BUENOS AIRES, Argentina - Ana Malitti was chatting and listening to music late at night with her family when they realized the eviction was upon them. The lights in their makeshift home flickered off. A police officer that was usually stationed nearby left. The lights returned momentarily and then everything went dark at 4 a.m. By 5 a.m., the police started to arrive.
“They didn’t give you time for anything,” said Malitti, aged aged 40. “People were running, screaming, [there were] sticks, rocks, tear gas.”
Malitti and her neighbours were forcibly evicted from a land occupation at an empty lot in Buenos Aires in the early morning of October 29. The move came after last-ditch attempts to negotiate a peaceful solution with the local government ground to a halt.
Around 4,000 officers cleared the site in Guernica, Buenos Aires Province, at the crack of dawn. Bulldozers and tractors crushed some of the makeshift huts that the families were living in, while others were set on fire.
The occupants, including families with young children, had been living on the land since July. Many had lost their homes and jobs because of the COVID pandemic. A census carried out the previous week found that 4,417 people were living at the occupation.
Sergio Berni, Minister of Security for Buenos Aires Province, said: “Usurping [land] is a crime, and so while I’m minister, the right to life, the right to freedom, and the right to private property is an obligation that we have to guarantee with our security forces.”
Malitti is paid by the hour as a house cleaner. Her husband works as a gardener. When the pandemic struck, the work dried up and they couldn’t pay their rent. They hoped their lot at the occupation would become a permanent home.
They had built a structure out of tarp and corrugated metal, with a small bathroom. “We were comfortable,” she said on Thursday, as she looked over at what was left of her dwelling, police officers blocking the way back into the squat.
Riot police used tear gas and rubber bullets against residents who didn’t want to leave. They defended themselves with improvised shields and stones. Around 35 people were arrested, according to local media.
When the occupation started in July, private owners including construction company El Bellaco started legal proceedings to kick the families off the land. El Bellaco is planning to build an exclusive gated community on part of the site.
A team of architects and lawyers supporting the occupation argued that there was enough space to build both the gated community and permanent housing for those at the occupation. They added that those who said they owned the rest of the land had dubious claims to it, and in practice, it was an abandoned wasteland that the government could legally take over and turn into social housing for the inhabitants. But their argument was rejected by the local court.
The Buenos Aires Province government has said that “transition centers” will be provided for families from the occupation who have nowhere else to go.
On Tuesday, Buenos Aires Province governor Axel Kiciloff created a monthly cash benefit of up to ARS50,000 ($639) for six months for families left destitute by the pandemic. But those living at the occupation saw the offer as a short-term solution to a long-term problem.
“You pay one month of rent. Then food, but you don’t have work, you don’t have a piece of land, where do you end up? On the street again,” Malitti told VICE News. “You’re going to end up squatting on another piece of land, because you don’t have another option.”