|02/01/2011 A dramatic page of recent history |
«Falsos positivos», real scandal
by Alessandro Armato
The bus does not reach villa "21-24-Zavaleta". The nearest stop is Avenida Velez Sarsfield, one of the endless main roads of the immense Buenos Aires. A narrow sidewalk runs alongside the flow of running cars. Apart from some auto mechanics, there are no other shops, only houses. Only cars, trucks and smog. It is difficult to believe that this spot is only 20 minutes from the very central Plaza de Mayo and the "Parisian" buildings of Paseo Colòn.
When the road becomes dirt it means that "21-24-Zavaleta" begins. Another city, forgotten at the heart of the most European metropolis of South America. A confused "city". Built during the last seven decades by the fantasy of thousands and thousands of people who came from other parts of Argentina or the continent to invent their own future. Now there are 45.000 people living in this microcosm. The hovels -one- or two-floor brick constructions, mostly half finished - pop up everywhere. Tiny streets run in zigzags, sneak into muddy bogs, sketching an indecipherable labyrinth for inexperienced visitors. One continuously runs into tennis shoes tied to the power lines. "It means that it is a place where drugs are sold - explains Luis Alberto Rodas, historical memory of the neighbourhood -. But often drug pushing places are not advertized. People know them. And, anyway, there would be too many...". In "21-24-Zavaleta" - as in the rest of Argentinian villas -paco is spread, a highly toxic drug extracted from cocaine wastes, which is warmed up and then smoked. To get it is even too easy, even for penniless neighbourhood teenagers: a fix only costs two or three pesos (40-60 Euro cents). Obviously the effect lasts just a few minutes, but after that the desire comes wrenchingly back. In the end a person can consume up to 80 fixes per day. The addicted person's life is an obsessive search for more paco. In six-months time the addict's brain is devastated. And paqueros turn into zombies. A social disaster - this is the denunciation recently exposed by the association "Mothers Against Paco". On the outer fringes of Buenos Aires, at least 10 young men per week die because of this drug. Addicted people number more than 50.000. And that number is growing: according to the UN, compared to 2001, the year of the great crisis, paco usage has quadruplicated. A paquero's profile is monotonously uniform: 12/13-year-old male (luckily, drug consumption among girls is still small-scale) who lives in a villa where he often shares his addiction with more than half of the boys of his same age. "Villas are functional to drug trafficking - father Facundo Beretta, one of the priests in "21-24-Zavaleta" explains -. Here there is no control, policemen are scared to enter. It is a free zone, abandoned by the State where the drug lords may sell death undisturbed. Villeros are the first victims of violence".
In these enclaves, which in Italy are called "baraccopoli" [shantytowns], Buenos Aires is hardly trying to hide - even if, since the 2001 recession it has been impossible since misery spreads even into the glittering Nueve de Julio - its poor and Latin-American face. There are - according to official data - at least 300,000 people living in the hundreds of slums. However, the actual number is for sure higher. During the last nine years, many others have been added to the "classical poor" after losing their homes in the economic crisis. Since 2003, the shantytowns' populations have doubled.
It is a combination of misery, lack of opportunities and State absence that is leading young people to the paco slavery, and the response is general indifference. This is a tragedy publicly denounced, without any fear or turns of phrases by father José Maria De Paola, parish priest of "21-24-Zavaleta", and by the other villeros priests in a document spread in 2009: "Drug in villas de facto decriminalized". This document is a brave stance against the State inertia and, above all, the arrogance of drug traffickers who have reacted with the usual ferocity: father De Paola has been repeatedly threatened with death. The continual intimidations seem to have been the cause of his next displacement to a northern diocese of the Country. On the 8th of December, father José Maria - alias father Pepe - will, after 14 years, leave the parish of Our Lady of Cacupé at the centre of the villa.
The church stands, in the chaos, as a guiding light. A small building, not tall but recognizable from a distance for the candour of its walls, which clash with the tin-plated grey and brick-red of the other buildings. The roof of the building too is in tin plate but it is shiny. The furnishings in the interior are simple: a stone floor, a huge table as altar and very colourful prints everywhere. There are writings of thanksgiving, an image of Don Bosco and a huge crucifix as well as the statue of Our Lady of Cacupé, Paraguay's patron saint. "The parish priest brought it here in 1997 as an homage to the many Paraguayan immigrants who live in the villa", Luis Alberto states. The doors are wide-open, even during the night. Comings and goings are endless. Men and women sit down on the benches to chat, sipping mate (a typical Argentinian infusion). This is how they pass the hours. "Many people wait to talk with father Pepe - Luis adds -. Others stay here because they do not know where else to go. They do not have a job and their homes are too small...". The church is a sort of place of meeting, of exchanges, a common home. "It is the heart of the villa", as father Pepe loves to define it. The priest's office is a tiny room - not even 2x2 metres - which hardly manages to accommodate a desk and two chairs. What makes the room more welcoming are the overloaded walls. There are pictures of the priest with the young people of the neighbourhood, images of the Virgin Mary, of Mother Theresa, a handkerchief from the Mothers of Plaza de Mayo. And a big painting of father Carlos Mujica, one among the first Argentine priests who left the city parishes to move to the shantytowns. His commitment to the disadvantaged cost him his life. Father Mujica was assassinated by the paramilitary men of the "Triple A" in 1974. However, the Church did not abandon villas. Not even during the bloody years of military dictatorship when this kind of activity was considered subversive. In May 2009, the archbishop of Buenos Aires, Cardinal Jorge Bergoglio, wanted to give the villeros priests - by now twenty - an important acknowledgement with the establishment of the "Vicaría para las villas de emergencia". It was father Pepe, at least until the 8th of December, directing it. This job was doubly valuable because it arrived briefly after the publishing of the "anti-paco document" and the death threats. "The cardinal gave me an important support. He believes in the villeros priests' commitment to the poor people", father Pepe says.
It is not easy to conclude a conversation with the prelate. Interruptions are continuous. In the span of half an hour, Mrs Josefa, who has no more milk, comes and asks the father if he has some. "You know, I have two children", she says almost as an apology. Next comes Ramon, who wants the father to call an ambulance for his uncle who is ill. "If it is you calling, it will arrive sooner", he explains. And finally, Daniel who only asks for a blessing "to push away bad luck". "Here I learnt a way to live faith that I did not know before - tells father Pepe -. More authentic and genuine. Villa people have taught me a lot". And he adds laughing: "Well, sometimes they make some confusion..." To understand what he is talking about, all you have to do is walk out of the church. Next to the building there is the chapel of "Guachito Gil", a popular saint who has never been beatified by the Church. But the poor Argentines do not care: they consider him to be their protector, together with the Deceased Correa, who was never canonized either. To Gauchito, people bring candles and red ribbons, to the Deceased bottles of water. "Because she died of thirst - explains Mari who wears her image -. She protects us. She saved my mother after an accident".
"I always say that you may learn from the villeros more than what you teach them - states father Pepe -. People from "outside" (inhabitants of the rest of Buenos Aires), generally label them as criminals or maladjusted people without knowing them. There is not anything as false as this... For me they are "optimistic workers", people who were brave enough to roll up their sleeves to build a neighbourhood from nothing. It is true: roads are unpaved, water and electricity connections are unauthorized. But this place was a dump before...". Now, it is a surreal and mixed universe. "Sure, violence does exist. But its causes must be understood. Sometimes people turn violent because they suffer violence. It is violent to wait for hours an ambulance when your child is at his last gasp because nurses are scared to enter the villa. It is violent to be refused a job because "you are a villero and, therefore, untrustworthy". It is violent that the State stays out the neighbourhood leaving who is inside in the hands of drug traffickers...", father De Paola states passionately. The Church is filling that "gap". Priests are the points of reference. "We have built kindergartens, youth and elderly centres, eight soup kitchens and launched professional courses. The scout group has 5,000 members. We try to give a hand above all to young people. And we have created a recovery program for paqueros".
It is still unknown if one of the three priests working with father Pepe- father Facundo, father Carlos, father Juan -will replace him, or if someone else will be brought in. "But this work will continue". In the tiny villa paths, one frequently comes across tiny sanctuaries built around a Christ with his right arm raised. "It is the Christ of the villa. A victorious Christ - father Pepe concludes -. Here people do not surrender. I told you. They are optimistic...".