Mystical and Political: Everything Happens across the Cameras

August 17, 2012

In June 2002, as Argentina faced a deep economic crisis, a protest at a Buenos Aires train station was brutally repressed and two young demonstrators were killed. Federico Zukerfeld documents how activists have transformed the site of their murder into a living cultural venue.

After adopting a neoliberal economic model pushed by the International Monetary Fund, Argentina sunk into a deep economic crisis in 1999, inciting large swathes of the population to take to the streets. Severe unemployment galvanized the piqueteros (“picketer” in Spanish) movement, which agitated for political reforms to lift people out of mounting poverty.

Their activities hinged upon instituting alternative social structures—for example, running community kitchens and conducting informal classes—to provide for citizens in need, in addition to disrupting traffic and commercial activity in Buenos Aires.

December 2001 marked the pinnacle of the piquetero protests, with riots in Buenos Aires leading to the resignation of President Fernando de la Rua. (Only a week later, his successor would also step down.) In the months following this uprising, the national unemployment rate climbed to 22%.

Throughout this time, the piqueteros continued to march and block roads, while other protesters, whose mission often overlapped with the movement, also held popular assemblies and occupied factories to establish worker control.

On June 26, 2002, leaders of the MTD, Movimiento de Trabajadores Desocupados (“Unemployed Workers Movement”), which emerged from the larger piquetero movement, came together to exert pressure on the government, demanding, among other things, an increase in welfare subsidies and a food plan for the unemployed. To get attention, protesters decided to cut off access to Buenos Aires by blocking the main bridges into the city. On orders from interim president Eduardo Duhalde, the demonstration was brutally repressed by the National Police, National Gendarmerie and Coast Guard.

In the Avellaneda train station, situated in downtown Buenos Aires, the camera of photographer Sergio Kowalewski captured the fatal shooting of two young demonstrators, Dario Santillán and Maximiliano Kosteki, by local police officers. In addition to these fatalities, Reuters reported 60 other protesters were injured from a spray of live ammunition from police.

The following day, other cameras, belonging to major Argentine media organizations, tried to manipulate information to divert attention from police misconduct and blame the protesters for their own deaths. One newspaper ran the headline “The Crisis Caused Two New Deaths,” which not only displaced, but also depersonalized culpability for the tragedy. But Kowalewski’s images proved to the courts that the police officers were guilty of murder; they were sentenced to life in prison. The premature deaths of the two protesters also led to the formation of the Frente Popular Dario Santillan (FPDS), a political and cultural movement in their honor.

Ten years later, artists and activists of the FPDS movement have transformed the Avellanada train station into a cultural venue that displays hundreds of artworks, initiates community projects, and offers social services like food and daycare for children. This video report shows a journey through the “art-station,” a museum of resistance and a tribute to social activists. Through our “eye-cam,” the viewer will see what the piqueteros, and those aligned with the FPDS movement, call the “political-mystical”. Accompany the families of the two victims as they march for justice with the Unemployed Workers Movement on the same bridge where they had demonstrated a decade ago.