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In Argentina, squatters stake their claim to a park

Makeshift shelters have sprung up in Indoamericano Park in Buenos Aires, fueling clashes between residents and the squatters. More than 5,866 people are living in the park. (Natacha Pisarenko/ Associated Press)By Michael Warren Associated Press / December 25, 2010

BUENOS AIRES — The land grab started with a whisper that swept through Ciudad Oculta — Hidden City — one of Argentina’s oldest slums: People are marking off home plots in the city’s second-largest park. Anyone who wants to join in better move fast.

And so they have. While politicians trade blame and police hold back, leery of a violent eviction, a new slum is being born. A few hundred squatters have quickly grown to more than 5,866, nailing boards to eucalyptus trees and putting up makeshift shelters on long-neglected soccer fields in one of the few public green spaces left on the gritty southern edge of Buenos Aires. Most are immigrants, and more than 7,400 family members are poised to join them, a government survey found.

Nearby residents are furious. Desperate to prevent yet another slum from springing up next door, many grabbed weapons and ran into Indoamericano Park, torching tents and chanting racist slogans. The squatters fought back, and at least three have died in waves of violence since the first land seizure earlier this month, authorities said.

“It’s an ugly situation,’’ said Estela Gomez, 42, an Argentine who shares two “borrowed’’ rooms with 18 children and grandchildren in Ciudad Oculta.

Her family has marked off a shady spot under trees that are nearly as tall as the four-story slum buildings that crowd up against highway guardrails in the city, a legacy of past land grabs that officials failed to stop, and a grim reminder of the poverty that afflicts so many in Latin America.

“We’re demanding a roof with dignity,’’ Gomez said. “Until they organize the slums, this is going to keep happening — people are going to keep seizing other areas.’’

They did Dec. 13. Squatters invaded two more green areas, a private club’s soccer field and property alongside a closed slaughterhouse.

Other activists blocked two freeways, with one group demanding housing subsidies and another protesting the land grabs. As night fell, squatters and neighbors were lobbing rocks at one another over the soccer field’s fence, with police nowhere around.

The land grabs — initially encouraged by activists who operate on the fringes of the ruling party — pose a political test for President Cristina Fernandez, a self-described leftist militant who has governed mostly by decree and who gives rousing speeches about the need to redistribute Argentina’s wealth.

She blames the troubles on the refusal of Buenos Aires’ center-right mayor, Mauricio Macri, to negotiate with squatters. But she also is struggling to restrain her more militant supporters, whose expectations are being raised ahead of her expected run for reelection next year.

Argentina’s growing economy and open-door migration policies, which Fernandez celebrates as a humanitarian contrast to the US crackdown on illegal immigration, have drawn more than 325,000 Paraguayans, 233,000 Bolivians, and 50,000 Peruvians in recent years, the Geneva-based International Organization for Migration estimates.

More than 500,000 of the 10 million residents of metropolitan Buenos Aires lack decent housing, the capital’s legislature determined this month. It’s a phenomenon repeated in capitals across Latin America, where economies generally fail to provide for people in the provinces.

The latest land takeovers in Buenos Aires came just weeks after Brazilian police moved decisively into some of Rio de Janeiro’s crowded shantytowns, trying to root out drug traffickers as part of a pacification campaign.

© Copyright 2010 Globe Newspaper Company.