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OP-ED | 12-09-2020 09:08

Cops and robbers

The solution can all too often be the problem. It’s a paradox which applies to this week’s federal revenue-sharing shuffle at the chief opposition district’s expense, to appease a mutinous Buenos Aires provincial police.

The solution can all too often be the problem. It’s a paradox which applies to this week’s federal revenue-sharing shuffle at the chief opposition district’s expense, to appease a mutinous Buenos Aires provincial police, and also to that force over a much longer timeframe. The problems lie in the hows and whys of this week’s events rather than the whats. In principle there is nothing wrong with transferring money to a historically underfunded province on behalf of a scandalously underpaid police force who are more essential workers than ever in this pandemic year – the problems start when the solution takes the form of yielding to extortion at virtual gunpoint, intermingled with electoral opportunism. The precedent set by the former for other security forces and pressure groups in general might ultimately prove more dangerous, even if critics tends to focus on shattering the incipient pandemic consensus with the blatant political bias of cutting the main opposition stronghold’s share of pooled revenue in favour of the chief Kirchnerite bastion.

Various analysts interpret the police protest as merely an excuse for a funding shift planned all along and it is certainly true that however improvised the presidential move to throw City money at the problem, it was not overnight – slashing the capital’s federal revenue-sharing cut by at least one percentage point from its current 3.5 percent had been a persistent pre-pandemic theme last summer so Buenos Aires City Mayor Horacio Rodríguez Larreta cannot really claim surprise. Yet it would be mistaken to conclude that now that the BA provincial police have been placated with their new net basic wage of 44,000 pesos, they should be forgotten with the debate switching to polarised politics and the scramble for revenue.

However convenient the police unrest may have been for this tendentious shift in fiscal federalism, the timing of this explosion of problems long brewing was not accidental for other reasons. Firstly, while there is no reason to think that all this was designed to distract attention from the suspected police responsibility for the death of Facundo Astudillo Castro, it was superbly successful if indeed so from the way that tragedy has faded from the news – the image of police brutality was transformed overnight into sympathy with guardians of the law grossing little over 1,000 pesos a day when facing a rising crime wave and squatter invasions (with extra pay now limited to a miserable official overtime of an hourly 40 pesos since the pandemic has deprived them of football matches, shows and private security work at inactive and insolvent businesses). But even more central to the timing was the mega-plan of 37.7 billion pesos for Greater Buenos Aires security announced just before last weekend, which centred on upgrading equipment without thought for pay.

Decree 735/2020, boosting Buenos Aires provincial finances by downsizing the City’s federal revenue-sharing cut to 2.32 percent, will not solve the deeper problems of either the province or its police. The latter have a similar pay problem to the over one million teachers nationwide – they are simply too numerous to pay decently and here the law-and-order brigade also shares the blame in constantly clamouring for more. Doubled in size to 90,000 in the last seven years, the numerical increase of the Buenos Aires provincial police has not improved quality by intensifying recruitment as one of the few job opportunities for low-income families where one son may very well be a police officer and another a drug-peddler, thus compounding the historic Greater Buenos Aires problem of the interflow between the police and organised crime (in a triangle with political bosses). The Buenos Aires provincial police has thus been part of the problem as much as a solution in the half-century since the sinister Ramón Camps.

Nor does this transfer solve the fiscal problems of a province supplying 37 percent of national revenues while drawing only 23 percent and nor can this be blamed on the Mauricio Macri administration – it was the 2003-2015 Kirchner presidencies which stunted the provincial share to 18 percent by refusing to update the Greater Buenos Aires Reparation Fund to inflation, while previous governor María Eugenia Vidal recovered five points.

The pundits will now focus on the interplay between president, vice-president, governor and mayor but the sequence of squatter invasions, gated community residents taking the law into their own hands (to bar Kirchnerite tycoon Lázaro Báez entry) and mutinous police – while the literally Frente de Todos coalition straddles both extremes over security issues – poses a deeper crisis of authority. 

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