Argentina: A Decade Without Dario and Maxi

You don’t need to have met Dario Santillán to know him. And you should know him. Though notorious for his death, it was his grassroots leadership and solidarity work in his short life that defined him—qualities that live on in the social movements he helped to build.  

The Argentine piqueteros that represented a generation of rebellion

You don’t need to have met Dario Santillán to know him. And you should know him.

Though notorious for his death, it was his grassroots leadership and solidarity work in his short life that defined him—qualities that live on in the social movements he helped to build. In the wake of Argentina’s 2001 economic crisis and social upheaval, Santillán was killed by Argentine police along with fellow activist Maximiliano Kosteki. But their spirit of resistance is alive and well in the 15,000 organizers that gathered on Tuesday to mark the tenth anniversary of their deaths and call for justice.

Blockading the Puente Pueyrredón, the bridge that connects the capital of Buenos Aires to the southern suburbs of the city, members from hundreds of unemployed, student, low-income, and other left organizations descended last week on the site where Santillan and Kosteki were killed. Many were friends, family-members, and compañeros, who since 2002 haven’t let a June 26th go by without an all-night vigil and mobilization.

“I feel proud to be Dario’s father,” said Alberto Santillán standing at the front of the march. Looking over a crowd of many young organizers he said that he doesn’t feel alone, but accompanied. “In each one of them, I also see my son.”

Generational symbols

Kosteki and Santillán were not merely victims of state repression, but emblems of a new generation of working-class youth responding to the severe poverty in Argentina. A decade of neoliberal economic policies in Argentina had left entire towns without work, education, and basic services, sparking the rise of neighborhood piquetero and unemployed workers movements (MTDs). Without a political voice, these movements drew attention to their demands by blockading major roadways and halting the transportation of goods into the capital.

Santillán lived in a working-class housing project in the neighborhood of Don Orione, and became involved in his high school student union at age 17. But as the strength unemployed movements grew in the more marginalized neighborhoods, he joined the MTD in neighboring town of Lanús and began working with youth.

“He came and wanted to participate,” recalls Walter Bordegorry of MTD Lanús.

“And since he was a kid who had studied, he began to teach some compañeros in the neighborhood about journalism.” Santillán led workshops that taught members of the MTD how to analyze newspapers and understand how the media reported on the piquetero movements as delinquents, disregarding their demands. Santillán also set up a group in Lanús called the Juventud Piquetero (Piquetero Youth) aimed at young adults in their twenties who had families and were without work, a community Bordegorry says that Santillán wanted to help escape the world of drugs and crime.

“He was always thinking about others, and wanted to know how we were in terms of housing and if we were working.”

In 2001, Santillán moved to the precarious neighborhood of La Fe to help organize a handful of near homeless families establish a settlement in a vacant plot of land.

A disciplined, dominant figure that spoke in a collected and resolute fashion and wore a thick beard, Santillán had the mannerisms of someone beyond his years. Many of his compañeros did not even know his age until the day he died. He was 21.

Kosteki, unlike Santillán, had only recently gotten involved in the unemployed workers’ movements.  “He had joined a soup kitchen and had set up an arts workshop,” said his sister Vanina Kosteki, arm in arm with Alberto Santillán. “That day was his first mobilization.” He was 23.

Dario Santillán Massacre at Avellaneda

Thirty-nine people had already been killed by police during the popular uprising on the 19th and 20th of December 2001. When interim President Eduardo Duhalde took office in January of 2002, he was determined “bring order” to society and continued a policy of repression against protest.

That June 26, unemployed workers movements and neighborhood assemblies throughout Greater Buenos Aires planned a coordinated blockade of all entrances to the capital. Santillán and Kosteki were apart of the MTD Anibal Verón made up of a dozen smaller MTDs and took charge of blockading the Puente Pueyrredón in the town of Avellaneda.

Organizers knew there was a risk of repression but no one was prepared for what they were about to face. Police came armed not only with tear gas and rubber bullets, but shotguns charged with live ammunition. They fired into the lines of the piqueteros, which included women and children.

“We took off running through here and alongside the bridge,” Bordegarry said, retracing the same steps taken a decade ago. “We tried to get the babies out of the way first, the mothers with carriages, and the grandmothers.”

It was at there in the street that Kosteki was shot. A fleeing fellow protester heard his cries and dragged his body a block to the train station Avellaneda, where he was met by Santillán. Dario told him to run and said he would stay with Maximiliano. It was that moment that then police commissioner Alberto Fanchiotti shot Santillán in the back. Journalists at the scene captured video and photos of the murder. Perhaps the most striking image that day was of Santillán, bent over Kosteki, his hand raised to the officers in a plea to hold their fire.

Fight for justice

The events of June 26 forever marked both the piquetero movement and Argentine society as a whole as they laid bear the mercilessness of state violence. President Duhalde called early elections, and incoming President Nestor Kirchner’s adopted a policy of “no repression” against popular protest.

For the social movements “it was a heavy blow” says Bordegarry. Still, family and fellow organizers wasted no time in once more taking the streets to demand justice.

In 2006, after four years of struggle, ex-police commissioner Alberto Fanchiotti and his chauffer Alejandro Acosta were sentenced to life in prison, and seven other police officers that received jail time. But the political actors who ordered the repression that day—Duhalde, former Buenos Aires governor and current senator Carlos Solá, among many others—remain unprosecuted.

“We’re seeking trials and punishment for all those materially and politically responsible,” said Vanina Kosteki. “And now we find the cases against these functionaries have been filed away.”

But in these ten years, the movement hasn’t everything up to the courts. In 2004, organizers formed the Frente Popular Dario Santillán (Dario Santillán Popular Front), an independent multi-sector organization that has member groups throughout Argentina. For years the organization has coordinated protests, direct actions, and poster campaigns against former President Duhalde: pitching tents outside of his residence and making sure he cannot wash his hands of the incident nor recover a political reputation.

“We’ve opted for popular mobilization, and the social condemnation which has led to ex-President Duhalde doing very poorly in the last elections,” said Federico Orchani, spokesperson for the Dario Santillán Popular Front.

A struggle multiplied

While the governments of Nestor Kirchner and Cristina Fernández de Kirchner have touted human rights as a pillar of their politics, Santillán and Kosteki’s deaths have not been the only ones to die at the hands of Argentine police in the past decade.

“We still have deaths, we still have disappeared, we still have a government that conceals those physically and politically responsible,” said Vanina Kosteki. She mentions two of the most notable cases: the disappearances of Jorge Julio Lopez and Luciano Arruga. Lopez vanished in 2006 after testifying against Miguel Etchecolatz, former police officer in charge of clandestine detention centers during the military dictatorship. Sixteen-year-old Arruga disappeared in 2009 after being arrested and tortured by Buenos Aires provincial police after he refused to rob for them.

“What is here today is the class consciousness that Maxi and Dario had, which is present all those who want to continue fighting for social change in this country,” said Vanina.

MTD Lanús, where Dario began his political activism, is still going strong. Complete with a popular high school program that Santillán helped to start, Bordegarry says that members who had only completed primary school are now studying at the public university.

“We’re trying to carry forward what he would have wanted and what he was going to do.”

“They didn’t kill him, they multiplied him,” said Alberto Santillán of his son.  “I think that Dario is floating above us here today, maybe smoking a cigarette, drinking maté, and looking down on us with a big smile on his face.”