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Argentine pickets act as “border patrol and issue passports”

Thursday, January 31st 2008 - 20:00 UTC
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Road close: Pickets acting as a border police, "issuing passports" Road close: Pickets acting as a border police, "issuing passports"

Uruguayan officials reacted with dismay and indignation when it was confirmed that Argentine pickets are extending special “neighbor passes” to those wishing to cross a bridge linking the neighboring countries and which has been blocked in protest over the construction of a pulp mill in Uruguay.

The news was published by the Buenos Aires press that described the situation as "absurd", with pickets acting as a border police, "issuing passports" and abusing Argentine citizens' rights, infringing the law and the Argentine government tolerating the situation. Uruguay's Foreign Affairs minister Reinaldo Gargano said he was "horrified" by the pickets' attitude and described the "neighbor pass" as something "beyond all limits". There was no official reaction from the Argentine government when the Buenos Aires press broke the news early this week. Pickets from the Argentine city of Gualeguaychú just across from Fray Bentos, where the controversial Botnia pulp mill is already in production, extend the pass, which implies the requester is previously screened by a "secret commission" that makes the final decision. Gualeguaychú residents and environmentalists have consistently argued that the Botnia pulp mill is or will be contaminating for the river Uruguay, jointly shared by the neighboring countries and have since 2006 been protesting with pickets blocking the international bridge. The Argentine government has adopted a passive attitude towards the protests and has started its own demand against the Uruguayan government, before the International Court of Justice in The Hague alleging Uruguay has ignored a 1975 accord on the joint management of the river Uruguay and its resources. The pickets check point at "Green River" is ten kilometers from the bridge and reportedly almost nobody has been allowed through since 2006 but holders of the "neighbor pass" can get through to the bridge and Uruguay thus avoiding an additional 120 kilometers to the second open crossing. Jose Pouler one of the picketers leaders said that "things should not be exaggerated; since there are people working in farms and industries in the ten kilometers span to the bridge we had to come up with a system that avoids delays and discussions and makes things easy for working people". However Argentine press reports revealed that the system has been going on for some time and among holders of these "passes" are the gendarmes, Customs staff and from CARU the joint bilateral organization that manages the River Uruguay plus Argentines working in Uruguay. "We started to implement passes six months ago for people working in the area", added Pouler who estimates that 200 have been distributed so far. Pouler did not deny the pickets purpose was to protest the Botnia plant but also harm the Uruguayan economy by blocking trade and tourism trucks and buses. "The system was started with an inventory of vehicle plates and then we moved on to the passes", he said. Another leading activist Jorge Fritzler claimed the Argentine press reports was done to distract people from the "real news", which was that the "Botnia plant experienced a major failure with one of the digesters having cracked forcing to spill all the chemical treated wood chips into the river Uruguay". Botnia's PR department effectively admitted that a "minor breakdown" had been experienced, which could demand closing the plant for 48 hours, but denied any pouring of untreated elements into the river. The mayor of Fray Bentos Omar Lafluf said it was "shameful" that a group of pickets on their own and arbitrarily decide who can and who can't cross the river. "I've made a formal protest to CARU". Lafluf said he had long suspected "something was going on" because in spite of the blockade on average 400 vehicles were crossing the bridge monthly. "It's really deplorable that in two years since the blockading of the bridge with pickets Argentine authorities have done nothing at all to stop these affronts". This is not the first time claims of "irregularities" have been made public regarding pickets and checkpoints on the Argentine side. Argentine residents in Uruguay and tourists have repeatedly denounced that the bridge can be crossed paying a 100 US dollar toll; similarly, when important football events involving matches between Uruguayan and Argentine teams, the bridge has been opened. "A receipt is handed to you if you request it", admitted an Argentine tourist heading for Uruguay's Atlantic beach resorts. A few months ago it was also revealed that the two years resistance of the pickets has been significantly supported by official payments from the budgets of the city of Gualeguaychu and the province of Entre Rios. Apparently no direct money has been forthcoming from the Argentine federal government but there has been encouragement and President Cristina Fernandez de Kirchner has promised to receive a committee of picketers sometime in February. The passes extended by the Gualeguaychu Environmental Assembly are small plastic cards with the name of the holder, place of work and vehicle plate number. On the reverse is the stamp and crest of the assembly with the slogan: "No to the pulp mills". Whoever wishes to apply must fill a form at the Green River checkpoint and a few days later must return for the plastic card or a negative reply to the request. A secret "passes" commission of environmentalists processes the forms and extends the pass. Ricardo Roa, editor of Clarín that broke the news wrote a column saying that the environmentalists act "as if they are occupying a free and autonomous territory, deciding which Argentines can leave the country and cross over to Uruguay by the bridge and who can't". The Environmental Assembly has "in actual fact become a border police, working with its own rules including the issuing of passports, something that only happens in countries where the state clearly fails". Roa finally underlines that the situation is a clear violation of citizens rights, of the right to free circulation and "it's absurd that the infringement of law is tolerated at the same time Argentina is requesting support from the International Court of Justice in The Hague".

Categories: Politics, Argentina.

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