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Violent Outbursts In Argentina

Tuesday, July 10, 2007

BUENOS AIRES, Argentina -- Six years since the economy came slamming down here, common-man anger seems ready as ever to erupt into violence, be it a storm of fisticuffs that consumes an entire stadium of soccer fans or street brawl among teenage boys.

I'd read a good deal in the Argentine media recently about problems facing this city's young people, especially in relation to the expanded presence of hard drugs in economically depressed areas away from downtown.

But on arrival to the elegant grid of European-style buildings that defines the city's massive downtown, the thought of roving gangs of fight-thirsty teenagers was the furthest thing from mind. Buenos Aires is visually apart from other centers of Latin America. It appears more like Madrid or Paris than say, Caracas or Panama City.

Beneath this physical beauty, however, something uncomfortable is churning, almost like an exhaustion waiting to release itself. On my first day here, I personally felt the tension among the young in San Telmo, a historic barrio near city's center.

I was chatting with friends in the lobby of a guest house pondering the possibility of an afternoon walk through the neighborhood's famous antiques fair, when suddenly the main street in front of us burst into violence. Initially, we thought it must be some sort of rally or protest, but a loud smashing sound accompanied by the telltale grunts of young men in a fistfight proved otherwise.

Two gangs of teenage boys were locked in a full-blown brawl in the middle of the street. One group appeared to be forming a ring around a single individual in order to more furiously pile on the hits. This lasted not for a few moments, but close to ten minutes, with a crowd gathering outside a nearby café, and many heads popping out from balconies overhead to watch.

Metal Pipes and Rocks

Several Argentines that I spoke to about this -- recounting the viciousness of the fight I'd witnessed -- described a collective feeling of frustration in Buenos Aires, tied to the years of economic hardship since the 2001 financial crash. (Click here for a timeline compiled by the BBC of major news in Argentina, including an accounting of the 2001 meltdown).

From the start, this explosive frustration has resulted in street violence. It was in December 2001 that angry political demonstrations and rioting left 25 people dead. But the violence seems to have become less politically motivated in recent years.

Furthermore, while the economy has seen recent economic growth -- by most accounts unemployment has dropped below 10 percent over the past year -- the presence of public violence has not been quelled.

The most notorious recent outburst came in late June when a wild melee engulfed almost an entire Buenos Aires soccer stadium. The fighting may simply have begun as a drunken scrum between rival fans. But news reports (and this video of the fighting) painted a more unsettling picture. Consider this June 26 Associated Press lead:

One man was killed as rival soccer fans swinging metal pipes and throwing rocks clashed today after a playoff match between two Argentine clubs that spilled out onto a busy rush-hour freeway. . . . Fourteen others were injured. At least 78 arrests were reported in the fighting...

There was other violence in May, when a group of commuters, evidently enraged by delays in evening train services, set fire to parts of a railway station. The Associated Press pointed out how the fire only seemed to further enrage people:

The fighting at Buenos Aires' Constitucion Station on Tuesday spilled into a nearby street as demonstrators shattered windows, set fire to a ticket sales area, looted shops and ripped pay phones from walls.

'For The Fun of Fighting'

It's more than worth noting how this new kind of violence has coincided with the emergence of the city's growing number of adolescents -- a significant swath of young people who were 7- or 9-years old when the economy crashed in 2001, and are now 14 and 16 years, growing up in a city plagued by economic struggle.

The tendency toward random violence, not politically or criminally related, seems most palpable among these young -- at least judging by the street brawl that broke out before my eyes in San Telmo.

When it was over, no one appeared seriously injured. As the gangs dispersed, a police car arrived on the street now strewn with fight debris -- a broken sign from a nearby restaurant, an empty plastic water tank (perhaps the cause of the loud smash we'd heard). One group came in our direction, shouting at each other, jumping up and down, slapping high fives. A muscular boy in the middle looked about 16 years old.

A group of girls who followed the boys from a distance were out of breath as they explained to my companions what the fight had been about. "That group over there," said one girl, motioning toward the boys. "They go to one school and they pass through here and they get together afterwards on that corner."

"The other group lives in this neighborhood," she said. "And when the two come together on that corner this is what happens. They were fighting, I guess, for the fun of fighting."

Guy Taylor is senior international editor for World Politics Review. He is presently in Argentina on a Samuel Chavkin Investigative Journalism Grant from the North American Congress on Latin America.