The Repercussions of the Luis Viale Fire and the Ghosts of Cromagnon

Wachs - Argentina - Nunca Mas
"Nunca mas" Never Again--the title of Argentina's human rights' report on the victims of the Dirty War. Part of the memorial dedicated to the victims of the Cromagnon Fire.

It has become clear to me that the Luis Viale fire was, at its moment, very important in bringing the existence of slave labor and undocumented immigration into the spotlight, albeit for a limited time.

One of the issues that was publicly revealed through the fire was the existing extensive network that smuggled immigrants, mostly Bolivian though not exclusively, to Buenos Aires to live and work in these clandestine textile shops. From what I can see, at the time of the fire, oddly enough, Argentine newspapers were giving lots of coverage to George Bush’s 2006 proposed Guest Worker Plan, and the criminalization of the undocumented in the United States, without a mention of the country’s own increasingly problematic status with respect to its undocumented residents. However, within a month of the fire, national legislation was launched called Plan Patria Grande, intended to facilitate the legalization of hundreds of thousands of immigrants from the surrounding countries that include but are not limited to Bolivia, Uruguay and Chile. I was told by an attorney that works for the Ombudsman to the City of Buenos Aires that one of the problems with the execution/implementation of this legislation among the Bolivian sweatshop workers (among them the 50 some survivors of the fire) was that it required participants to provide government documentation from their home country. This was a nearly impossible condition for many of these workers to fulfill given that they had had this documentation taken away from them when they were trafficked into the country. There were also multiple allegations from the Bolivian community that the Bolivian Consulate had committed to facilitate and assist the victims in obtaining this paperwork but was in fact overcharged and drew out the process. President Morales replaced the head consul shortly thereafter.

Wachs - Argentina - Sign Corruption
One of the many signs on the memorial denouncing government corruption

Another issue that keeps coming up in my research has to do with the Cromañón fire—a massive fire at a discotheque in Buenos Aires in December 2004, only 16 months before the Luis Viale fire, that killed 194 young people who were there for a concert of the popular musical group Callejeros.

Though Cromañón was of a much greater magnitude, number wise, and affected a very different population -there seem to be several similarities around the conditions that lead to the fires–including non-existent government enforcement of labor and safety laws, and city and police corruption and collaboration.

Wachs - Argentina - Mural
Mural demanding justice dedicated to the victims of the 2005 Cromagnon Fire

These images are from the large memorial created and left by the families and friends of the dead–a structure that til this day blocks off access to an entire street. The multitude of signs alleging corruption and impunity, alongside the more emotional messages, are striking.

One of the major political costs of the fire was that the mayor at the time, Aníbal Ibarra, was forced to step down by the city legislature. In fact, the new government, run by Jorge Telerman, had been sworn into office only a week before the Luis Viale fire. Therefore, it is clear that the political cost of this type of scandal was very fresh for all—and most probably strongly influenced the immediate denials of responsibility by both the National and Municipal governments—who very quickly placed the blame on one other.

Wachs - Argentina - La Nelly 1
La Nelly. April 9,2006. Government corruption

The following comic strips, both from the Argentine daily, Clarín, make the connection between the two fires as well as the part that government corruption plays in the continuation of the slave labor industry.

Wachs - Argentina - La Nelly 2
La Nelly, April 12,2006. Clarín

According to an April 10th 2006 article in Clarín, the Kirchner (Nestor) government was hoping to be selected to participate in the newly reformed UN committee on Human Rights. Thus the Luis Viale fire, only weeks before, probably further complicated the National Government’s newly expressed desire to become more active players in the international forum of human rights.

More soon.

Posted by Katti Wachs — MA candidate at CLACS at NYU

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