Human rights groups and social movements rallied in front of Argentina’s Human Rights Ministry in Buenos Aires on Friday for the release of Roberto Canteros, political prisoner since 2005.
Canteros was arrested during a train commuter riot, when passengers fed up with poor service destroyed a local train station in Haedo, a suburb of Buenos Aires in November 2005. Canteros has been held without trial since his 2005 arrest and is facing charges of stealing a police woman’s gun, charges which human rights groups allege to be false. Currently 20 people, including a minor have been charged with inciting riots, but they have been released on bail.
In late November 2005, angry commuters attacked a train station and set a train cabin on fire after service was cancelled. Witnesses and journalists say that flames in train cabin initially erupted on their own. When service was cancelled, angry passengers began to set small fires under the train. The violence then spread to the entire Haedo train station and later poured into the street. Attackers broke automated ticket machines and then targeted local businesses and banks.
Roberto Canteros wrote from his jail cell eight months since his arrest pleading commuters who endure humiliating conditions on the commuter trains daily to speak out against TBA’s (Trenes de Buenos Aires – the privatized train company) actions. “I ask those people who commute everyday on the Sarmiento line (a train line that runs from Buenos Aires to the Western suburbs) who know what it’s like to travel in the company’s poor conditions to not let them to condemn me. TBA (continues to make people travel like cattle. But I’m here jailed for being poor and not having the resources to defend myself against so much injustice.”
On the day of his arrest, Canteros was headed to work at a furniture tapestry shop. Like everyday the train arrived packed and delayed. The train stalled before arriving to the Haedo train station. Canteros joined other passengers who went to the train station to see what was going on with the train. “People were really angry and people started throwing rocks at the train. I went to see what was happening and the conductors told me that my train was about to leave. I stayed in the train station along with other passengers waiting. Twenty minutes went by and people appeared from everywhere; that’s where the ruckus started,” tells Canteros. “They cancelled my train and I stayed watching as a curious spectator, to see what was going on.”
After hours of confrontations, 200 border guards and federal police began a witch hunt, arresting over 100 people. Most of those picked up had a similar profile: 20-30 years-old, dark hair and skin and working class. Canteros began to walk to a bus stop and was stopped by police, who asked him to sign as a witness, a process which can take hours. He refused explaining to the police he was late for work. Later, as he crossed the train tracks, five plain clothes police showed up yelling, “There’s one more.” They put him in a truck with several other men and took him to the police precinct. Canteros recounts that he hadn’t seen any police woman.
“Slow justice is no justice.”
For 14 months, Canteros’s wife María has had to take charge of their 5 children. She has participated in every action held for Canteros. During the rally at the Human Rights Minsitry, she plead with representatives to visit her husband. Solidarity from human rights groups has been key in keeping Canteros in the spotlight to push for his release “Seeing so many people asking for his freedom makes us feel better, before we were alone in this fight,” says María. “We didn’t know what to do. He didn’t even have a lawyer because we didn’t have the resources.”
Argentina’s judicial system has been criticized for corruption and bureaucratic inefficiency. Cases like Canteros are not uncommon; often detainees must wait often years to be tried. In the case of political prisoners it is even more common; they are generally jailed for over a year and then released for lack of evidence. The effects of spending a year in jail takes its toll, with prisoners losing jobs, opportunities and unrecoverable time with loved ones.
Mirta Alguernes’s son was also arrested during the Haedo train riot. He spent nearly a year in jail and is currently facing trial. She says that TBA wants to use Canteros as an example to warn off future protests against passengers. “There is no evidence to keep Roberto in prison, but he has been in jail for over 15 months. TBA continues to function with bad service and receives government subsidies. And Roberto continues to be an example to warn off passengers from complaining or protesting against the way they must travel. We want the government for once and for all to call for the release of Roberto.”
TBA’s trains run as normal, sporadic and overcrowded. Train services were privatized in the 90’s and receive heavy subsidies. Instead of investing in improving services, the money goes for profits and CEO’s. Over 10 million passengers ride on the Sarmiento line per month. Often passengers hang from the rooftops or doors on the trains, to escape the cars where commuters travel like cattle. Weekly, there are major accidents resulting from overcrowding.
According to Ayelen, from HIJOS-Oeste (Children of the Disappeared from the suburbs around Haedo) any one of the thousands who protested against poor commuter service could be in the same situation as Canteros. “We’re fighting for Roberto’s freedom because we think that Roberto is another victim of a system that makes passengers ride in TBA-Sarmiento’s poor conditions. We think that they detained Roberto to put blame on a particular person and the truth is that Roberto Canteros is just another passenger and any of us could be in his situation, in jail away from our families.”
Marie Trigona is a journalist based in Buenos Aires. She can be reached at email@example.com
For more information about Canteros’s case, click here.