Milagro Sala. photo via static.grupo23

It’s been a little over two weeks since Milagro Sala, the controversial leader of the Kirchnerite-friendly Tupac Amaru organization, was arrested for “instigating criminal activity and disorder” while protesting in the capital of the northern province of Jujuy.

Following public and international outcry over what many saw as Sala’s unlawful arrest — Amnesty International wrote on these pages that the charges violate Argentines’ freedom of expression and right to protest — Judge Gastón Mercau cleared Sala of those charges, but ordered for her continued arrest while investigators look into new charges of “illicit association, fraud and extortion.”

As Sala continues behind bars, outrage over her incarceration grows. Today, in fact, protestors camped out on the Plaza de Mayo have threatened to march to the Obelisco and block traffic there. If you’re scratching your head wondering what this is all about, here we explain what’s been going on since we last wrote about Sala’s case and why she is such a polarizing figure.

What started the whole thing again?

On December 14th, newly elected Jujuy Governor Gerardo Morales set up a new enrollment plan by which cooperatives such as Tupac Amaru would have to register in a certain database to continue receiving government funding, which is by far the group’s main source of income. To monitor what each group did with the money, Morales arranged for the payments to be dispensed via bank accounts instead of cash.

Tupac Amaru is a political group based in Jujuy friendly with the Victory Front (FpV) that, among other things, works to improve the living standards of the people in the Northern region, which largely consist of indigenous peoples. It has built homes and staffed hospitals and schools, and employs some 66,000 individuals. Their projects depend largely on federal funds, which they received without a problem during the Kirchner administration. With non-Kirchnerites in power at the national and provincial levels now, however, they risk having some of those funds cut off.

Unhappy with the decision, Sala and members of Tupac Amaru began camping out in San Salvador de Jujuy, the capital of Jujuy Province, that same day. They were protesting these changes in the way public funds are allocated because they were concerned about how this would affect the organization and its funding. In light of massive public sector layoffs throughout the country and the tightening of public funding, we can assume Tupac Amaru saw this oversight measure as the beginning of the end regarding their own public funding.

“We want them to let us work,” Sala said while justifying her reasons for camping out.

Morales defended his actions by accusing the organization of defrauding the state. According to him, Tupac Amaru’s leaders have routinely kept social welfare money allocated for social projects for themselves. As the protest dragged on, Morales fined Tupac Amaru AR$100,000 for setting up camp on the plaza and revoked the organization’s legal capacity.

Tupac Amaru members camping in Jujuy. Photo via cdn.urgente24.com
Tupac Amaru members camping in Jujuy. Photo via cdn.urgente24.com

“567 cooperatives have registered since December 14. We’re conducting all kinds of controls, because they didn’t allow for the government to do so before. Besides, we have arranged for payments to be dispensed via bank accounts. Before, they would cash checks for up to AR$ 50,000 then take the money in bags and hand them to Milagro Sala. She took AR$ 29 million in November to start a project called Mejor Vivir,” Morales said.

But tensions spiked on January 16 when Sala was arrested on the aforementioned “disorder” charges. Shortly thereafter, the Jujuy government accused her of embezzlement and illicit association, saying that she deviated funds destined for housing projects.

Several human rights organizations like Amnesty International and the Center for Legal and Social Studies (CELS) appealed to the Inter-American Human Rights Commission (CIDH) to get an injunction to “guarantee Milagro Sala’s freedom, the exercise of freedom of speech and the right for social protests in Jujuy.”

A controversial figure

Sala’s embezzlement charges put a spotlight on why she is considered such a controversial figure in the province: a number of people have accused her of using money the state allocates her organization to run a political patronage system (basically, providing goods and services to “constituents” but only in return of unquestioned political loyalty) in the province or having ties to drug-trafficking organizations.

Case in point: La Nación recently published an investigative piece that depicts Tupac Amaru’s alleged modus operandi according to a testimony provided by a woman who lives in one of the organization’s better known neighborhoods, “el cantri.” The woman, who did not provide her name, said that she will always be grateful to Tupac Amaru because it gave her a house. However, she added that everyone “who takes public office embezzles. Governors, everyone. Milagro Sala does it too, but at least she does something. The only issue is that she always asks for something in return. If you don’t do it, she’ll take your house from you.”

In an interview with Radio Mitre, sociologist Laura Etcharren, who specializes in drug-trafficking, alleged that Tupac Amaru “is linked with several expressions of organized crime, and drug-trafficking is one of them. Drugs get into the country through the lands they control,” she added.

Etcharren is not the first one to link Sala with this activity. Governor Gerardo Morales told Radio La Red that “one of the most important leaders of the organization and Sala’s right-hand man, “Beto” Cardozo, is in charge of buying and selling drugs in Jujuy.”

Of course, these are all allegations that have not been substantiated or proved in a court of law. But these are some of the accusations that have won Sala many a political enemy.

What’s happened since?

After spending several days in a cell located in a police station, Judge Mercau — who rejected a habeas corpus petition to have Sala released — upheld a request made by the leader’s fellow Parlasur deputies and ordered for her to be taken to a women’s prison. The reason behind this was to improve the conditions of her imprisonment.

Upon the news that Sala would continue to be detained, different political sectors favorable to her cause — the Victory Front (FpV) and the Leftist Workers’ Front (FIT), primarily — organized at least  26 simultaneous protests all over the country demanding her release.

FIT leader Christian Castillo said that his party supported the protest because despite its differences with Sala, “the fact that she is in prison for protesting is a clear message that repression is going to be a constant under the new administration.”

In response to the government’s apparent refusal to hear out their demands, protesters pitched their tents on the Plaza de Mayo.

Sala sent a letter to the people camping in Plaza de Mayo encouraging them to keep on protesting. The letter says: "Wherever there's a need, we're there my friends. I send you a big thankful hug. Your presence in Plaza de Mayo strengthens and makes me emotional. Don't give up in this, our fight. Towards victory, always. From the national and popular field. Milagro Sala. Photo via infobae.

Sala sent a letter to the people camping on the Plaza de Mayo encouraging them to keep on protesting. The letter reads: “Wherever there’s a need, we’re there, my friends. I send you a big thankful hug. Your presence at the Plaza de Mayo strengthens and touches me. Don’t give up. Always move towards victory.”

It’s still unclear how the case will develop, but the fact that Sala is still in jail when the investigation against her has just begun raises a few eyebrows. Sala and Governor Morales have had an ongoing dispute in Jujuy that goes back many years, and while it’s always legitimate to investigate someone if there’s a reasonable cause to do so, what’s being discussed here is whether it’s legitimate to keep her locked up as a preemptive measure for an undetermined amount of time, without any view on freeing her.