President Alberto Fernández had to deal with an unexpected conflict this week, after a group of Buenos Aires Province policemen organized a widespread protest that escalated to a point in which dozens of armed officers surrounded his presidential residency with a series of demands, forcing most of Argentina’s political spectrum to repudiate the policemen and say they were putting democratic institutions at risk.
After two days of high tension that swept all other political issues to the side, the government seemingly found an unorthodox way out of the conflict, agreeing to demands of salary hikes and improved work conditions, but saying the money would come from an unexpected source: taking funds controlled by the opposition-ruled Buenos Aires City to Buenos Aires Province, ran by a Fernández ally and Cristina Kirchner protégé, Governor Axel Kicillof.
Although the police protest had been brewing for weeks, its scale and intensity caught the government with its guard down.
The Buenos Aires Province Police is the largest force in the country, with 90,000 officials distributed along 300,000 kilometres to oversee 17 million people. In a province rife with social needs, crime, conflict and corruption, the force has often been at the heart of the storm, with ties to organized crime and cases of abuse that have at times made it seem uncontrollable for the political powers that be.
Since the eruption of Argentina’s latest economic crisis in 2018, their salaries have taken a significant toll, and the COVID-19 pandemic only added to the explosive mix. Over the last six months, officers have been working massive (and very cheap) overtime hours in the district that worries the authorities the most, and thousands in the ranks have fallen ill. With the crisis and the pandemic also came a series of conflicts over land, with multiple vacant lots occupied across Greater Buenos Aires that have at times escalated into violence.
Mistrust of Governor Kicillof, a left-wing BA city intellectual, has surely not helped either, and the same can be said of the relationship with Sergio Berni, his controversial right-wing Security Minister. Berni was seen as the man who could bridge the gap between government and police, but his failure to prevent the protest or even anticipate its scale and nature is now putting him under pressure from people within the ruling Frente de Todos coalition, with some of them even calling for his resignation, arguing that he’s more focused on making TV appearances and launching his own political career than on his current job.
In any case, policemen were filling the central squares of many BA city municipalities by Monday night with a long list of demands, and from there tension only escalated until a first hint of a potential resolution late on Wednesday.
The first sign of alarm came in the early hours of Tuesday, when a group of policemen moved near the gubernatorial residency of Axel Kicillof and his family in La Plata, the provincial capital. The group surrounded the residency all night blaring sirens and banging drums, setting fire to tires and even getting into a few skirmishes in what some media described as the most tense moments since the governor took office.
On Wednesday, with a crisis already in its hands, the government saw protests extend to strategic points in Buenos Aires such as the key Puente 12 intersection in La Matanza, the most populous district in the province, where Berni was sent to try to maintain order. But the negotiations came with a lot of drama, including a policeman who climbed to the top of a high tension tower and stood there for two hours until his family convinced him to climb back down.
A smaller group took things even further, moving straight to the Olivos presidential residency, where Fernández was staying, and staging an armed and uniformed protest at its doorstep demanding a word with the president.
In a country that is still highly sensitive to threats against democracy, this was probably the tipping point of the protests, which switched momentum back in the government’s favor. Opposition parties, which had so far backed the protesters, started tweeting and issuing press releases that repudiated what was happening in Olivos. This included Buenos Aires City Mayor Horacio Rodríguez Larreta, at times an ally of Fernández, but also the Radical Civic Union and even hard-line anti-Peronists such as Civic Coalition’s Fernando Iglesias, all part of the Cambiemos administration during Mauricio Macri’s presidential period.
“A protest about the working conditions from those who grant Argentines’ safety is legitimate, but it is not acceptable to see uniformed policemen protesting outside the presidential residency. Democratic institutions cannot be jeopardized like this”, Mario Negri, head of the Juntos por el Cambio opposition coalition in the House of Representatives, said.
Solution and new conflict
By 7 PM, Fernández had rounded up most of Buenos Aires Province’s key mayors – including some in the opposition such as Vicente López’s Jorge Macri – to sit next to him, Kicillof, Vice-Governor Verónica Magario and national lawmakers for the province Sergio Massa and Máximo Kirchner, as he spoke to the country to address the conflict.
Fernández criticized officers who abandoned their posts and retirees who joined the protests, as well as the decision to camp outside Olivos, saying he understood the underlying reasons for the complaint but disagreed about the means. “It is clear that salaries have lagged behind inflation and that an answer is needed. I am not a stubborn man. We will find a solution for Buenos Aires Province, but we will not accept this type of protest to continue. I ask for this amicably and democratically, we cannot see the police behaving like this,” Fernández said.
Then, the surprise twist came. With an increasingly uncomfortable Jorge Macri right behind him, Fernández started to speak about how unfair the distribution of federal taxes was for Buenos Aires Province, which – he argued – ceded part of its income in the past in a failed effort to distribute population more evenly with other provinces. And he went on to criticize his cousin Mauricio Macri’s decision to transfer 2.1 percent of the taxes that are available for provincial re-distribution to Buenos Aires City in 2016, saying that 1 percent would have been enough to cover the City’s extra expenses due to the creation of the BA City police, and that the rest of that cash should be given back.
With that 1 percent of the so-called co-participation funds (roughly 60 billion pesos, which translates to nearly 1 billion dollars at the official exchange rate), Fernández said, an emergency fund for BA Province will be created, and policemen will get paid. This will definitely be well received by Kicillof and his close ally Vice President Cristina Kirchner. But it might spark a conflict with BA City Mayor Horacio Rodríguez Larreta, who has been close to Fernández since his arrival despite belonging to the opposition.
“We went to Olivos because the police surrounding the premises was a worrying development. But we had no information about what was announced. We came to listen and debate and none of that happened. We believe the economic problems of the province cannot be solved by taking money from another district,” Jorge Macri tweeted after the meeting.
Larreta is scheduled for a press conference today at 7.30 PM Buenos Aires time, in which he will likely respond to Fernández’s announcement. Will he try to remain a conciliatory force within the opposition? Or will he join the ranks of former president Macri and Patricia Bullrich – the two main figures that remained silent yesterday during the police protests around Olivos?