New books tell stories of the children of 70s radicals

Last Friday, myself and some friends, including two Mexicans and an Argentine who’d been living in Mexico City for the past several years, went to see a band called La Musical Mexicana (you can see a video of them performing live here). My new friend, Leo, the Argentine who’d been living in DF, told me the band was made up of three “argen-mex” musicians. This was a new turn of phrase for me, but apparently the number of Mexicans who are actually the children of Argentine parents, exiled in Mexico during Argentina’s Dirty War (1976-83), is so great as to merit its own moniker, especially now that their ranks have swelled to accommodate the many young Argentines who moved to Mexico City to escape the social and economic turmoil of Argentina’s 2001 financial crisis.

La Musical Mexicana

La Musical Mexicana

The band played a kind of south-of-the-border, retro-rock-country mix – or maybe that’s “neo-mariachi” – sung in both Spanish and English, with a mix of its own songs and some classics, which had my Mexican friend Cecy howling and singing along.The underground bar was decorated with Mexican paper-cut-out skeletons, like those used to celebrate the Day of the Dead. But the band members, the boys with their aquiline noses and mullet haircuts, and the tall blonde singer with her sharp outfit and lovely high-heels, had that hard-to-define yet impossible-not-to-recognise Argentine look about them.

During the 1970s, around 650,000 Argentines – mostly leftist Peronists or members of Marxist revolutionary groups like the Montoneros – fled their country as political exiles, escaping the brutal dictatorship that ruled Argentina from 1976-1983. Around 10,000 Argentines settled in Mexico, mostly in the capital, Mexico City (or DF, for Distrito Federal). Many of those exiles stayed in Mexico for good, while others were happy to return after the restoration of democracy in Argentina. But an interesting new study (published as a book, El Retorno de los Hijos del Exilio or ‘The Return of the Children of Exile’) shows that the children of returned exiles – whether born in Mexico, France, or any other country that accepted Argentina’s political refugees – have been marked by having left their country of birth to live in an Argentina entirely unknown to them. In fact, the study showed that 17% of people interviewed said they had “no nationality.”

“Going ‘home’ was just another forced migration for many children of exile,” said Roberto Aruj, a professor at the state University of Buenos Aires and co-author of the book. “They were born or raised abroad, and after adapting to their own uprooting or that of their parents, they had to drop everything and return to Argentina on someone else’s say-so.”

Meanwhile, another recently published book, called The Rabbit House, is said to be the first account of what it was like to grow up with parents who were waging a guerrilla war against the state. Laura Alcoba, at only six years of age, knew how to keep a secret, and how to tell if she and her parents were being followed in the street. Her parents, who were Montoneros, moved the family around from one safe house to the next, but after Alcoba’s father was caught and sent to prison, she and her mother went into hiding, living in a derelict house that masqueraded as a rabbit farm. Alcoba left school and she and her mother rarely went outside.

“It might seem strange, but for a little girl in that situation being in hiding just becomes part of everyday life,” the author, who teaches Spanish literature at a Paris university, told the Guardian newspaper. “She learns very quickly that in winter it’s cold, fire burns and we could be killed at any moment. But it’s overwhelming for a little girl because of the seriousness of any little gaffe she might make that could put the group in danger. She doesn’t always manage what she is supposed to say and not say. It’s as if she’s in a costume that’s too difficult to wear.”

Later Alcoba and her mother went into exile in Paris. Her father was eventually released from prison but her parents’ relatinship did not survive. Nor did most of their fellow revolutionaries who shared the rabbit farm – nearly every last one was killed by the military.

“People have said this is a story of stolen childhood,” Alcoba told the Guardian. “But I think it would be obscene to complain of my lost childhood when so many people lost their lives. It was violent, but it was a childhood all the same.”

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Narco-panic in Argentina

A series of mafia-style assassinations and the ensuing investigation into their connection with possible drug cartels has Argentines asking whether their country has graduated from consumer and transit country to major producer in the international drug business.

First of all, a neighbour who detected strange aromas alerted police to a drug lab operating next door to her home in greater Buenos Aires, where, on July 18, nine Mexicans and one Argentine were arrested. The lab produced ecstasy, metamphetamines and ephedrine, and is the first of its kind to be discovered in Argentina.

Then, on July 24, there was a shooting in the parking station at a large shopping centre in the outer suburbs of Buenos Aires. First thought to be a robbery, police soon suspected it to be a settling of accounts involving narcotraffickers and money launderers. Two men, both Colombians, were shot – one was killed and the other is under arrest. Both men are said to be part of the Cordillera Cartel.

On August 7, three young businessmen were reported disappeared. That day, two of their burned-out cars were discovered and on 13 August their bodies were found, shot mafia-style with 16 bullets. On 16 August justice officials revealed that one of the three, Sebastián Forza, was under investigation for trafficking ephedrine to Mexico.

On 16 August the two crimes are said to be connected after police discovered records of telephone conversations between Forza and the survivor of the shopping centre shooting.

Last Sunday, August 24, an associate of Forza’s threw himself from his mother’s ninth-floor apartment in Buenos Aires, leaving a note that said, among other things, “if you really are investigating, please do it properly.” Like Forza, the man was involved in the pharmaceutical business. Police are investigating whether he killed himself voluntarily or was threatened – maybe even pushed.

According to La Critica, the Mexican Sinaloa Drug Cartel has set up shop in Argentina, using the illicit pharmaceutical trade to manufacture amphetamines.The paper says:

“An investigation shows that the nine Mexicans arrested in the laboratory… –  investigators say Forza may have been their ephedrine provider – belong to the cartel led by Joaquín “Chapo” Guzmán Lorea, the most dangerous of Mexico’s drug bosses, named on the US’s most wanted list.” (Sunday, 24 August edition)

Ephedrine, a key ingredient in speed and other amphetamines, is readily and cheaply available in Argentina due to its widespread use in cold and flu medicines. Ephedrine has been banned in Mexico (it is tightly regulated in many countries) for the precise reason that it is used to produce illicit drugs, making the substance difficult to get hold of. Reports say ephedrine is more than three times the price in Mexico that it fetches in Argentina.

Argentina provides excellent conditions for narco-traffickers: multiple porous borders; an ineffectual and corrupt customs system; ineffectual, corrupt and underpaid police forces; chronic political ineptitude and corruption; and a generally lax regulatory environment.

Argentina’s government either doesn’t have or declines to reveal any comprehensive plan to fight drugs and drug-related crime, apart from a recent – and already controversial – policy to decriminalise drug use.

On the consumer-side, Argentines do enjoy their drugs – particularly cocaine, which is readily available, cheap and of high quality. The UN’s World Drug Report 2008 says Argentina is the world’s third-largest cocaine user, behind the US and Spain and tying with England/Wales. The report says 2.6% of Argentines aged between 15 and 64 years have used cocaine, making them the biggest users in Latin America.

The three young, fresh-faced empresarios and their grieving families paint a picture of middle-class society rent asunder by drug crime. But the lower classes in Argentina have long been afflicted by the consequences of drug abuse.

NGOs and families working and living in villas miserias, or slums, around Buenos Aires and some of the large provincial capitals have been pleading for intervention and assistance in their struggle against paco, a crack-like drug made from cocaine residue. Cheap, easy to produce and smokeable, paco is highly addictive and provides an intense, short-lived high. It can lead to serious brain damage when overused, and some say it’s behind the rising levels of violent crime in Argentina.

The New York Times has a good in-depth feature and accompanying slideshow on Buenos Aires’ paco scourge. To watch a video by Argentina Reporter filmed in a Buenos Aires slum, click here, or select the video called “There Goes the Neighbourhood” in the column on the right.

A paco smoker, image by Chaco Online

A paco smoker, image by Chaco Online