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OPINION AND ANALYSIS | 12-09-2020 09:43

Behind the conflict with the police

The reasons for the protest? We can divide them into two main categories: institutional and political.

Local political debate was caught off-guard by this week’s police protests in Buenos Aires Province. Although days before similar tensions had led to officers to mobilise in Misiones Province, few expected that the bonaerense rallies would spread so quickly through the force of more than 90,000 men and women, in the largest and most populated province of the country. The absence of provincial Security Minister Sergio Berni, as well as the low profile kept by Governor Axel Kicillof further ignited the outrage of police personnel and their supporters. 

The reasons for the protest? We can divide them into two main categories: institutional and political. 

On the institutional front salaries, pension fund, and work conditions are the main drivers. Currently a low-ranking agent in the bonaerense force makes about 35,000 pesos (US$260) a month, and overtime pays arounds 50 pesos (US$0.30) an hour. This puts a large number of officers under the poverty line. Yet, on a day-to-day basis, provincial law enforcement agents run into their colleagues in the Federal Police who have a starting salary of more than 51,000 pesos a month, or they interact with members of the Buenos Aires City police force, where a basic salary starts at 59,000 pesos. 

But the contrasts are not limited to salaries – working conditions are also drastically different. Bonaerense officers pay for basically everything, and almost everything is also broken. It is normal for them to have to buy their own uniforms and ammunition, as well as having to pay for any damages caused to vehicles, even if they happen during an attack on police. Patrol cars often to be in extremely poor shape and barely functioning, assuming that the precinct even has enough resources to put petrol in them. Another recurring issue: insufficient bulletproof vests, many of which are damaged. In short, bonaerenses not only make a fraction of what their colleagues make, they also must work with run-down materials and under the constant threat of being further financially punished for merely doing their job.

A third factor, often overlooked but key, is pensions. Since the beginning of the year the word among officers has been that the governor wants to incorporate their funds into the province´s own pension fund, to strip them of the Policia de Buenos Aires fund. The rumour is not unfounded – Argentina’s most-populous region desperately needs resources and the pension fund would help to counter many of the current financial problems the provincial government is facing. Police officers not only oppose this move because they believe it jeopardises their future retirement plans, but also because the fund offers benefits such as low-interest loans to police officers, which are currently key to their own survival. 

The true depth of this dispute is not institutional, however, but rather political. Until the president's announcement on Wednesday night that he would cut City government funding to hand it over to the province as part of the solution to the crisis, the mayors of Buenos Aires Province had been mostly absent from the debate. No tweets, no speeches, no statements to the media. Silence. Meanwhile, the police protests not only requested improvements on the points made previously here, they also requested Berni’s removal from office. The provincial minister is a key player in the upcoming political landscape: as the 2021 elections approach, his approval rating is, or was, key in leading Kirchnerite lists in Buenos Aires Province.

Looking back to Monday, when few expected the police protests to become widespread, one must wonder what political actors helped mobilise the police force to reach an unprecedented level of cohesion and coordination – and what is their interest in ensuring Berni´s downfall. 

On Thursday Governor Kicillof decreed increased wages (raising entry level salaries to 44,000 pesos), better paid overtime (up to 120 pesos an hour), and other improvements to overall working conditions for the provincial police. The announcement did not immediately dismantle the protests but it was perceived positively by multiple sectors within the force. The key question now is: Are the police protests calming because the force feels that their demands have truly been met, or because their political backing has been reduced as mayors, the provincial government and other political actors come to an agreement, financed by the president’s hijacking of the City of Buenos Aires’ funds?

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Andrei Serbin Pont

Andrei Serbin Pont

International analyst and director of CRIES regional think-tank.

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