Argentine president deploys 6,000 police after unrest

2010/12/20

BUENOS AIRES—Argentine President Cristina Fernandez ordered the deployment Monday of 6,000 military police to the capital’s sprawling outskirts after violence linked to squatter invasions alarmed officials.

Three people were killed this month during clashes between neighbourhood residents and thousands of squatters who set up tents in a city park to demand housing in the capital’s Villa Soldati district

The violence presented Fernandez with her biggest challenge since the Oct. 27 death of her powerful husband, former president Nestor Kirchner, and critics accused her centre-left administration of mishandling the incident.

Fernandez, who announced the creation of a Security Ministry a week after the unrest, sought to further underline her commitment to fighting crime and maintaining law and order Monday by announcing the deployment of the extra police.

“The right to live peacefully, without crime, is the right of every citizen,” said Fernandez, who supports a controversial decision by the new security minister to ban police from using firearms and rubber bullets at demonstrations.

“You can’t advance in the same way when you’re dealing with organized criminals and social demonstrations, even when these demonstrators behave in a way that shouldn’t be imitated,” Fernandez said in a televised speech.

Fernandez, a vocal human rights defender, advocates moderate use of police force, but some rightist rivals say a tougher approach is needed to fight crime—including the land occupations.

Crime is voters’ biggest concern in Argentina 10 months before an October presidential election in which Fernandez is widely expected to seek re-election.

In a recent poll by the Equis consulting firm in Buenos Aires and its sprawling and sometimes unruly suburbs, 70.8 per cent of respondents said crime was the country’s biggest problem, far above unemployment, education and surging inflation.

Crime is of particular concern to residents in urban parts of Buenos Aires province, a crucial electoral region that is home to about a quarter of Argentine voters and is also a bedrock of support for Fernandez.

The scenes of masked youths hurling stones at homeless families in Villa Soldati are uncomfortable for Fernandez, who frequently highlights her government’s efforts to help redistribute the riches generated by years of strong growth.

Some of the tent-dwellers said they could no longer afford monthly rents of $100 in the nearby slums amid annual inflation estimated privately at between 25 per cent and 30 per cent.

Chaotic street protests have previously heralded periods of political instability in the South American country, meaning officials are sensitive to scenes of unrest.

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