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Why Is Buenos Aires Waging a War on Electronic Music?

Drug deaths at Time Warp sparked a city-wide ban on dance music events.

by Frederick Bernas
May 13 2016, 6:25pm

All photos by the author unless otherwise stated

In the small hours of April 16, a fleet of ambulances screamed into the Costa Salguero leisure complex on the banks of the Rio de La Plata, where Argentina's third edition of Time Warp—a prominent dance music festival that originated in Germany in the 90s—was in full swing.

According to a BBC report, five people aged between 20 to 25 years old died after using drugs at the event that night, with traces of red tablets—possibly the "Superman" pills linked to a string of deaths in the UK last year—detected in their bodies. According to local media, another five festivalgoers were hospitalized, one of whom may have died, but THUMP has been unable to verify those claims.

Photo via Time Warp Argentina's website

There had been warning signs of the looming disaster. Government sources told THUMP that nearly 24,000 people were admitted through the gates, despite an authorized ticket limit of 13,000. Overheating caused by the swelling crowds worsened when taps were cut off around 2 AM, several hours before the event ended, meaning the only option was to purchase water at 40 pesos ($2.80) per bottle—a high price by Argentine standards—using a complicated ticketing system at a bar swarming with thirsty ravers.

The tragedy at Time Warp marked the beginning of an outright war by local government against electronic music in Buenos Aires. Tensions between authorities and the city's DJs, promoters, and venue owners—simmering since 2004, when a massive nightclub fire took 194 lives—have erupted over a temporary citywide ban on electronic music events, announced on May 11. Several festivals and shows in Buenos Aires have already been cancelled or postponed, and a cloud of uncertainty hangs over the future of the Argentine capital's vibrant electronic music culture as local authorities squabble over how to better regulate its shadowy nightlife.

A "Hard Electronica" gathering held in the basement of a home in the San Telmo neighborhood

The first move in local authorities' ongoing game of political chess came from city judge Roberto Gallardo, who filed a court order on April 28, almost two weeks after the deaths, prohibiting "all commercial activity that involves dancing to live or recorded music," with the exception of more traditional events like tango milongas held at cultural centers.

Gallardo's ruling was effectively an attempt to close all the city's clubs while authorities determined which ones play electronic music; according to the judge's proposal, the ban would then only have been enforced on venues that hold raves.

Many corners of the city were staunchly opposed to Gallardo's blanket ban. In a video released on his Twitter account, the mayor of Buenos Aires, Horacio Rodríguez Larreta, called it a "truly crazy idea" that would be akin to taking all cars off the streets after a traffic accident. Jorge Becco, head of the Buenos Aires chamber of discotheque owners, reportedly asked on local television, "How do you obey a totally unconstitutional order like this one?"

In a written statement to THUMP, Gallardo elaborated on his motives, arguing that the state should have control over all public events in order to "guarantee the physical integrity and life of consumers." He reproached anyone—including officials and venue owners—who criticized his ruling without taking responsibility for "gross errors" in general nightlife regulation.

"Nobody should refrain from their legal obligations, or go unpunished for the damage they have caused," Gallardo wrote.

Hard Electronica

However, Gallardo's ruling was suspended just hours later by another judge, Lisandro Fastman, who made it clear that the ban should only be applicable to electronic music festivals. On May 11, Fastman issued a new order, still in effect, that temporarily forbids all commercial establishments from staging events with "similar characteristics" to Time Warp—even if the venues comply with safety regulations. Fastman wrote that his order was designed to "safeguard the health and physical integrity" of people attending dance clubs, while the justice system reviewed appeals from city government and a lobby group for the nightlife industry.

But some of those closest to the deceased blamed bad drugs, and not dance music, for the deaths. In a public Facebook post dated April 19, Mayra Boni, the cousin of 21-year-old victim Bruno Boni, alleged that a jug of water spiked with a toxic substance started circulating around bathrooms when the bars ran out of water. "Guys in different parts of the [festival] drank something at the same time which killed them," Mayra wrote.

Mica Altamira, the girlfriend of Bruno Boni, also blamed drug dealers for the fatalities. "They killed my boyfriend as if he were a rat in a laboratory," she tweeted, referring to those who sold lethal substances to unwitting festivalgoers.

Altamira, who did not attend the festival, declined to speak at length about the judicial investigation surrounding Boni's death. "We hope the right people will go down, and this won't all be in vain," she told THUMP via Twitter. "We hope everything will come to light."

Meanwhile, three alleged dealers were prosecuted in an Argentine court last Friday (May 6) on suspicion of dealing at the festival. The festival's organizers have also been targeted by authorities; in late April, Adrian Conci, head of the Dell Producciones firm which produces Time Warp Argentina, turned himself into custody while reportedly crying and clutching a rosary. (International editions of big festivals, including Time Warp, are often run as franchises in partnership with local promoters.) A lawyer representing the festival has also been arrested, accused by prosecutors of being a key organizer of the fatal event.

Partygoers at a local club called Niceto, one of 14 establishments identified as a regulation priority by Judge Gallardo

This is not the first time Argentina has been shaken by a nightlife-related tragedy. On December 30, 2004, a huge fire at the República Cromañón nightclub in central Buenos Aires took 194 lives when a flare ignited the roof, smothering revelers in toxic smoke as they tried to escape through locked emergency exits.

Evidence emerged that the club had received government permits despite lacking basic safety features, and its owner was jailed for 20 years. The mayor of Buenos Aires at the time, Aníbal Ibarra, was sacked in 2006 after a lengthy investigation into the disaster.

Seasoned music industry insiders, including musicians, promoters, DJs, and club owners, told THUMP that the Cromañón fire marked the beginning of a prohibitive governmental policy that sought to restrict cultural activities like clubbing and live shows, rather than encourage citizens to enjoy them responsibly.

"It was really difficult finding places to play," said Andrés Schteingart, a Buenos Aires native who produces digital cumbia as El Remolón. From 2002 to 2004, he was part of a crew that organized multi-level raves in parking lots that attracted thousands of people. The entrance fee to these DIY events was one non-perishable food item, donated to a local NGO. "The discotheques got worried about losing business and started threatening us," he said. "When they called the authorities, we had to stop."

The disco ball at Niceto

The government's restrictions on nightlife after the Cromañón fire, Schteingart continued, were "punitive and restrictive," but only focused on small DIY parties, leaving larger events relatively unscathed because authorities believed them to be easier to regulate.

"Now, [after] Time Warp, it looks like that is changing as well," he said.

The post-Time Warp crackdown on electronic music has already resulted in the cancellation of large events, including the Diynamic Festival and a Dash Berlin show last month. Independent producers behind smaller events are also feeling the pinch of tightening red tape. An electronic festival called FEBA that expected around 400 visitors on May 7 was postponed by the Konex cultural center, a foundation-backed venue which was temporarily closed in 2014 over lack of evacuation procedures, as a show of respect for the Time Warp victims.

Government inspections have also been on the uptick. At Bahrein, a popular dance club, an employee told THUMP that authorities have been visiting twice every weekend night since Time Warp to check safety measures. On May 6, a nightclub located in the Costa Salguero complex, where Time Warp took place, was closed down for multiple violations, including admitting minors. The previous weekend, more than 1,000 people were kicked out of a chic "fake wedding" party at a club called GEBA when it was busted by police for inadequate security procedures.

FEBA promoter and musician Nicolás Ejchenbaun told THUMP that he understands the decision, but resents being associated with mass-market events like Time Warp. "It's a shame for an independent project to be confused with the scourge of super-productions created to make money and promote narco-trafficking, just because it also uses the word 'electronic,'" he wrote on Facebook.

Crowd at Niceto

The same evening Ejchenbaun's show had been due to take place, electronic musician Agustina Vizcarra was blaring out trippy vocals over rippling techno riffs in a basement on the other side of town. Viscarra told THUMP she has had several gigs canceled in recent weeks, and accused authorities of "demonizing" her music by encouraging society to "judge a culture in moral terms."

The real problem plaguing Buenos Aires' music industry, according to more than a dozen DJs, promoters and musicians interviewed by THUMP, is endemic corruption, with many event organizers having local officials in their pockets. These financially lucrative relationships are difficult to sniff out—but the suspicions of corruptionspeak to the public's pervasive mistrust of the government's ability to fix a broken system, no matter how many lives are lost, or how many security checks are carried out.

"Corruption kills everything, especially in the nightlife sector," said Martin Nardone (AKA Le Freak Selector), a house DJ who attended Time Warp and organizes closed-door raves in the trendy Palermo neighborhood. Nardone believes that ultimately, in this rigged system, smaller promoters and parties end up getting squeezed out.

"All the big venues are paying off government inspectors, but smaller places don't have that kind of money and end up getting closed," he said. "What killed those kids was not drugs or the party. It was corruption," he continued, theorizing that Time Warp may have able to get away with lax security because of shady deals with officials.

Another experienced DJ, who did not wish to be named, told THUMP that a political "mafia" runs the clubs of Palermo and controls many aspects of nightlife, even hiring security patrols of "barra bravas"—loosely organized groups of soccer fans with a reputation for violence—to monitor the streets and guard the cars of clients at clubs.

The DJ was not hopeful that city authorities and nightclub owners will find an honest way to safely regulate the industry any time soon. "For something like Time Warp to never happen again, they would need to change everything—but that's impossible," he explained. "There's so much money behind this stuff, and everyone wants to fill their pockets."

As the weekend approaches, it remains to be seen whether judge Lisandro Fastman's latest electronic music ban will be enforced by authorities or followed by clubs. Meanwhile, as the city legislature weighs its options for new permanent regulations, and the Time Warp organizers brace for a prolonged judicial battle, the only certain fact is that Buenos Aires will keep dancing to its underground beats—legally or otherwise.

"Every party represents a kind of protest," said Nardone, who will continue to throw clandestine events as an act of resistance against this electronic music crackdown. "Our raves will continue, no matter what, because they've always been illegal. But if there are no more huge events like Time Warp, the underworld will start growing again. People won't just stay at home."

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