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ARGENTINA: Buenos Aires Mayor Ousted over Tragic Blaze

Marcela Valente

BUENOS AIRES, Mar 7 2006 (IPS) - Buenos Aires lawmakers voted to remove Mayor Aníbal Ibarra from office Tuesday in connection with a tragic nightclub fire in which 194 young music fans were killed on Dec. 30, 2004.

By a vote of 10 to four, the impeachment committee decided that Ibarra was ultimately responsible for the tragedy.

After stating that he would respect the decision, Ibarra told reporters that his commitment to the people of Buenos Aires remained intact, and that he would continue working in accordance with his ideals, “which do not end here.”

Associates of Ibarra said the impeachment process was a “coup” that overthrew an elected official who remains popular, as shown by the polls.

But the votes in favour of ousting the mayor came from lawmakers from eight parties located all along the political spectrum.

The families of the victims and survivors of the 2004 blaze in the República Cromañón nightclub immediately began to celebrate the decision. Many of them had actively pressed for Ibarra to be held accountable for the city government’s failure to enforce safety regulations and fire codes in the severely overcrowded club.

At least 20 officials, police officers and musicians, as well as the owner of the nightclub, are facing prosecution in court.

The República Cromañón was operating without a valid licence, and without the most basic safety measures.

On the eve of the impeachment committee’s vote, families of the victims held a vigil in the Plaza de Mayo, in front of the government palace. Others waited outside of the city legislature, and some obtained permission to enter the building, carrying signs with photos of their children, who died in the fire.

Pablo Blanco, whose 13-year-old son Lautaro was among the victims, told IPS that his conscience was clear because he had done whatever he could do, out of loyalty to the memory of his son. “Our political leaders have to be held accountable and pay for the consequences of their actions at some point in our country,” he said with a sense of relief, rather than celebration.

Blanco said that despite the “smear campaign” against the families of the victims, “the truth won out,” and Ibarra can now be called on to testify in court. “The justice system is influenced by external factors, and this could pave the way for him to be summoned,” he added.

Several of the votes surprised those who have followed the impeachment process closely. The families accused one leftist legislator, Beatriz Baltroc, of changing her mind at the last minute. “She had always told us when one of the lawmakers was about to change his vote, but in the end it was she who did it, voting for acquittal,” said Blanco.

Another leftist, Gerardo Romagnoli, took people by surprise when he voted for Ibarra to be sacked, after stating that he did not believe his fellow lawmakers were committed to a truly in-depth investigation and announcing that he would resign from the impeachment committee. After his resignation was rejected, he had declared that he would abstain from voting.

“I cannot say whether Ibarra was guilty, but he is responsible,” summed up Helio Rebot of the Frente para la Victoria party, when explaining why he voted for the mayor’s removal. The legislator said the officials prosecuted by the courts “were political associates and activists who were close to, and trusted by, Ibarra.”

Rebot, whose arguments were praised by the families of the victims, said Ibarra, who had been elected two times in a row, had dismantled the city’s corruption-riddled oversight and safety inspections system, without ever replacing it with an efficient structure.

The 10 legislators who voted to dismiss Ibarra held him responsible for dereliction of duty, because he appointed inexperienced officials to key posts, and ignored warnings from the city ombudsman’s office and the city general audit office on the poor performance of the local safety regulations system.

They also said Ibarra did not respond adequately to the emergency, and pointed out that procedures that would have made emergency care for the victims more efficient were not implemented.

The four lawmakers who voted to acquit the mayor presented less solid arguments. Some of them acknowledged shortcomings in Ibarra’s performance, but said there was not enough evidence to justify his removal.

Opinion polls show that a majority of voters backed Ibarra and approved of his performance. That support, and the less explicit backing by centre-left President Néstor Kirchner, had led many observers to predict that the mayor would not be dismissed.

After the catastrophe, which occurred during a concert given by the rock band Callejeros, a number of serious irregularities came to light. The evidence indicated that the fire started when a firecracker hit the club’s ceiling. Although illegal, the setting off of firecrackers was a traditional feature of shows by the group playing that night, as well as other local bands.

Other contributing factors were the insufficient or non-existent safety measures adopted by the club, and the fact that the emergency exit doors were locked by the owners, to prevent patrons from sneaking in without paying. In addition, a makeshift child care centre had been set up in the bathroom of the club.

Before the disaster, Ibarra was one of Argentina’s rising political stars.

He was elected in 2000 by nearly 50 percent of voters in the capital, and was reelected in 2003. Nonetheless, he never received strong support in the city legislature, because his party, the Frente Grande, slowly fell apart as a result of a string of crises.

Ibarra was suspended when the impeachment proceedings began in mid-November 2005. He was replaced by Deputy Mayor Jorge Telerman, who will now finish out Ibarra’s term, which ends in 2007.

Last week, thousands of people took part in a rally in support of Ibarra, including the head of the Abuelas (Grandmothers) de Plaza de Mayo human rights group, Estela de Carlotto, popular artists, and prominent intellectuals. At the march, Ibarra complained that the impeachment was a “coup” orchestrated by conservative political leaders.

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