During almost eight months leading the Security Ministry, Sabina Frederic has argued with two key ‘K’ authorities on related issues: Sergio Berni and Horacio Verbitsky. She has taken cheap shots in her stride, responding aggressively to aggressions, and an explicit example of Albertismo in action.
In a two-hour interview with Perfil’s Jorge Fontevecchia, Frederic explains her outlook on la grieta, the disappearances of Santiago Maldonado and Facundo Astudillo Castro and some of the policies her predecessor, Patricia Bullrich, adopted while in office. Each one of her replies reveals her academic standpoint of a social anthropologist.
Was the intention of Alberto Fernández didactic in choosing an anthropologist to head the Security Ministry?
You’d have to ask him. Alberto and [Cabinet Chief] Santiago Cafiero share my vision of security issues. Security means looking after people, protecting them, not repressing a priori as the mechanism of crime prevention. There should only be repression in the ultimate instance. We’re deploying an alternative mechanism for resolving conflicts with aboriginal people. Right now there’s an official in Bariloche trying to reach an agreement – which will be slow – with the Lafken Winkul and other communities in the Mascardi area so that repression is not the direct action of the national state. We’re doing the same with social organisations and protesting workers. We’ve avoided a lot of protests in the streets – people are unaware of that because they do not happen. We believe in those mechanisms. That’s the spirit behind the policies of Alberto Fernández and much of his Cabinet. We work a lot with the Labour and Social Development Ministries.
According to Unicef’s calculations, 60 percent of children will be poor by the end of the year. How will this affect law and order in the future?
That’s a drama. As the National Security Ministry, we place our logistical capacity at the service of all the provincial ministries. There we face a huge challenge. We’d love to participate wherever the Social Development Ministry points concerning children. We work a lot with the Sedronar anti-drug authority because part of that drama often lies in such problematic consumption, owing to the difficulty of parents in looking after their children. The number of dropouts also brings consequences. We’re aware of the huge inequalities in the possibilities of children continuing classes via virtual media. There’s also a task which does not correspond to our ministry but to Sports and Tourism Minister Matías Lammens, who knows he has a key role there. We must work on the recreation of children, as well as feeding them – children need to play and bond with others.
Last year, a book appeared called Hablemos de ideas with a prologue by Alberto Fernández and a chapter of yours titled ‘Seguridad para todes.’ How would you define security for everybody?
That’s what we’ve just been talking about. A fairer distribution of the efforts of the security forces so that the poorest sectors do not receive just sticks from the state, being directly punished by a police which looks after the middle and upper classes. The capacity of the state should be distributed among everybody. For example, we have the federal police forces working in very few neighbourhoods, giving security to the citizenry by policing on the beat. In those places we also arrive with civilian officials, highly trained people with the capacity to reach the most stigmatised sectors of poor neighbourhoods. In general, we focus on youth, women and children, trying to link them up with other sectors of the state and thus look after them rather than only repress. Of course, whenever there is a crime, the force must intervene. But we must also avoid crimes being committed within highly vulnerable social groups. They are not vulnerable because they want to be but because of a history of many years and generations of their rights being violated.
What can be done to reduce femicides?
We’re working with the Women, Gender and Diversity Ministry under Elizabeth Gómez Alcorta and with the Justice Ministry of Marcela Losardo. We have an area called ‘Rights, Welfare and Gender.’
We are also reinforcing the statistical area. Our statistics director has just been working on the Supreme Court’s femicide data. A huge task lies ahead. Fortunately, Elizabeth Gómez Alcorta heads that task coordinating with us. There are various lines of action. As the Security Ministry, we dedicate ourselves to tackling extreme violence against women and femicide is one of those forms. A Federal Panel on Security, Gender and Diversity has been launched with all the provinces to share experiences in reducing violence against women.
There are two central tasks, one line preventive and within that line there are two main channels. We’re working on a programme called ‘Único de Registro de Denuncias por Violencia de Género’ (URGE), which is a protocol for the unified denunciation of gender violence nationwide for all Argentina’s federal and provincial police forces to guarantee care of the victim and physical separation, wherever possible, from the perpetrator.
This URGE programme permits the victim to make her denunciation without the need to move from the protected place where she finds herself. This works in combination with the policies developed by the Ministry for Women, which is a subsidy to aid the woman and free her from economic dependence on her perpetrator.
There is also a major task for the justice system. We know that a percentage of women who were victims of femicide had made the judicial denunciation and some even had obtained restraining orders, which evidently did not prove effective. We are in a very particular year due to the pandemic. We know that the denunciations of gender violence have increased.
We still have no official data on the increase of femicides during the period of Covid-19 but we are working on clarifying the population as to where to call to obtain immediate assistance. The Ministry for Women resolved that victims of violence could leave their homes without being detained by the police. They could even leave with an accompanying person or somebody else who could denounce that situation. We’re trying to reinforce the preventive aspect in the face of such violence.
There is also very important work to be done with males, not just women. We’re working with the security forces with the idea of setting up workshops on masculinity. There are cases of domestic violence within those in uniform.
The minister for Women, Gender and Diversity said in this space a few weeks ago that Sergio Berni’s attitude towards you could fall under gender violence.
There are different working methodologies in security. We cannot deny that he is a man and I am a woman and that also makes for differences in the way we head security forces. Argentina is far ahead of other Latin American countries when it comes to the position of women in politics. We have quotas in senates and chambers of deputies at provincial, local and national levels which have given women an expansion into politics which we do not see in other countries of the region. We can all count on the experience of women who went before us and contemporaries.
Males also have these references to dilute masculine power in politics. I’ll take Sergio Berni out of this in order not to place the focus on him. But we see sometimes inexplicable positions which a male tries to defend when he finds himself faced by a woman.
Could this be subconscious?
Or even unconscious. The studies of gender issues explain that this dimension cannot be separated from a person so easily. Analyses which shows how that facet combines with professional politics.
There is an unconscious dimension. Gender campaigns should be oriented towards both males and females because women are often the great reproducers of patriarchy. We must be able to identify those non-rational aspects in political debate.
For certain subjective structures of alpha male, calling you an anthropologist sounds like an archaeologist, a sort of library rat who does not know real life, an attitude which could be summarised as ‘Girlie, you don’t know anything.’ If you were a lawyer, you would perhaps be more treated with more respect because that’s a traditional profession – do you find the prejudice that your profession is highly theoretical and that security is a more practical question?
That accusation is more ignorance than machismo, irresponsible. Social anthropology is a discipline requiring field work. Other professions don’t have that relationship, the contact nor the profound, even prolonged knowledge. Ignorance is an attribute very widespread in society.
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You wrote in Anfibia: “It’s surprising that we’ve passed from 178 police officers for every 100,000 inhabitants in 2001 to 803 in 2015, way above the 240 proposed by the United Nations.” But Berni has said that Buenos Aires Province needs to treble its police force to prevent crime. Is security quantitative?
That is something which appears like revealed truth but is not true. In Argentina there exists the belief that more police implies greater safety and there are demands accordingly. In one point this is true, police presence dissuades crime. But there are also other dissuasive elements against crime which are not being used such as more detective work and criminal intelligence, which requires greater cooperation with the courts and with criminal intelligence in the proper sense.
Not exclusively but the human resources are limited. Not throughout Argentina but in Buenos Aires Province and City we are exceeding the standard set by the United Nations. The problem expressed by the provincial security minister was also told by him to me, that his police are insufficiently trained. I’m not talking about all the Buenos Aires provincial police because it must be said that many of them work very well. But they carry a stigma which leads to generalisation.
The damned police...
The stigmatisation also affects its targets. That’s something we have to work on. When the minister says that, he is referring to the need to train the police, [Buenos Aires Province] Governor Axel Kicillof has proposed to us an agreement to transfer tools and personnel for this training but then the quarantine hit us.
If you had to choose, would you prefer not to have more police but to reinforce them in other areas?
The police have diverse specialisations. I think we should train and retrain far more the police we have today, ensuring that we remove some of them from the contamination of crime. We need some of that police in detective work so that they can trace the criminal networks before they commit their crimes. Other state areas should work to stop the illegal markets producing and feeding the violence such as drug-trafficking, gun-running, white slavery, car theft, etc. The police should be specialised so that part does preventive work on the beat and another part wards off crime.
Productivity – more security from the same police numbers.
Exactly, producing better results. So that society can evaluate us by the results – whether the crime indices and violence go down or not. There may be many thefts but thefts are not violent. But they look at us for that and not for anything else. Society has become accustomed to being influenced by the media.
It runs against most instincts to think there could be greater security with less police.
For me it is important that this be understood. We don’t want to downgrade the demands of the population, which really does feel safer with more police on the beat looking after them. That demand must be respected.
So you’d like to have both more police and better trained.
You advised the Security Ministry between 2012 and 2014 with Sergio Berni as deputy minister. How was your relationship in those years?
He was Security secretary then. I began beforehand when Nilda Garré was minister. Then came Cecilia Rodríguez, who today is Cabinet chief in our ministry.
You’re said to have used the word “unhinged” in your latest face-to-face controversy with Berni. Did that word have a special connotation, did you use it intentionally?
That was part of a discussion which luckily ended up positively. It enabled us to restart coordination in this particular phase of quarantine and it was a way of bringing [previous tension] to a halt. It was looking for a way we could converse in a peaceful manner which permitted us to understand each other.
Understanding one another on their own terms?
”Unhinged” is something he would say.
It’s a form of swapping positions, looking for a way of talking to him and understanding him. Sergio interpreted it as a cheap shot. It’s a minor question forming part of tensions which are passionate at times, difficult moments because we lack resources. The Province lacks resources and we do too. We have to agree.
Did it end well?
Does conflict help?
Sometimes you should not be afraid of differences or conflicts, which are part of the constructive instances we have to cross. It ended well because the operations had already started up the previous Friday. We added four more districts to the eight of the previous week. If the Province agrees, we’re going to reinforce that.
You’re going to end up getting on well with Berni.
Whatever it takes to be able to coordinate and give security to the people, that’s what matters – for the governor, for him, for us, for the president. That’s the objective to achieve.
To what do you attribute the disappearance of Facundo Astudillo Castro, which many vulgarly say is “Berni’s Santiago Maldonado”?
We cannot say that he is Berni’s Maldonado. The circumstances were different. And far less in days when the anniversary of Santiago Maldonado’s tragic death is being marked.
We participated in the investigation with the federal manhunt system and the Federal Police, which is the main auxiliary of the courts in looking for the missing Facundo. The Coast Guard is also collaborating along the shore of the zone where the disappearance may have occurred. There’s news everyday, small advances which we do not want divulged because we know that for his mum the most important thing is to find him. I’ve conversed with the president.
We know that the Federal Police is looking after the investigation. We’re awaiting lab analysis of DNA samples which were picked up to know if there is any connection between what was found in patrol cars and Facundo. The search is proceeding tirelessly. Whatever is necessary will be done.
The Maldonado connotation is for the political significance assigned to it. If this had happened during Mauricio Macri’s government, would it have been a scandal like Maldonado?
It’s possible. There are human rights organisations which are paying a lot of attention to what is happening, [who are] very worried by this disappearance and also other cases of unlawful coercion denounced against the Buenos Aires and other provincial police forces.
The Provincial Memory Commission, which is acting as plaintiff in the disappearance, and national Human Rights Secretary Horacio Pietragalla are also intervening.
The tragic operation which ended Santiago Maldonado’s life has taught us some lessons. One of them is that we should be prudent and let the justice system work. The task of the human rights organisations is to pressure. But as the national Security Ministry, we have to be especially cautious with what we say. We must let the Federal Police work. One of the hypotheses is that it could have been a forced disappearance and indeed that is how the case is now filed.
Is there any self-criticism to be made? Comparing what happened with Maldonado, the opposition at that time used it as a monumental tool to do political damage to the government. Today that’s not happening.
I’m about to publish a book on the Border Guard, having investigated their operation when it happened in 2017. Soon after taking office we requested a disciplinary investigation of that operation from the new Border Guard chief Severino and we’re completing it these days.
I insist, it seems to me that on that occasion both national Security Minister Patricia Bullrich and opposition sectors escalated a very damaging confrontation because that had a tremendous effect on the Border Guard and their families, on Sergio Maldonado and the family of Santiago.
Effects of the grieta rift.
I strongly disagree with my predecessor making affirmations as to who was and who was not responsible without knowing. The same goes for the other side with huge prejudices, something fed by the then minister’s position.
Two sides of the same coin.
Tremendous. And many of us who knew the Border Guard from inside also knew that the operation was a disaster, not following any protocol and all badly done. That was even how the Border Guard saw it from inside. The minister exacerbated the situation without having the necessary evidence.
Does it surprise you that both Sergio Berni and Patricia Bullrich agree in defending Jorge Ríos, the pensioner who killed a robber?
It doesn’t surprise me. It seems to me that they have agreed over more than one issue and also differed. Nobody can ignore that Berni has a position on security issues which sometimes is progressive and other times not. He oscillates between antagonistic positions. That is not the same situation as Bullrich. She’s an ex-minister and thus has more freedom to interpret events than a provincial security minister.
Do you understand the pensioner?
In my role as minister I have no room for understanding. As an anthropologist I might say perhaps yes, but as a minister no. A homicide is under investigation. He has been freed. It seems to me that we must be above events. We must not judge if what he did was right or wrong, whether he should have done it or not.
What is your position?
The courts should investigate. I saw the videos, there are witnesses but it is material that the courts should investigate. What I do think to be very important is that the State has to resolve these problems so that people do not go about violently taking justice into their own hands. Institutional justice should mediate so that people do not go arming themselves and seeking security in gun possession. What happened is a tragedy.
Sergio Berni heads the opinion polls when it comes to approval ratings for officials. The same happened with Patricia Bullrich in the previous presidency. Is there something about law and order stances which makes such postures electorally important and attractive to society?
You have to check the opinion polls and also the relationship between them and actual voting in order to arrive at the affirmation that this positive image really translates into electoral support. We know what happened to the opinion polls.
But there are objective trends. Francisco de Narváez won elections against Néstor Kirchner with the argument of his security plan. Jair Bolsonaro is president of Brazil with the same promise.
There is an oversupply of this type of solution. When you present this solution as the only one and show 450 million times on a television programme that a person finished off a presumed criminal using his own firearm or that of his son, you are reducing the field of possible options or solutions.
There is a very nice book written by Gabriel Vommaro, who is a great student of the PRO phenomenon, which is called Lo que quiere la gente (“What people want”), studying the transformation and emergence of some journalists during the 1990s in a very strong neo-liberal context. And how those figures, whom I’m not going to name, converted themselves into personalities giving people what they wanted. There is a media construction of what people want. If you don’t give people another panoply of solutions, and that’s the only one, those incarnating those postures end up having a positive image. But the political vocations of Bullrich and Berni are legitimate.
Could Sergio Berni’s position be called electioneering?
He has manifested so and it’s completely legitimate. He has political aspirations as well as a track record. He was a provincial deputy for several years after being Security secretary.
It seems you like Berni at the end of the day.
I’d love to write some day about Sergio Berni. He’s someone with a track record and a completely legitimate aspiration like Patricia Bullrich, who moves in the media world to reach that objective. Others develop their political aspirations in different terrains.
The journalist and president of the CELS human rights organisation, Horacio Verbitsky, has also crossed swords with you. He said: “I didn’t know that Patricia Bullrich had returned to the Security Ministry,” due to filming arrests, which from his perspective sought derision. What’s going on that two of the most potent security symbols, Verbitsky on the more technical side and Berni on the more practical, have conflicts with you?
I’ve spoken to Horacio on the telephone and then on a radio programme. I told him that it seemed to me a completely unfair and disproportionate comparison. He minimised it with irony.
You’d have to ask them what they think about being in agreement. It was an excessive reaction. The comparison made by Horacio was for the way people had been arrested in a case of presumed espionage. I manifested that those arrests and that of Amado Boudou had been radically different. I told him that we were preaching the independence of powers by example. The court had information before we did. When the police informed us, there were already television cameras we did not know about.
Don’t you wonder what’s going on when the two most significant voices in security in your political space speak against you?
I don’t give it much importance. I know they are two different people with different track records. In an interview I gave a couple of months ago I tried to dissipate the confusion around my coming from CELS. I was never part of CELS, my track record in research and output contrasts with that of CELS, which proceeds from a position of mistrust towards the security forces. My work in anthropological research proceeds from trust. If you arrive at mistrust, that comes after having found out, not the reverse. That places me differently, which does not mean that I have had no contact with CELS, nor that I have participated in some activities with them, or that I don’t agree with them over some points. I also interpreted it as a kind of vindication.
Penitentiary Affairs Undersecretary María Laura Garrigós de Rébori has said: “The day we come out of quarantine, it’s possible that crimes against property peak.” Do you share that prognosis?
Let’s see. Such crimes are growing. She said “perhaps” – we should relativise her words. We can see an increase relative to the April-May data. This probability has to do with shortages, with various activities being halted. We know that crimes are often committed by working-class sectors but also by middle-class sectors. You shouldn’t go by stereotypes. It seems to me that those who commit crimes are not necessarily those who have least.
In another article in Anfibia with the headline “Sufrir, servir, gasear, cazar” you wrote: “Without political negotiation no force is enough.” You were referring to the Mauricio Macri government at the time of its pension reform. Bearing in mind increased poverty, do you fear that there could be a social explosion against which no force is enough?
Here again a key factor becomes what we were talking about before – the importance of mediators. There are alternative forms of resolving conflicts which require mediators, referential figures and political negotiation. That’s why we believe, together with other state departments and the social organisations, that the demands may possibly increase and that they will be organised, i.e. social movements which try to cut roads. We are in a position to tackle those demands via resources other than the violent use of force in the first instance.