hand… until the police arrive to move them on. The police are on almost every street corner, uniformed or undercover, a fundamental, unchanging part of the landscape.

When I first arrived, I got a cheap room in the centre. Once, after a night out, walking back through a building site in the early hours, I was approached by a man. Sensing that he wanted to rob me, I told him I had nothing and started to back away. He lunged, hugging me tightly; I still remember the dried-sweat smell of his body. He tried dragging me into one of the buildings under construction. I screamed as loud as I could, until he let go. I spotted a group of police officers on the corner, but when they saw me running towards them, they climbed into their patrol car and sped off. A couple of passersby came to ask if I was okay. When they found I was unharmed, one of them said: ‘This is a liberated area, that’s why the ratis [a derogatory term for the police; from ‘rats’] ran away.’

Liberated zone. It was the first time I heard that phrase. Liberated zones are places in the city where the security forces stay away or refuse to act because they have an economic arrangement with the illegal traders there.

Today I live in an apartment I moved to two years ago, in a rather popular neighbourhood with abandoned factories occupied as homes, on the border between Constitución and Parque Patricios. When I came to view it, the estate agent told me that I would be safe here because there is a police station four blocks away. A chill ran down my back.

Neighbours say that the block beyond our street corner is a liberated area. Sometimes I forget it, like a few days ago, when I went up to two policemen who were standing there to ask for directions. When I got closer, I saw that they each had in their hands a wad of dollars that they could barely grasp and were counting them, right there, in their service uniforms, in the middle of the sidewalk, in broad daylight. I never saw that amount of money in my life. Of course, it is not a crime to count money, but in a vocation so linked to corruption, to do it so casually on a public thoroughfare... believe me, it is an image that scares me.

Sometimes when I visit my hometown, they ask me if Buenos Aires is as unsafe as the news channels make it out to be, usually associating the poorer areas with crime. I tell them that it’s not like that, that in this city insecurity is not portioned by neighbourhoods, it is more complex. Here you walk down one block and everything is fine but, suddenly, everything becomes much darker in the next one, and there anything can happen to you. I suspect liberated areas have something to do with it. I suspect that the insecurity the mass media warn about has less to do with poverty than with corruption. I also suspect that knowing that no authority cares for us as citizens thickens the generalized sadness that hangs in the Buenos Aires air.

Virginia Tognola focuses on politics, culture and human and environmental rights in her writing. She is an activist in the Movimiento Popular Nuestramérica.