BUENOS AIRES — Nobody in Argentina seems able to come to terms with the way a group of 40-something men who had traveled to the United States to celebrate their friendship since school days 30 years ago died at the hands of a terrorist during a bicycle ride on the banks of the Hudson River.
“Inconceivable” was one of the most-used words by relatives and former classmates of the alumni of the Instituto Politécnico Superior San Martín of Rosario, whom Argentine media have been interviewing and featuring constantly since Halloween. Eight of them went to New York; five died in last week’s attack. But that incredulity wasn’t limited to the inhabitants of Rosario, Argentina’s third-largest city. The attack was a shock for the entire country. Argentines usually figure that the chances of dying at the hands of hooligans during a soccer match are greater than becoming a victim of terrorist slaughter.
Living more than 4,300 miles away from the southern border of the United States and twice as far from Europe sometimes has its benefits. Every time the great military powers rejoin battle in Arab countries or the Middle East, or some neighborhood of Paris or London is shaken by a terrorist attack, many Argentines heave a cliched sigh of relief that global violence is hardly likely to reach a territory much closer to the Antarctic than it is to New York.
The shock has been profound. In Buenos Aires, Rosario or Córdoba, daily life usually unfolds with a feeling of immunity from the peril we see so many countries facing. Nobody on the subway or bus ever thinks that their lives could be endangered by a suicide bomber. Public and private buildings alike have lax controls for detecting weapons or explosives — in most cases, none at all.
Such confidence is paradoxical: In 1994, Buenos Aires suffered one of the worst terrorist attacks of the decade anywhere in the world, when a bomb blew up the AMIA Jewish community center in the iconic Once neighborhood, killing 85 people. Two years before that, an attack had demolished the Israeli Embassy in Recoleta, another downtown neighborhood, with 22 dead.
Both episodes presaged the sort of mass attacks with indiscriminate victims masterminded by Islamic fundamentalists that years later would strike European and U.S. cities on a far greater scale.
The 1992 and 1994 attacks partly modified Buenos Aires life. Dozens of Jewish community buildings (schools, universities, synagogues and community centers) erected defensive blocks on the sidewalks and posted permanent police guards, all with the idea of keeping car bombs away.
But Argentines find themselves far from the “war against terrorism” trumpeted by U.S. presidents since the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks. In some corner of the collective unconscious, there prevails among Argentines the idea that terrorism is something that affects other latitudes. Our fears of violence lie elsewhere — there are entire neighborhoods of the Buenos Aires suburbs where it is not safe to walk at night because of common crime, police brutality from corrupt forces, traffic accidents or simply as a soccer match spectator. People drive recklessly here and, from time to time, massive tragedies take place because of complicity between private malpractice and corrupted state regulators.
If it is possible to see soldiers with sophisticated weapons, equipment and helmets in the vicinity of Notre Dame in Paris, London Bridge or the Wailing Wall in Jerusalem, tourists encounter no such sights near the majestic Teatro Colón in the heart of the Argentine capital.
On the other hand, foreigners might be surprised to see an army of 2,000 police officers and imposing armored cars guarding the entry of soccer fans for the “superclásico” match between Boca Jrs. and River Plate. As calculated by the organization Salvemos al Fútbol (“Let’s Save Soccer”), since 1922, 322 people have fallen victim to the passion of Argentine multitudes — and counting. In any soccer match, preventing violence means rival fans must not cross paths, so the logistics must be organized to keep opposing fan groups from running into each other within about a mile radius of the stadium. Many say that the fan rivalry between the two most important clubs of Rosario, Newell’s Old Boys and Rosario Central, is the most fervent of them all. Such hatred tied to soccer would be inconceivable in, say, Mexico, where, despite a murder rate more than double Argentina’s, fans of different teams can coexist safely.
Beyond soccer, Rosario is considered the most violent of Argentina’s major cities. That’s nothing new. In the years when Chicago was synonymous with bootlegging mafias, Rosario was known as the “Argentine Chicago.” Decades later, it shot to fame for better reasons — such as having been the cradle of Ernesto “Che” Guevara and the soccer superstar Lionel Messi.
One of the most moving events of the week took place Wednesday evening, when students, teachers and parents at the secondary school honored the five alumni who had fallen victim to the attack. “El Poli,” as the state school operating under the umbrella of Rosario National University is called, is one of this city’s iconic institutions. It periodically organizes rock festivals and works as a meeting point for its graduates.
“Words fail me,” said Nélida Yolanda Fala, the mother-in-law of Ariel Erlij, a steel manufacturer who had been one of the main organizers of the New York trip, even helping to pay for the airfares for some of his friends. “I thought it cannot be happening. It was beyond belief,” said Jorge Nidd, another graduate, who didn’t take part in the trip.
“Our graduates always come back. For one reason or another, once they leave the school, they find some motive to visit us,” said Vice Principal Miguel Leggeri. With four decades of experience, Leggeri had taught some of the those who died and is teaching Lina Ferruchi, daughter of Hernán Ferruchi, one of the victims.
Two days later, Guillermo Bianchini, the only one of the 10 friends who lives in New York, spoke at the Argentine Consulate. “We’ll mourn our friends forever,” he said. The bodies of Hernán Mendoza, Diego Angelini, Alejandro Pagnucco, Erlij and Ferruchi arrived in Argentina on Monday as Rosario was ready to pay tribute to their memory.
This past week, all the paradoxes of Argentina have been on full display: This is a country that at times feels insular and at others has a voracious appetite to enter the world. That feels safe from terrorism — but where terrorist violence burst into the heart of their main city long before it struck other great capitals in Europe. A country where friends like to hang out until deep into the night, because nothing beats a backyard barbecue near the broad Paraná River in Rosario — and feel comfortable bicycling through Manhattan’s West Side.
Until horror strikes.