Academic journal article Human Organization

Survival, Drugs and Social Suffering during the Argentine Neoliberal Collapse

Academic journal article Human Organization

Survival, Drugs and Social Suffering during the Argentine Neoliberal Collapse

Article excerpt

This article analyzes changes in young drug users' income-producing strategies as a way of understanding how neoliberal structural transformations have combined to change drug use micropractices and morbidity-mortality patterns in Greater Buenos Aires shantytowns. Mirroring transformations experienced in the labor system in the late nineties, younger drug users now question street drug dealing because of changes in the activity. The lack of stable payment agreements in both the legal and illegal contexts created a generalized feeling of being cheated and abused, modifying exchanges in local economies and forging a new social identity built around stealing. This trend cannot entirely be explained by the growing poverty, indigence, and social exclusion that structural economic policies have engendered. It is also linked to changing relationships between law and legitimacy, legality and illegality that supported these structural reforms, which have have modified the everyday experience of law, informal rules, and legitimacy within impoverished populations. In particular, the progressive blurring of the boundaries between legality and illegality in the workplace and police repression has engendered an economy of violence that changed the local status of drug dealing and affected the basis of exchanges among drug users. The article ends with a discussion of how these changes in drug users' everyday lives have modified modes of drug use, the logic of HIV risk, and mortality patterns. A consideration of local views about local violence shows that the criminalization of poverty and police abuse subject young drug users to lethal paradoxes that expose them to early, violent death.

Key words: poverty, drug use, neoliberalism, social suffering, survival strategies

Introduction

When approximately sixty billion dollars disapeared from the Argentine banking system in iecember 2001, several eyewitnesses appeared on television telling of hundreds of armored trucks, supposedly laden with dollars, making their way to Buenos Aires's international airport.1 Echoing images of Spaniards pillaging gold from Colonial Peru, these strange testimonies would make the sophisticated financial transactions concealing the massive 2001 capital flight look like plain, simple, and visible plunder.2 These testimonies and the settings from which they emerged attested to a transition of the national narrative, from the failure of neoliberalism to a new post-collapse narrative reorganized around theft. This narrative made its way into many deprived, already disillusioned social scenarios, and into the lives of drug users in "El Fuerte," an impoverished neighborhood in southern area of the Greater Buenos Aires. This shantytown, where I carried out a two-year ethnographic study on the logic of HIV risk among active drug users, was deeply affected not only by the social vulnerability and economic deprivation which had already existed before Argentina's financial collapse but also by HIV/AIDS, low life expectancy, and generalized health vulnerability.

In this article, I argue that images of theft in different social areas have modified drug users' strategies for survival, during the crisis itself as well as during the years of neoliberal reform. Socially vulnerable populations were affected by the structural changes of the early nineties, stricken with unemployment, precarious work conditions, poverty, and despair (Barbeito and Lo Vuolo 1992; Beccaria and López 1996; Campione 1996). In impoverished neighborhoods, many drug users and non-drug users survive from drug dealing and the economy it supports. Mirroring transformations experienced in the labor system in the late nineties, younger drug users now question street drug dealing because of changes in the activity. According to their reports, being integrated into a drug dealing structure today means being subjected to the unstable mood and erratic will of dealers for payment. An everyday practice shared by legal and illegal worlds, dealing lacks agreements on payments, which has become the corrosive rule of local economies. …

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