The priests still come every day to the small white-stucco chapel that sits at the edge of a weedy field here in Bajo Flores, surrounded by tiny huts of tin and brick and growing piles of rubble. But there is little left to do, they say, in this old shantytown of the Argentine capital.
A few years ago, the now empty lots around the chapel were chocked with thousands of patched-together shacks, shallow drainage ditches, irregular soccer fields, and about 20,000 of the jobless and homeless of the city. This was one of the illegal villas miserias that that have sprung up, usually with descriptive local names, on public or undeveloped private land of Latin American cities.
Here, they once spread through the city's northern districts in great patches and for decades sharply offset the middle-class affluence and European mannerisms of the central city.
Now, only the heaps of broken brick and traces of paths through high weeds remain from vast expanses of the rickety homesteads. Around the chapel, about 300 families are left. The other 4,500 families that the priests say once lived in the district have been removed by one of the military government's massive "villa eradication" program.
A year after taking power in 1976, the military authorities in Argentina's one metropolis announced a campaign to rid the federal capital of its unsightly slums, which the government said illegally filled property and were a haven for criminals, derelicts and subversives.
Now, as the city's military governor prepares to give way to a civilian in March, the campaign is nearing what the government sees as a successful end. After years of failed programs to provide permanent homes for the shantytown poor, the military authorities in four years have eliminated the vast majority of the old slums.
Thousands of the villa dwellers allegedly have been driven off by sharp orders to leave and threats of arrest or eviction. Others have been granted government loans in exchange for leaving their shacks. And many have been loaded on buses with their possessions and hauled across the city lines, while demolition teams moved in to knock down their old homes.
When the government campaign started, officials estimated that 165,000 to 200,000 people lived in the villa slums. Now, according to priests who work in the area, only about 15,000 remain. And those who have hung on now have been told that they have only one more month to find new places to stay.
"They come and knock on the door all the time now, saying, 'You have to leave, you have to leave,' " said Francesca de Ayala, who has lived with her family in a room of rough brick near the chapel in Bajo Flores for nine years. "I tell them I won't leave; I have nowhere to go. And so they use all these threats, telling me they can give a loan now but they will do nothing for me if we don't go by March."
The government has been so pleased with its success in eliminating the city's shantytowns that it once bought ads in the local papers citing the huge numbers of poor that had been removed "to their own homes." The headline read, "Why Does Argentina Progress?"
Lately, however, the eradication program has threatened to become a embarrassment for the city's government. Despite the grandly announced success in finding permanent housing for the thousands of poor, it has become increasingly clear that a large part of the city's old villa dwellers have simply moved 10 or 20 miles north into the provincial suburbs around the capital, gathering in new villas behind factories and along railroad sidings that are even larger than those the authorities destroyed.
Officials in the surrounding Buenos Aires Province, who began complaining last year of the forced migration of poor to their area, conducted a census in December that showed more than 300,000 people living in about 15 separate shantytowns--the vast majority of which had grown up during the past five years.
Now, the military authorities of the province have begun openly attacking their colleagues in the sprawling metropolis of more than 9 million. (The central political subdivision contains well under half of Buenos Aires' population.)
"This is a consequence of the partial measures to eradicate the villas" of Buenos Aires, complained provincial governor Oscar Batolome Galino before his recent retirement. "And I lamentably have to say with a bit of crude irony that I don't have anyone I can pass these villas on to."
As the government authorities quarrel over the movement of the villas, the apparent harshness of the government's forced urban renewal has begun to gain attention, largely because of the efforts of a small movement of priests who lived and worked in the city's shantytowns during the evacuation.
"They are trying to save appearances now, because the situation has gotten attention," said Jorge Vernazza, an intense priest who came to Bajo Flores 12 years ago to work among the thousands of poor. He is trying to help the handful remaining here to find a place to move. "They are giving loans now to those that go, although they never have given subsidies or provided homes.
"But you have to realize that this is new," Vernazza said. "In the first years, when the press wouldn't print anything and there was this atmosphere of terror, they took thousands of people out from under the roofs and left them with nothing."
In Bajo Flores, priests and residents said, the campaign began in 1978. "They came out here with a large staff from the municipality and set up a headquarters, almost a barracks, nearby," said Vernazza.
"They first went around and conducted a census and gave everyone there a card--because they said they were going to cut it off and no one without a card could move in. Then they began what was really a campaign of psychologial pressure. They would go to the people's houses and say, 'You have eight days to leave.' And if they didn't go, they would be threatened and harassed.
"There was no resistance because this was a time of terror in the country--everyone was frightened. And so most of the people were forced out by pressure without any of the benefits. By the end of a year, they had made half of the families leave."
Three years after the government campaign began, the seven priests in the villa movement issued a detailed description of the dismantlement: a long list of cases, wih names, dates and testimony, of slum residents who allegedly had been pressured to evacuate their homes through threats and even violence.
The charges were publicized in the press even as lawyers representing the dwellers obtained court judgments ordering the municipal authorities to provide evacuated residents with benefits. It is only since then, the priests say, that the worst pressure has ceased.
Government authorities strongly deny charges of mishandling and maintain that the eradication of the villas has been largely accomplished together with the originally announced goal of creating "conditions so that family groups can move up to a decent dwelling."
Many of the families have moved from the villas after receiving government loans worth about $5,000--enough, government officials have pointed out, to buy a legal tract of land somewhere else in the metropolitan area. While many now own their own homesteads, others are said to have returned to the provinces and neighboring countries from which they came in search of work.
The priests who work in the old villas argue, however, that the great majority are now worse off. "Most got nothing," said Rodolfo Ricciardelli. "And those that got a piece of land got it bare, with payments to make every month that keep going up because of indexing to Argentina's record inflation . And so, after a while they can't pay and they lose their lands and their homes again."
The priests also point out that although the shantytowns of the city were miserable, they were well-established and over the years many had developed their own community services, governments, and even sports programs. "Out in the province there are none of the resources of the city," Vernazza said, "and they still work here in the city. And so, to keep their jobs, they have to travel now 30 or 40 miles a day."
Partly for these reasons, many of the families who have remained among the rubble of the city's old shantytowns have staunchly resisted efforts to have them move. "We can't move until they give us a chance somewhere else," said a woman whose husband supports their family and relatives with irregular work in the city's depressed construction industry. "I don't want to leave and lose everything. The man said this morning that he would arrest us, and I said, 'Fine, I will rather be arrested than desert this place.' "
The priests, however, are resigned to seeing the end of the old shantytown around their chapel. "They will all have to go before long," said Ricciardelli. "Then they will have to face the same problem again, only in a different place."