RIGHTS-ARGENTINA: Brutal Attacks on Bolivian Immigrants

Marcela Valente

BUENOS AIRES, May 24 2000 (IPS) - The simultaneous robbery of three Bolivian families living in Argentina has shaken local rights groups and the immigrant community due to the particularly brutal nature of the attacks, in which the victims – men, women and children – were bound and tortured and beaten for two hours.

Prosecutor Juan José Maraggi said he was shocked by the violence employed by the 13 face-masked assailants – two of whom were women – who broke into the homes of three families in the town of Campana in Buenos Aires province late Tuesday.

The assailants tied up their victims and tortured them with electric shocks to the testicles and legs. One of the victims was beaten with a hatchet.

The aggressors stole the families’ money, watches, clothing and other belongings that turned up later in a stolen vehicle.

Two suspects, local residents of Merlo, a town not far from Campana, were arrested and charged with aggravated robbery, aggravated deprivation of liberty, torture, resisting authority and assault and battery.

Prosecutor Maraggi said attacks with similar characteristics were not new, but that fear stopped the immigrants – most of the victims have been undocumented – from filing complaints. “We find out because the hospitals report the admission of a Bolivian patient who has been beaten, but the victims don’t explain what happened,” he said.

“These people are very timid, they find it hard to speak out and defend their rights,” said Maraggi. “And those who don’t have documents are even more vulnerable.”

Last year, Maraggi handled a case in which a 25-year-old Bolivian man was beaten to death for refusing to pay an illegal “toll” charged by local residents to outsiders wishing to pass through their neighbourhoods.

Argentina has a long history of immigration, mainly from Europe. But in the past few decades, the decline in immigration from Europe has made the presence of immigrants from other Latin American countries like Bolivia or Peru more noticeable, even though there has been no actual rise in the influx of nationals from neighbouring countries in absolute terms.

The total number of immigrants from neighbouring countries stands at less than a million in this country of 37 million, and the number of immigrants has even dropped in recent years due to Argentina’s high level of unemployment, which currently stands at around 15 percent.

The Buenos Aires-based International Organisation of Migration (IOM) issues periodic reports on the scant impact that immigrants actually have on the local labour market, pointing out that they tend to take jobs in which Argentine nationals are not even interested.

The Bolivian families attacked in Campana work as caretakers on farms belonging to local residents who live in the city, said Maraggi. They did not steal work from anyone, because they took a difficult job that few people would have accepted. They get up at five in the morning and work until ten at night, the prosecutor added.

Juana Waitel, with the Centre for Legal and Social Studies, told IPS that Bolivian nationals had complained of an increase in attacks since the publication by a weekly paper of a report on immigration that was criticised as “xenophobic.”

“They threaten to burn their homes, they attack them in the streets, they tell them to ‘go home’. I never thought a publication could trigger so much contained violence and hatred against immigrants,” said Waitel, who expressed outrage over Tuesday’s brutal attacks.

The article “The Silent Invasion” was published in April by ‘La Primera de la Semana’, triggering a lawsuit on discrimination charges by associations of civil society.

Waitel said the article manipulated statistics and provided false data. It claimed, for example, that in some public schools, 80 percent of students were of Bolivian or Peruvian origin, a statistic that was refuted by education authorities. The authors also described Bolivians and Peruvians as “smelly” and “dirty.”

In a report released early this year, the Centre for Legal and Social Studies said the lack of an updated law on immigration and government persecution of immigrants – including derogatory and false remarks by high-ranking officials – had made 1999 the worst year for foreign nationals living in Argentina.

For the past few years, immigration experts have been calling for a new law to replace the existing one – passed during the 1976-83 military dictatorship and still on the books – which virtually orders authorities to treat immigrants as criminals.

Former president Carlos Menem (1989-99) pinned the blame for rising crime and unemployment rates on immigrants, while former director of migration Hugo Franco asserted that foreign nationals were responsible for 60 percent of the crimes committed in Buenos Aires – a statistic that was later refuted by the federal police.

The mainstream media has also begun to echo the increasingly widespread prejudice, referring to suspects by their nationality, with headlines like “Gang of Peruvians Steals Phone Lines”, or “Bolivian Exploiters”, said Waitel.

Ricardo Roca Sánchez, the owner of the daily ‘Vocero Boliviano’, said the rise in aggression against immigrants who are blamed for taking jobs away from Argentine nationals is real. “The climate is one of discrimination towards us, from the first moment they see our faces,” he said.

A local polling firm, the Centre of Studies for the New Majority, carried out a survey in April designed to gauge the “self-perception” of Bolivians living in Argentina. A full 65 percent of respondents said they felt “unsafe” here, and 57 percent said they had felt discrimination at some point.

The respondents felt that the main reason for that discrimination was their physical features, which are similar to those of Argentine nationals living in the northwest – in the provinces of Jujuy and Salta – where the indigenous influence has far outweighed the European influence.

However, most of the respondents said they had been living in Argentina for at least six years, and that despite everything they felt “grateful” and “happy” to live here, and desired to stay here and “progress.”

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