“Entrenched in the BMW”: Argentine Elites and the Terror of Fiscal Obligation
On the afternoon of March 10, 2006, I was in my Buenos Aires apartment when the phone rang. It was Juan Eder, director of operations of Territorial Management of Rentas, the tax administration of the Province of Buenos Aires. I’d met him in previous months while conducting participant observation on operatives (tax operations) in summer resort towns on the Argentine coast. “Mireille, if you want to see a secuestro de auto [car seizure], we’ve been in front of the Miraflores gated community since 6:30 this morning waiting for a tax debtor to arrive. It’s the car that got away from us yesterday. I’m not promising you anything special. In fact, it may be a total waste of your time, but since you mentioned you’d like to see a secuestro...”1
It was around 5:00 p.m. when I arrived at the gates of Barrio Miraflores, the afternoon sun still strong. The gated community was at the bottom of an off-ramp of the Pan-American Highway in an area called Pilar. Less than an hour’s drive from Buenos Aires, gated communities flourished in Pilar during the second half of the 1990s, with affluent city dwellers drawn in part by the low property taxes, characteristic of poor areas, and the allure of escape from the growing crime and indigence wrought by neoliberal structural adjustment policies (Thuillier 2005; Svampa 2008 ). Some forty-five minutes after I arrived, Rentas inspectors pulled over the black 2000 BMW they’d been searching for, driven by a man in his midsixties named Osvaldo Rosen, an architect who, I later discovered, owns several pharmaceutical companies.2
The tax operation in front of the barrio Miraflores, the third secuestro de auto, turned out to be the most contentious in years, a dramatic standoff between state and citizens that lasted seven hours and made front-page headlines for days. The situation quickly escalated into a public drama when Mr. Rosen and his wife, allegedly unable to pay two-thirds of the debt owed on their license tax — the amount stipulated by law to avoid temporary confiscation of the vehicle — and unwilling to surrender the vehicle, locked themselves in their car in protest. Furious and indignant, Mrs. Rosen declared that if Rentas employees wanted to take the car, they would have to sequester the couple as well — and this would be secuestro de personas (kidnapping of persons). With these words, she conjured the thirty thousand persons “disappeared” during the last dictatorship (1976 – 83), awakening ghosts that destabilized any simple picture of whether state or citizens were perpetrators of a crime.
What occurred that evening was not an isolated confrontation between the tax administration and citizens but a televised class conflict. The act of civil disobedience began at 7:00 p.m. and dominated the evening news until 1:00 a.m. It was the sensationalist TV news media that flashed the title “Atrincherados en el BMW” (“Entrenched in the BMW”) across television screens in Buenos Aires homes, but the language of war very much reflected dynamics at the scene. As the crowd grew to about two hundred people, it became increasingly polarized by class. Poor people from surrounding neighborhoods gathered on one side of the road, chanting “Viva Montoya!” — referring to Santiago Montoya, the subsecretary of public revenues of the Province of Buenos Aires — and “Aguante Montoya!” (Hang in there! or Resist Montoya!). They also chanted “Fonavi! Fonavi!” — the name of the nearest public housing development and, notably, the acronym of the national housing fund, Fondo Nacional de la Vivienda (FONAVI), which had been responsible for the town’s planning and development. Across the road, members of the gated community portrayed themselves as victims of state persecution, expressing outrage at being treated as criminals. Images of the state could not have been more starkly opposed: the poor felt protected, represented, and even vindicated by the state’s efforts to target wealthy tax debtors, while members of the gated community declared that this operation was “terrorismo fiscal” (fiscal terrorism), arguing that their constitutional rights were being violated and that the state’s actions were “salvaje” (wild) and “medieval.”
End of Excerpt | access full version
I thank the editors of Public Culture, as well as anonymous reviewers for the journal, for their excellent suggestions. I am grateful to Leticia Barrera, Partha Chatterjee, Mona El-Ghobashy, Alejandro Gaggero, Mark Healey, Paul Kockelman, Andrew Lakoff, Rosalind Morris, Elizabeth Povinelli, Janet Roitman, and Antina von Schnitzler for their comments on earlier versions of this essay. The Wenner-Gren Foundation for Anthropological Research generously funded the fieldwork toward this project.
Unless otherwise specified, the conversations cited in the text were recorded and transcribed by me. All translations are mine.
- While secuestro is a juridical term that refers to the confiscation or sequestration of property, it is also the word used to refer to kidnapping of persons by the state (“the disappeared”) during the last dictatorship.
- For purposes of confidentiality, I have changed the names of the tax debtors (trying nonetheless to indicate ethnic identity) but not of the experts and administrators, who are public figures.