Argentina’s strained relationship with its slums
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Argentina’s strained relationship with its slums

‘Out of sight, out of mind’ could succinctly describe the Argentine government’s historical attitude towards its slum populations.

The infamous ‘Villa 31’ settlement is the most notorious of Buenos Aires’ shanty communities; a noisy and chaotic island of heaped disorder sits detached from the capital, ringed with fences, wire mesh and walls. A freeway flyover thunders overhead.

Now, plans are being made to plant trees along its fringes to ensure the slum remains hidden from the view of motorists.

Between 2009 and 2013, the population of Villa 31 more than doubled, according to infobae. Now home to some 40,000 residents (many of whom are sin papeles – ‘undocumented’), the neighborhood occupies prime real estate near to the affluent barrios of Retiro and Recoleta. Its location could hardly be more inconvenient to those who are determined to ignore its existence.

It has long been rumored that the area shall be razed to make room for ‘more desirable’ high-rises, generating valuable income – yet it is not easy to move on such a large throng of people.

Eviction attempts

Indeed, during the dictatorship years in Argentina (1976-1983) there was an unsuccessful attempt to evict those living in Villa 31. Its ejected residents formed other, similar, communities; but soon began to move back to the area once the operation had been called off.

When Argentina hosted the 1978 FIFA World Cup, the slums that flanked the highway connecting the airport to the city centre were bulldozed so as to suppress any illusions that poverty might exist in Buenos Aires.

In spite of recent plans to hide the settlement, the agenda for Villa 31 seems to be one of integration. As with many informal settlements, to all intents and purposes Villa 31 operates independent of the nation state in which it finds itself. The first hurdle to overcome is ‘officializing’ the community as crime spirals out of control – according to Spanish daily El País, five people – including a 14-year-old – have been killed there in the last month alone.

Rival gangs of Paraguayan and Peruvian sin papeles compete to rule the drugs trade and life is cheap. Residents do not pay taxes or utility bills and an underground property market has developed to manage the distribution of new and remodelled housing.

“Urbanization” on the cards

In his first mayoral election campaign in 2007, Mauricio Macri – now President of Argentina – had promised to get rid of the slum once and for all. Now, his successor as mayor of Buenos Aires, Horacio Rodríguez Larreta, has said that he intends to “urbanize” Villa 31 and guarantee greater access for the police, as currently only 40 officers are assigned to the area cronista reports.

In 2009, the Buenos Aires legislature approved plans to integrate the city, although these official works are still yet to begin. However, the work of other urbanization projects has started to come to fruition.

About 85 percent of the roads in the neighborhood are paved, although the quality of housing is still very poor and drainage non-existent. Traffic lights have also been installed. In 2015, a new football and rugby pitch was unveiled in the area.

While Villa 31 may never boast the elegant boulevards and beautiful architecture of nearby Recoleta, it seems that city legislators have been forced to accept that the neighborhood is here to stay. They may still try and hide it from view, but improvement works and pacification programmes mean that life can improve for the thousands of people whose inconvenient existence continues behind high dividing walls of Villa 31.

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