- The Washington Times - Tuesday, December 31, 2002

BUENOS AIRES In the past year, social protest and community activism have exploded in this nation with surprising intensity and in unprecedented ways.
Unemployed families called piqueteros have blocked highways, workers have seized control of factories, pot-banging protesters have hounded politicians, and neighborhood assemblies have formed spontaneously on street corners.
Assuming a fragile mandate in the midst of political instability and intense public outrage, caretaker President Eduardo Duhalde has dealt with social protest cautiously, and has, for the most part, managed to avoid major clashes between demonstrators and police.
But human rights lawyers, union leaders, student organizers and social activists say that anti-government dissent is being attacked in a more insidious manner. They speak of threats, tapped phone lines, unrelenting harassment, drive-by shootings, kidnappings and beatings, describing a faceless repression not seen since the 1976-1983 military dictatorship.
The perpetrators dress as civilians and do not carry identification. They drive cars without license plates. Their objectives are obscure, and it is not clear from whom they are taking orders. They appear to operate with complete impunity.
"It makes you half-angry, and half-afraid," said Matias Velazquez, a 23-year old journalism student and member of a neighborhood assembly who has been beaten up twice by men dressed in civilian clothes.
"You realize you're at their mercy. They could be right next to you, and you wouldn't know it."
Last October, Guillermo Perez, a 21-year-old piquetero who lives in a slum on the outskirts of Buenos Aires, says he was kidnapped by three men and a woman, who put a hood over his head and forced him into a gray car with no license plate. Mr. Perez says he was driven around for more than four hours and interrogated about his piquetero organization's activities and its members. Another member of the same organization says he dodged a drive-by shooting in La Fe. A third was shot in the chest at an April protest by a passing motorcyclist.
In the past year, gunmen have shot at the houses of a union leader and of Estella Carlotto, an internationally recognized human rights activist.
In Rosario, the nation's second-largest city, social worker Susana Abalo has been brutally and repeatedly attacked. Miss Abalo, who suffers from multiple sclerosis and has been confined to a wheel chair for a year and a half, has worked with a Catholic social assistance organization for 14 years in a slum called Villa Banana.
In August, a man and a woman, both armed, walked into her bedroom. They stripped her naked and beat her severely.
Two months later, she said the same two persons attacked her again, this time at the public university where she is studying for a law degree. They taped her mouth shut, and slashed her cheek and forehead with a knife.
Early this month, a high-powered firecracker was thrown through her bedroom window, landing beside her as she lay in the bed. Miss Abalo said that she was able to move her legs out of the way before it exploded, leaving a 6-inch-wide hole in the mattress.
"This is state terrorism any way you look at it," said Miss Abalo, 46, her voice shaking as she lay in her bed the day after the last attack.
"They chose me to show just how sadistic they can be."
An equally harrowing case of assault took place last June, when a high school pupil who had participated in protests for a reduced subway fare for students was attacked in the street by two men. They held the student down and carved with a knife the letters "AAA" into his chest.
The attack was symbolic. In 1976, government death squads kidnapped and murdered high school students who had demonstrated for a student bus fare. AAA is a reference to the Argentine Anti-communist Alliance, or Triple A, a paramilitary organization that systematically hunted down, kidnapped, tortured and killed an estimated 1,500 people in the mid-1970s with the tacit support of a democratically elected government.
The repression in recent months is a far cry from that carried out by the Triple A and the dictatorship, which murdered an estimated 30,000 people. Activists are not disappearing or being executed. Moreover, the cases reported have been scattered, and evidence of a coordinated effort to repress social protest by extralegal means is non-existent at this point.
Top government officials have argued that the new cases of repression are an attempt by extreme political factions to discredit, and as a result, destabilize the government.
"They are looking to create situations of political instability," said Juan Pablo Cafiero, the security minister for the province of Buenos Aires.
"Attacking the protesters is a way of attacking the institutions and the government."
But for many here, and especially for those who survived the dictatorship, this new repression sends the unequivocal message that while Argentine society has finally reawakened, so, too, has the terror-sowing violence of this nation's dark past.
"This is nothing like the Triple A, but we can't forget that in Argentina, whenever there has been an increase in social and political conflicts, the response has been violence," said Miguel Bonasso, who as the director of an opposition newspaper in the 1970s evaded Triple A death squads before seeking exile. "What we're seeing is a dangerous escalation of repression that could be preparing the public for something bigger."

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