Poignantly tragic as the slaying of bus-driver Daniel Barrientos just one month ahead of his retirement was, it would have ended up as a brief item in the back pages of newspapers if the reactions to the murder had not crossed several lines. His callous slaying prompted grief rather than shock – it is instead surprising that such horrors do not occur more repeatedly in the no-go areas of Greater Buenos Aires where even in La Matanza the per capita homicide rate is barely a quarter of Rosario. What made this murder such a major issue was not the bus-driver’s cruel end but the backlash to the crime wave crossing the line from verbal criticism and a helpless anger to a physical assault by Barrientos’ furious colleagues against the histrionic Buenos Aires Province Security Minister Sergio Berni.
One line was thus crossed but who knows which other ingredients may be added to the anti-system cocktail of frustration? To see where this may lead we need only look at El Salvador where the civic reaction against crime has morphed beyond rage to the authoritarian and messianic regime of Nayib Bukele enshrining law and order in the most extreme forms (since El Salvador was also a pioneer of dollarisation early in this century, perhaps we should be looking closer at that small Central American country). A highly dangerous escalation of the public mood in an election year.
If action and reaction are equal and opposite according to Newton’s third law, reactions to the reactions do not necessarily follow that rule – the autistic response of the government to the public outrage (where there has been one) has crossed another line to reach new levels of incomprehension. Far from biting the bullet (after Barrientos had taken one), both Berni and Buenos Aires Province Governor Axel Kicillof resorted to conspiracy theories with themselves as the victims rather than finally facing up to this climax of a constant reality ranging from minor muggings to the social fabric of entire neighbourhoods being destroyed by drugs. If the opposition had been conspiring to “plant a corpse” (in Berni’s words) in a plot fomented by PRO party chair Patricia Bullrich according to a paranoid Kicillof, they would surely have timed it far more strategically on the eve of the elections in the manner of the killing of news vendor Roberto Sabo in the weekend before the 2021 midterms (not that there was any evidence of a political conspiracy there whatsoever) rather than six months beforehand.
But that is not the most important point here about an autistic political class talking to itself all the time – it is rather the depth of their alienation from the daily reality of millions of their voters and their complete inability to show either empathy or understanding. While the national and provincial security ministers continue their blame game, neither President Alberto Fernández nor Vice-President Cristina Fernández de Kirchner nor La Matanza Mayor Fernando Espinoza seem to have anything to say. What more evidence for a “caste” could the libertarian Javier Milei request than this confirmation of the political class living in a cocoon whose shell 40 continuous years of democracy have only served to harden? Just as silence often speaks louder than words, egocentricity here is not even self-interest – favoured by a fragmented opposition without a runoff, Kicillof had been fancying his chances of re-election until now but this traumatic crime in the Peronist stronghold of La Matanza must raise serious doubts.
Yet while the political reactions (or the lack thereof) cross one line, the public reactions threaten to cross another. Neither the government indifference to crime problems nor even the death of Barrientos can justify Berni being mobbed the way he was last Monday even if there is every reason to argue that he was asking for it with his provocative descent from a helicopter. Coverage of that episode only shows how deep the infection of the grieta polarisation runs with one side of the media underlining the number of policemen injured and the other the number of bus-drivers. But what remains clear is that violence can never be the answer – there is such a thing as the cure, whether in the form of vigilante justice or a Bukele, being worse than the disease. Crime is a common problem which warrants a common response from a society in crisis.