“Be careful who you hang out with,” Mónica Arruga told her son, Luciano, handing him some change for the bus ride. “Don’t worry, I’m only going to see a friend,” he replied as he left his house. While Luciano was still at school, he tried to earn a few extra pesos to help out at home by collecting discarded material for recycling, but Mónica worried about him spending too much time on the street. Their neighborhood, like many areas in the province of Buenos Aires, was becoming increasingly dangerous. TV news seemed to have new a story about violence and insecurity every day.
Mónica’s worst fears were realized when the fate of her 16-year-old son became one of those stories. Luciano never made it to his friend’s house. Witnesses would later say they saw him at a local police station, in Lomás del Mirador. They would also say they heard shouting and screaming from a nearby room, and the sound of somebody being beaten.
A year since he was last seen, there is still no trace of Luciano Arruga. He has joined the list of desaparecidos, the term that usually refers to the 30,000 Argentines disappeared during the brutal military dictatorship that ruled between 1976 and 1983. The difference is that Luciano was kidnapped and disappeared in a broadly heralded democracy.
In the current frenzied climate of fear of crime and violence, and the public debate over how to combat the chronic insecurity faced by the 15 million residents in the Buenos Aires province, the case of Luciano Arruga is instructive. With no progress in the investigation to uncover what happened to the teenager, the case demonstrates the need for a drastic reform on the province’s police force, the Bonaerense, to improve policing. Yet it also points to the axiom that in the province, increased policing is not the answer to the problem. It is the problem.
Insecurity is a deep-rooted social issue in Latin American urban areas, and Argentina is no exception. The Bonaerense is the largest police force in the country, with the job of overseeing a vast area whose population suffers high levels of crime and unemployment, and represents a sector of society that has borne the brunt of the neoliberal economic model.
At the beginning of 2010, the provincial government and the police chief Juan Carlos Paggi pledged to increase the number of police officers in the region over the coming years, and to increase the monthly wage from $443 in the face of an intensified wave of highly publicized violent crimes, including the murder of three women. Yet while the province’s security minister, Carlos Stornelli, was eager to stress that murders in the province had dropped from 180 in 2008 to 149 in 2009, he was also embroiled in a battle with the upper echelons of the police force.
”The murder of three women wasn’t random,” said Stornelli, in response to the three murders in quick succession last November and December. Mass protests were organized by local residents to demand improved policing. The media had a field day. Stornelli, however, thought there was more than met the eye. “They [the three women] were chosen because of their family and social status, in order to generate shock and provoke mobilizations of local residents.”
For Stornelli, the murders were aimed at destabilizing the position of the provincial governor, Daniel Scioli, and he accused the police, both active and retired officers, of involvement. All three women appeared to have been killed during attempted car robberies—a crime and lucrative illegal industry in the province that Stornelli had recently started to investigate and clamp down on.
A provincial judge, Luis Arias, meanwhile, also denounced the police. He told the newspaper La Nación that the Bonaerense police recruit teenagers to steal for them. Arias said that for every stolen car, the Bonaerense rewarded the thief with 40 doses of paco, the highly addictive, toxic cocaine paste. The judge added that the murder of Daniel Capristo, a truck driver shot eight times by a 14-year-old, was linked to this trend.
Yet while Stornelli is fighting one battle in the province head on, social groups and organizations say the security minister has blood on his hands.
There appears to be little reasonable doubt of police involvement. The police had detained Luciano twice in the months before he went missing. And what’s more, he had refused to ”help” them. Detainees in the Second Comisaría (police station) in Lomás del Mirador said they had seen him on January 31, 2009, the last time Luciano’s mother had seen him, and they had heard screaming and beating from a nearby cell.
Despite compelling testimony, the investigation of Luciano’s disappearance has stagnated. Stornelli, meanwhile, permitted the eight police officers on duty the night the boy went missing to return to work after temporarily being taken off duty, pending investigation.
Yet while families lawyers and rights groups gathered information and evidence for their case, they suffered a further blow to their efforts. On December 30, nearly a year after Luciano was last seen, the Provincial Secretary for Human Rights offices were burgled, with a safe containing evidence and testimony regarding the Arruga case, along with information regarding human rights abuses during the dictatorship, stolen at gunpoint.
The facts in the case evoke two similar cases. Miguel Bru, a 23-year-old journalism student from La Plata, disappeared in 1993 after months of police harassment. Police refused to file his mother’s testimony when she reported her son missing.
Julio Jorge López, meanwhile, was a key witness in the trial against Miguel Etchecolatz, a Bonaerense commissioner during the military dictatorship who was convicted of crimes against humanity and sentenced to life imprisonment. On his way to testify in 2006, López went missing. Like Luciano, he remains desaparecido.
The link between the military, the dictatorship, and the Bonaerense is not coincidental. It was during the military dictatorship that the Bonaerense developed into a self-policing institution and corruption and violence became rooted in the fabric of the institution. Under the guidance of Police Chief Ramón Camps, the Bonaerense worked in tandem with the armed forces in the repression during the late 1970s and early 1980s.
The return to democracy saw the armed forces dragged through the courts, discredited, and largely restructured, but no such reform happened with the Bonaerense.
“There are 9,000 officers in the force who were active during the dictatorship,” the president of the Provincial Commission for Memory, Hugo Cañón, said recently in an interview with Radio Provincia and which widely reported in the local press. “Three thousand of those officers worked in clandestine detention centers. If there is not a democratic transition within the police, and a purge of those officers, as happened with the military, we run the risk of never truly consolidating democracy.”
On inspecting a former clandestine center that operated under the chillingly ironic name the Sheraton, the judge Daniel Rafecas said conditions had not changed since the dictatorship.
The Sheraton is now the Eighth Comisaría, the central police station in Lomás del Mirador. It recently made the news for a fire that killed four detainees. Eighteen police suspects had been cramped into a space barely large enough to hold 10, and four were unable to escape.
Yet four months before that fire, in September, scores of protesters gathered outside to demand a serious investigation into the state of police impunity and the brutal activities of the Bonaerense. The face on their banners and posters was that of 16-year-old Luciano Arruga.
Joel Richards is a NACLA Research Associate.