Yesterday, approximately 2,000 people were evicted from 60 hectares of land in Merlo, Buenos Aires Province, and those people’s non-permanent housing was destroyed during a forceful police eviction of the area. The settlers had begun squatting the area back in November in what is known as a toma, or seizure of land. By the end of yesterday afternoon, 98 percent of the squatters had been evicted while the remaining 2 percent were taken under the wing of Social Services for minors.
Wait, What Was The Toma In Merlo?
Tomas de terrenos (the “taking” or seizure of land) or just tomas generally stem from masses of people, often unemployed and homeless and with no access to credit or shelter, squatting on public or private land. Many villas miserias (slums) are the products of tomas. These particular land settlements are more than delicate matters to address because they involve the well being of squatters as well as the rights of land owners whose property is used.
In November, 3,000 families began squatting 60 hectares of land in the Merlo partido (district) in Buenos Aires Province. Merlo’s mayor, Victory Front (FpV) politician Gustavo Menéndez, said at the time that his predecessor, mayor Raúl Othacehé (also FpV), was responsible for the incident, stating that the squatters had been encouraged to take over the land as a political stunt against the incoming Cambiemos administration.
Both Menéndez and current Buenos Aires Province Governor María Eugenia Vidal considered the toma to be indicative of a corrupt regime of the so-called barons of the suburbs. Despite being from the same party as Menéndez, Othacehé belonged to a different generation of politicians who had been in power since the ’90s in the partidos of Buenos Aires. These “barons” exerted control over generally poorer areas with what many regard to be corrupt patronage networks.
It should be clarified that many squatters are not there for political reasons but due to a genuine need for housing, a chronic social issue that always surfaces with these conflicts. Click here to learn more on the toma in Merlo.
Then last Saturday, an eight-year-old boy called “Oscarcito” or “Little Oscar” was killed after the birthday party he was attending was caught in a shoot-out between two gangs in a territorial dispute in Merlo. This tragedy triggered locals to protest and demand for a full eviction of the area. Menéndez even said that “everybody’s patience wore out [with Oscarcito’s] unfair death.”
What Happened Yesterday?
A lot happened yesterday: get ready.
The eviction process began in the morning at 4 AM, with 1,200 Buenos Aires police officers surrounding the area now known as the New Hope Neighborhood. They later began going door to door asking occupants to leave their housing. However, this is where the versions begin to differ: various neighbors have stated that they were not even given the chance to collect their belongings before the bulldozers came.
“They came with bulldozers and blew everything apart. They said that delinquency has grown in the area, but the drug traffickers had cleared the area and we were suffering from their violence,” said Ramiro Alonso, a squatter shown in the video above.
As can be seen in the video footage and the photos, the neighborhood was filled with smoke due to the bulldozed housing.
The presence of drug traffickers and gangs is a problem not only because of their illegal activities but because of the security threat they represent to the squatters, who live alongside them and are used as a “shield” against the authorities:
“We must not stigmatize the people that have taken the decision to take part in the toma because the majority are unemployed workers. However, there was a small but very violent group that was using the toma as a shield to commit crimes,” said Menéndez.
Another element that adds to the confusion is that the eviction took place despite the fact that the courthouse in charge of the case signed a resolution that exhorted the authorities to postpone any attempted evictions for the next 180 days and asked for policy negotiations to solve the problem.
The squatters have thus been accusing Mayor Menéndez of giving an illegal go ahead for the eviction to use them as “scapegoats” for the death of Oscarcito last week. Menéndez, on his end, has stated that the eviction was done “[through a] judicial decision because the owners [of the land] presented their cause to the court to claim their land.”
However, the eviction was stopped at around 10 AM by Prosecutor Fernando Capello due to the presence of children with no adults accompanying them in the New Hope Neighborhood. Prosecutor Capello requested that the squatters stay where they were in order for a census to be carried out by 20 social workers. The unsupervised children had allegedly been sent to the other side of the neighborhood in order to avoid further violence such as the shooting of Oscarcito.
After midday, the eviction continued as resistance dwindled and other squatters began to dismantle their temporary homes to move out.
Lots of upheaval for a Thursday, I know. As was the case in October, there remains a housing necessity that needs to be covered, regardless of the internal conflicts. According to Menéndez, the owners of the land have considered “urbanizing a fraction of the terrain,” but nonetheless there needs to be a concerted effort to negotiate an adequate housing program and security plans — perhaps before bringing out the bulldozers.