Friday, July 31, 2009

Argentina: Child rights workers kidnapped and threatened

By Marcela Valente - IPS

Republished permission Inter Press Service (IPS ) copyright Inter Press Service (IPS) and

BUENOS AIRES, Jul 30 (IPS) - Youngsters involved in a network of social organisations working with street kids and disadvantaged youths, as part of its "Hunger Is a Crime" campaign, have been the targets of eight kidnappings and dozens of death threats in the last 16 months.

Laura Taffetani, the lawyer for the Movimiento de los Chicos del Pueblo network, told IPS that "the prosecution service knows the group (of aggressors) come from a state security or paramilitary force because of the vehicles, weapons and technology they use."

She also complained that "the state should act, but isn't doing anything."

The latest kidnapping occurred on Jul. 24, when 22-year-old Emmanuel San Martín, who lives and works at the Hogar Juan XXIII, a home for children run by the Don Orione Roman Catholic religious congregation, was seized and held for several hours.

San Martín was out buying provisions for the home at around noon that day when he was shoved into a car. He reappeared five hours later. His captors used his cell-phone to send death threats while they held him.

"One of the four men in the car got out with a rifle and forced him to get in," Catholic priest Luis Espósito, director of the Hogar, told IPS.

The Hogar, one of the organisations that forms part of the Movimiento de los Chicos del Pueblo network, is home to 20 youngsters under the age of 18. San Martín is one of their eight caregivers.

Last week's incident was the third time San Martín was kidnapped. Another resident of the Hogar was also seized once.

The caregivers are young people in charge of raising the youngest residents, Espósito explained.

San Martín's kidnappers sent death threats to the Hogar and to others involved in the "Hunger Is a Crime; Not One Less Kid" movement.

"We have one of your number, the one we really wanted. Bingo: one less kid!", "Stop fooling around with the 'Hunger Is a Crime' campaign," and "We're going to kill you, cut out the crap once and for all with that campaign," were some of the threatening messages received.

Several hours after he was taken to a warehouse, where he was beaten, San Martín, who was seized in Gerli, a district on the south side of Greater Buenos Aires, was released in Palermo, a fashionable neighbourhood in Buenos Aires proper, and called the Hogar.

"He's ok but he's very frightened; this is the third time this has happened to him," said the priest.

Earlier kidnappings have targeted young people from the Fundación Pelota de Trapo and La Red El Encuentro, which runs 19 centres in different neighbourhoods.

Both of these organisations, like the Hogar, belong to the Movimiento de Chicos del Pueblo network, which in turn forms part of the Central de Trabajadores de Argentina, one of the country's two large trade union confederations.

The Fundación runs a home for 60 children and adolescents, a day centre where 200 children take part in activities, and a printing press and bakery staffed by members of the organisation, which help finance it.

"The Movimiento is made up of hundreds of organisations around the country, but the groups that have been attacked are in (poor and working-class) areas on the outskirts of Buenos Aires," Paula Tierno, with the Fundación Pelota de Trapo, explained to IPS.

Tierno said the different organisations are financed by donations, scholarships or their own funds, generated by projects or from church congregations.

The leaders of the organisations are bewildered over the attacks, which target the "Hunger Is a Crime" campaign they launched in 2001, as indicated by the threats sent by the perpetrators.

Through rallies, demonstrations and festivals, the campaign denounces that 70 percent of children under 18 are hungry or have an inadequate diet in Argentina, a country that produces enough food to feed 400 million people – 10 times the total population of 40 million.

"The campaign does not depend on any political party; it is a struggle for life," said Espósito.

The priest said the campaign is aimed at drawing attention to the sharp contrast between the high levels of economic growth achieved by the country over the last few years and the persistence of widespread hunger and poverty.

"Maybe the campaign has affected certain interests," he speculated.

He said the aspect that struck him most was "the significant operating capacity" of the aggressors.

"We don't know who they are, even though they don't cover their faces. But they definitely know who we are," he said, adding that they have new cars, rifles and wiretapping technology.

"But besides the show of power, they clearly enjoy a great deal of impunity because they operate in broad daylight," he added.

Taffetani said that this impunity, combined with the logistical capacity and the number of incidents, gives rise to suspicions that the group has ties to the security forces. "We are obviously touching very powerful interests, but which ones? That's the big question," she said.

The lawyer noted that the victims are always young caregivers from children's homes or other low-profile members of the campaign, rather than the leaders of the organisations involved in the Movimiento, or even mid-level members.

"The investigators have explained to us that this means they are trying to have an internal effect on the Movimiento, rather than external," she said.

The prosecutor investigating the kidnappings at the Hogar Juan XXIII is committed to the task, but lacks the resources needed to carry it out properly, said Taffetani.

"We asked the Buenos Aires provincial prosecution service to assign an assistant prosecutor to the case, and they said in December that they would do so. But after that they didn't send one, claiming they did not have the available staff," said the lawyer.

She said something similar happened when they approached the central government. In December they met with then minister of justice and security Aníbal Fernández – who is now cabinet chief – and he promised to assign a brigade to investigate the cases and provide security for the children's homes where the kidnappings have taken place or whose members have received threats.

But the police support was withdrawn after just one month.

After last week's kidnapping, a police guard was posted outsider the Hogar Juan XXIII. "But that was since the latest incident, and I don't know how long it will last," said Espósito.
Published by Mike Hitchen,
Putting principles before profits