POSADAS, Argentina — One morning in late 2014, construction cranes appeared on the western bank of the Paraná River, a natural border between Argentina and Paraguay. The city must be preparing to build a park, or a highway detour, university student Fabiana del Puerto guessed in a WhatsApp group for Paraguayan students who crossed into Argentina every day to attend classes.
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Instead, a 12-foot-high concrete wall went up a few short months later, with little explanation from local authorities.
People on both sides were as offended as they were stunned: The fates of the residents of Posadas, in Argentina, and Encarnación, in Paraguay, are inextricably intertwined. No reason is ever too small to cross the 1.6-mile-long bridge that has linked the two in either direction for nearly three decades, whether it is to visit grandparents, get a medical checkup, buy cheaper school supplies, fill up the car with gas, or catch a movie at the cinema.
On that oppressively humid stretch of the border, located south of the Amazon rainforest, the two countries operate like one big neighborhood.
For years, del Puerto has had two important reasons to bus or walk over the tawny Paraná River almost daily: Her boyfriend is Argentine, and her major, genetics, is not offered at any university in Paraguay. While Encarnación remains her home, her social and academic lives have blossomed in Posadas, a city of 320,000 people. Until recently, her sense of belonging stretched indiscriminately across the two countries.
Since the wall went up, “no one feels welcome,” says del Puerto, whose measured pauses before speaking give her the air of someone twice her 25 years. After all, she added, “a prison has walls.”
With his promise to build a wall along the border with Mexico, US President Donald Trump has put a new spotlight on the concept of manufactured barriers dividing neighbors, an idea that many had hoped would disappear with the demolition of the Berlin Wall in 1989. But the matter has been on the minds of the people on the eastern fringes of Argentina for years now.
A wall like this one is especially traumatic in Latin America, since Argentina has for decades been hailed as having one of the most liberal and humane immigration policies in the world.
Ten years before the concrete slabs went up in Posadas, Argentina began implementing a law that established migration as a human right and extended all constitutional rights to every immigrant in the country, regardless of legal status. Between then and 2010, more than 420,000 people living illegally in Argentina were given permanent residency.
“To govern is to populate,” extolled Juan Bautista Alberdi, the Argentine political theorist who influenced the text of the country’s constitution in the 19th century.
But politics and history both have a deep sense of irony. The country’s lauded immigration law was first approved during former president Nestor Kirchner’s tenure; the wall in Posadas went up when his wife, Cristina Kirchner, was in office. And since President Mauricio Macri pledged to bring in 3,000 Syrian refugees last year, a growing number of officials from his own office and across the Argentine government have begun hardening both their rhetoric and policy toward immigrants.
Minister of Security Patricia Bullrich recently singled out Peruvians, Paraguayans, and Bolivians for the country’s security problems. “The concentration of foreigners who commit drug-related crimes is the concern our country has at the moment,” she said. Senator Alfredo Olmedo is advocating for a “technological” wall with Bolivia, while the chief of Argentine intelligence, Gustavo Arribas, recently suggested creating a special immigration police unit, according to local reports.
Last year, authorities approved the creation of a detention center for immigrants in Buenos Aires just as they announced a 37% increase in raids, which led to the discovery of 1,600 undocumented immigrants.
In January, Macri issued a decree making it easier to deport immigrants with criminal records and harder for them to enter the country. The decree stated that 21% of people in the federal penitentiary system are foreigners. But the statistic is misleading: the number falls to under 6% when the rest of the jails in the country are taken into account.
With ongoing debates about the rights of migrants taking place in Europe and the US, where right-wing populist leaders have ridden anti-immigrant sentiments to power, what happens next in Argentina could challenge the widespread integration of Latin America, a region that has made open borders a priority and which seemed, until recently, likely to dodge the current global trend toward insularity.
Birthday balloons, Spider-Man table centerpieces, plastic cups, and a handful of toys: Daiana Azor’s shopping list on one recent morning in February was fairly short, so she figured she’d be back in Posadas before lunchtime.
Azor’s son, Thian, shuffled excitedly on his feet as he waited for the train that would take them across the river to Encarnación in just under seven minutes. Thian was turning 4 the following week, so, naturally, the family headed to Paraguay to buy all the party supplies — for a third of the price they would at home.
For Azor, like many of the approximately 40,000 people who cross daily, the border had never been more than a dazzling span of water to traverse to get errands done. She only ever needed to pay $ 1 to hop on a public bus from Posadas’s downtown and hop off near the sprawling electronics market on the edge of Encarnación.
Then the wall went up.
“It’s a senseless, unnecessary expense,” said Azor, who now pays $ 12 for a cab instead. If the city felt the need to allocate excess public funds, she added with a slight smirk, it should have spent them on the dozens of homeless families that fill up its main square at night. But if the wall’s purpose was to stop contraband, as the company that built the wall contends, then it was laughably out of touch with reality, Azor said.
The mile-long concrete wall runs parallel to a three-lane highway, wrapping around the Argentine customs center, past an empty grassless field overlooking the river, and across to the train station. It has a smooth, clean surface except for a few bits that are covered with leftover scraps of torn-down posters or graffiti (one tag says “Ironic” in red).
The slabs of concrete don’t stop anyone from entering or leaving Posadas; they simply make it a hassle to get to and from its downtown area, located just a few blocks from the bridge. Cars do a 2.5-mile loop around the wall while women lugging big black plastic bags full of Paraguayan goods — legal and otherwise — walk along the narrow shade it casts.
“We are having a discussion [about border politics] from the capital cities, not from the daily reality,” said Posadas mayor Joaquín Losada, adding that the main reason the wall was built was to seal off the Argentine customs center from the rest of the city. Transnational contraband is impossible to stop here, he said: 90% of the territory in Misiones, the province where Posadas is located, straddles an international border.
It’s not just the economies that are intertwined. People in this borderland are far more racially and culturally connected to Paraguay’s third-largest city than they will ever be to Buenos Aires. People in Posadas roll their R’s less harshly here, as Paraguayans do, and the dominant traits on locals’ faces are more Guaraní, the indigenous group in the region, than European.
About 4.5% of the population in Argentina is made up of foreigners, largely from Paraguay, Peru, Bolivia, and Chile. There’s always been a widely recognized sense of superiority among the lighter-skinned Argentines of European descent — both in the country and throughout the region — but a respectful, friendly co-existence has generally been the norm, especially during economically prosperous times.
That is no longer the case. Since Macri took office in 2015, unemployment has grown to 8.5%, up from 5.9%, and inflation jumped by nearly 40% during 2016. His administration has been plagued by a number of scandals, including recently condoning most of a $ 4 billion debt owed by the country’s postal service, which his family owns, and cutting the National Women’s Council budget in the midst of a femicide crisis in which a woman is being killed every 30 hours.
Safety concerns have also risen: 32.2% of those polled by the Pontifical Catholic University of Argentina in 2015 said security was the most pressing concern in the country, up from 28.4% in 2011.
Experts say that the rise in anti-immigrant rhetoric among the political class is a classic example of scapegoating the “other” for trouble at home. “This attitude is a consequence of Argentina’s cooling economy … and an urban insecurity issue,” said Jorge Álvarez, president of the Open Institute for the Development and Study of Public Policy, a human rights organization.
Politicians from across the political spectrum have blamed immigrants for bringing crime into the country. “We are living in an age where leaders carry out policy and opine with a polling thermometer in hand,” said Álvarez.
“I want to put nationalism, in the best sense of the word, as the base of our society,” Olmedo, a lawmaker who is advocating for the construction of a “technological” wall with Bolivia, told BuzzFeed News. Olmedo said that immigrants should be let into the country only if their respective governments agree to pay for their services, like health care and education, in Argentina.
“We Argentines need to wear the Argentine shirt, and sweat it, too,” Olmedo said.
Senate Majority Leader Miguel Pichetto referred to Peruvian and Bolivian immigrants as human “backwash” and recently complained about a Buenos Aires hospital being filled with Paraguayans. “One of the problems in Argentina is the egalitarian culture,” he said in November.
In January, Macri issued a decree that speeds up deportations of immigrants who commit crimes (from taking as many as seven years to being complete in under a couple of months) and adds a new layer of difficulty for those who want to enter the country. Many people immediately drew comparisons to Trump’s controversial immigration policies.
“Fellow Latin American presidents, let’s be a #BigHomeland, and NOT follow immigration policies of the north. Together for our sovereignty and dignity,” tweeted Bolivian president Evo Morales. The Paraguayan foreign secretary, Eladio Loizaga, said he was “paying attention” and “alert” to Argentina’s new regulations.
The problem with policies and statements that seek to displace blame onto the “other,” said Álvarez, is that no one knows just how deep the societal shifts will go. “It’s irresponsible … there is always a consequence.”
Back in Posadas, Mayor Losada chuckled at Macri’s recent decree, saying that if the president wants to make Argentina safe he should do it by working even more closely with neighbors, not shutting them out.
“There’s no way I can do well if Paraguay doesn’t grow,” said Losada in his fifth-floor office overlooking the river, its calm waters reflecting the evening’s city lights. Losada, his thick eyebrows furrowed as he drank maté, explained that what Argentina needs is not a wall, or hardened immigration controls, but efforts to equalize taxes and health care in the region so that people don’t cross borders in search of cheaper goods or higher-quality medical care.
As much as $ 1.5 million is lost from Posadas to the informal economy in Encarnación every day, said Losada. He quoted Argentine economist Juan Carlos de Pablo’s half-joking solution to Posadas’s financial woes: destroy the bridge that connects it to Encarnación.
It is an absurd suggestion, of course. But even the joke should be concerning to Encarnación: 60% of its economy depends on commerce, much of it informal. The thousands of Argentines who cross into the city every day, ready to add to the Paraguayan economy, descend the train station’s stairs straight into the heart of a street market, its stalls brimming with knockoff Boca Juniors soccer jerseys, Legos, and $ 1 Ray-Bans.
One thing is clear: Everybody here agrees, the wall does not work.
Azor, who has a newborn at home, needed a new blender on the cheap earlier this year, so she called her personal pasera, as the people who smuggle goods across borders are called, and handed her $ 38. A similar blender in Posadas would have cost her $ 95.
Her pasera, said Azor, regularly pays off specific customs agents to turn their heads when she smuggles electronics into Argentina.
Despite the message the wall is intended to send, security at the Posadas customs center is lax. The X-ray machine on the way out of Argentina doesn’t work, and the guard on the way back in inspects random bags only for a split second. Even going through is optional: Many smugglers simply use speedboats farther down the river, especially at night, locals with relatives who deal in contraband goods for a living told BuzzFeed News.
Smuggling is as much a part of the culture here as the suffocating heat that makes life move in slow motion. Thousands of the poorest families in both cities depend on it to survive.
Depending on the Argentine and Paraguayan economies, goods and services flow one way or the other, but their journey across the Paraná River is inevitable. Today, people from Encarnación take a bus across the bridge to see specialized doctors, get higher-grade gas, or attend more-competitive schools; locals from Posadas head to the opposite riverbank to buy clothes and electronics, or spend an afternoon at one of its man-made beaches.
Those who go by train pay $ 2.20 each way. Crossing by car is free, though authorities have been debating putting up a tollbooth for some time now.
Even its creators, the Entidad Binacional Yacyretá, or EBY, an enterprise co-owned by the Argentine and Paraguayan governments, aren’t fans of the $ 3 million wall. EBY operates the Yacyretá Dam, which, like the wall, was built without prior consultation of the local population, and has displaced thousands of people over the years. Its construction was plagued by so many irregularities that former president Carlos Menem referred to it as a “monument to corruption.”
Humberto Schiavoni, who was named director of EBY after the wall was built, described it as a “horrible, unexplainable eyesore,” saying that the company would tear it down if it didn’t cost nearly as much as it did to build it. Instead, the company is planning to open up a section of it to alleviate traffic and enlist the help of local artists to turn it into a large mural to celebrate the friendship between the two cities that it divides.
The former director of EBY who approved the wall, Oscar Thomas, did not respond to a request for comment from BuzzFeed News.
No matter how much the city beautifies the structure, the way it slices the community apart remains. “It cuts off the integration of many generations of people,” said resident Daniel Prino, who started a Change.org petition to have the wall torn down that more than 8,200 people signed. What’s worse, he said, “it’s a provocation to Paraguayans.” Prino, 67, said that the wall was doubly embarrassing given the history Argentina has with its neighbor: Along with Brazil and Uruguay, it nearly wiped Paraguay off the map in the 1860s during the War of the Triple Alliance.
Prino praised Macri’s decree, saying that immigration controls are necessary and that Argentina has a right to stop criminals from entering the country. But far from accomplishing that, the wall acts as nothing more than a form of cultural violence between cousins, he said.
That emotional nuance gets lost between Posadas and Buenos Aires, 620 miles away. “I’m a simple public servant. Those psychological questions are of a greater academic level,” Horacio Garcia, the head of the National Directorate of Migration, told BuzzFeed News in an interview.
And yet not everyone who co-exists with the wall agrees that it poses an ethical conundrum. For Losada, it is nothing more than an aesthetic one. He said that traffic from the international bridge needed to be rerouted away from the city center, but agreed that it could have been done less jarringly, like with a fence.
For now, undulating mounds of grassy earth and bike paths decorate the city side of the wall. They are quaint and well-kept, but nothing like the post-Impressionist view of the river which is now hidden. People in the area said that the value of their property has gone down since the wall went up.
Many here say that even if it were to come down, the wall has already done irreparable damage by confirming a bias that many had tried to ignore for generations: that Argentines look down on their neighbors from across the river.
“It has a psychological effect on people. It’s a bad feeling, a feeling of rejection,” Enrique Velázquez, the president of Encarnación’s Chamber of Commerce, told BuzzFeed News.
Though it may not have been built to send a widespread message against immigration, the wall is now a piece of a larger and growing trend in Argentina. That feeling of rejection is becoming more commonplace, even for those who once felt at home in the country.
On the day Macri announced the new immigration decree, said del Puerto, the Paraguayan university student, her friends started to tease her. “Don’t kill your boyfriend, now,” they said. Later that day, one of her professors asked her if she had heard about it. “These foreigners, we have to deport them all,” he joked.
Del Puerto tried to play it down.
“I love you, too,” she responded.