Letter from Buenos Aires

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Letter from Buenos Aires

Virginia Tognola begins her series from the Argentinian capital and writes about the safe and unsafe parts of the big city.


Illustration by Sarah John

Wads of dollars in police hands

In Buenos Aires it seems that the culture changes every year. When I came here 10 years ago, it was a good place to be, full of tourists, attractive to migrants, with people enjoying its art and cafes. But with a very bad economic crisis and the pandemic, the situation is now a lot worse.

Today each city block has its rough sleepers, sometimes groups, known as ranchadas, under self-built roofs. People lucky enough to have homes do not seem very happy. On public roads their faces are tired, sad, often looking at their mobile phones. This is the general city situation but from time to time we find a bit of hope - a group of people in a park dancing to loud music from a car, another group handing out food and offering a helping hand… until the police arrive to move them on. The police are on almost every street corner, uniformed or undercover, an unchanging part of the city.

When I first arrived, I got a cheap room in the centre. Once, after a night out, walking back through a building site in the early hours, a man came up to me. I thought he wanted to rob me, so I told him I had nothing and started to walk away. He grabbed me tightly. I still remember the dried-sweat smell of his body. He tried to drag me into one of the buildings under construction. I screamed as loud as I could, until he let go. I saw a group of police officers on the corner, but when they saw me running towards them, they got into their patrol car and drove away. A couple of passers-by came to ask if I was OK. When they found I was OK, one of them said, ‘This is a liberated area, that’s why the ‘rats’, as they call the police, ran away.’

Liberated area. It was the first time I heard that phrase. Liberated areas are places in the city where the police stay away or refuse to do anything because they have an economic arrangement with the illegal traders there.

Today I live in a flat I moved to two years ago, in quite a popular neighbourhood with abandoned factories with people living in them, between Constitución and Parque Patricios. When I came to look at the flat, the estate agent told me that I would be safe here because there is a police station four blocks away. I was scared.

Neighbours say that the block beyond our street corner is a liberated area. Sometimes I forget it. A few days ago, I went up to two policemen to ask for directions. When I got closer, I saw that they each had in their hands a wad of dollars. They were counting them, right there, in their uniforms, in the middle of the pavement, in the day time. I never saw that amount of money in my life. Of course, it is not a crime to count money, but in a job so linked to corruption, in the street... believe me, it scared me.

Sometimes when I visit my hometown, they ask me if Buenos Aires is as unsafe as the TV news says. They usually associate the poorer areas with crime. I tell them that it’s not like that, that in this city it is more complicated. Here you walk down one block and everything is fine but, suddenly, everything becomes much darker in the next one, and there anything can happen to you. I think liberated areas have something to do with it. I feel that the dangers the mass media tell us about have less to do with poverty and more to do with corruption. I also think that when we know that the police don’t care for us, it makes the air in Buenos Aires feel sad.



(This article is in easier English so it is possible that we changed the words, the text structure, and the quotes.)