Paula Maroni and Carlos Pisoni's current place of work is in a building that previously housed the sinister Escuela Mecánica de la Armada (ESMA), the most feared torture and extermination center under the military dictatorship in Argentina. Maroni is 36 and Pisoni 35. They belong to an organization called Sons and Daughters for Identity and Justice Against Oblivion and Silence (known by its acronym in Spanish, HIJOS). Their parents disappeared during the dictatorship, when the pair were just babies. They founded the association in 1995, and the following year, when they were 17 and 18 respectively, they carried out the first escrache on an ESMA doctor. He would be the first on a long list.
Maroni and Pisoni never imagined that escraches would be taken up in Spain by citizens being thrown out of their homes for defaulting on mortgage payments. "Escrachar is a common word in lunfardo, the popular slang of Buenos Aires," says Pisoni. "Its origin isn't very clear, but it means to show someone up. At the beginning it was very spontaneous. We found out that Jorge Luis Magnacco, who was a doctor who attended births of imprisoned women at ESMA, was working as chief obstetrician in a Buenos Aires hospital, and that he lived nearby. At the time in Argentina, it was almost impossible to seek justice. Vassals of the regime lived with complete impunity, holding positions of responsibility in society. So we started by throwing red paint on their houses and handing out information to the neighbors, then we'd go. We realized that more important than identifying them was that society should condemn them."
"After about a year the activity became more complicated. We'd run information campaigns in the neighborhoods that could last three months," says Maroni. "We'd meet with the social organizations in the neighborhood - it was no longer just an action in itself. It had nothing to do with what could be considered a fascist act of saying somebody is guilty of something, marking them and leaving. Our idea was to build something political. We would disguise ourselves as postmen to check that the person we thought was living somewhere did. We would learn about the neighborhood step by step, week by week. The day of the escrache was just the culmination of a process that started much earlier."
Until you ring the doorbell of their homes, protests have no effect"
There were some 200 members of HIJOS in the capital and around 550 in the country. More than 50 people were subjects of escraches in Buenos Aires and some 100 in the whole of Argentina. Would many military personnel have been brought to justice without them? "We were an important grain of sand," says Pisoni. "I started to do escraches when I came across the man who had tortured my dad in a bar. I could have smashed a glass over his head but I felt that the release needed to be collective."
In 2001, the corralito hit Argentinean society, by which millions of people were prevented from accessing their bank accounts. "There were hundreds of escraches; politicians, bankers, telephone companies... people went to their houses and smashed windows." What do they think of the escraches in Spain? "When society looks for alternatives it is because the social contract has been broken. Escraches are the product of impunity and impunity has a lot to do with impotence," says Maroni. Is it not enough to protest outside their workplaces? "They wouldn't care. Until you ring the doorbell of their homes, demonstrations have no effect."
The latest round of escraches in Argentina has been focused on the political class. Pots and pans have been banged outside the homes of secretary of state for commerce, Guillermo Moreno, and Deputy Economy Minister Axel Kicillof, who was accosted when traveling on a passenger ferry from Montevideo to Buenos Aires with his wife and children.
It's an act of collective cowardice by people who need to purify themselves"
The writer and blogger Jorge Asís is very critical of Cristina Fernández de Kirchner's government. But when Moreno and Kicillof, who led the expropriation of Repsol and YPF, were victims of escraches he publicly denounced the organizers. "I believe it is a form of neofascist expression. It's an act of collective cowardice by people who need to purify themselves in protest against anyone they think represents the guilty party."
For her part, Maroni says that there is no single way to classify escraches. "This is politics, not mathematics. Every person has to take responsibility for their ideological opinion. If, as a journalist or an activist, I place the emphasis on the person who throws the stone that breaks the window of the house of a banker who has brought down a country, I have to take responsibility because that is my political position. It is up to the individual to decide where to focus the spotlight: on the window or on the banker," says Maroni.
Jorge Asís's position is conditioned by the fact that he has been the subject of several escraches, sometimes when he has been with his children, in restaurants, and in the street. He opposes all types of escrache and says that he would defend any political rival who was the focus of an escrache in his presence. "Those that carry out escraches try to make themselves understood by alluding to impotence and the necessity to vent that people who feel they are victims of some kind of injustice carry around. I know all the arguments by heart. But democracy was not created to legitimize this nonsense."
The government's response to escraches in Spain carries an undercurrent of what the movement was founded for in the first place. When Argentina's youth decided to take on the machinery of the former dictatorship on their own doorsteps, it was a poetic reversal of the terror wreaked by the minions of the feared National Reorganization Process.
The choice of words on the part of PP heavyweight Esteban González-Pons, who compared the escraches to the Nazis marking out the Jews, has proved surprisingly popular among the governing party.
María Dolores de Cospedal, the party secretary and regional premier of Castilla-La Mancha, described the protest tactic as "pure Nazism, reminiscent of a totalitarian, sectarian spirit," also noting that whatever rightful complaints demonstrators have "lose meaning when they lose violence to obtain it."
Thus far, there have been no instances of physical threat or damage to property in Spain's escraches. Perhaps the promise of former PP deputy Sigfrid Soria to "beat the shit out of any hippie who tries to harass or intimidate me" dampened any revolutionary zeal to take up arms and storm the ruling party's moral high ground.
On Tuesday, the central government delegate in Galicia, Samuel Juárez, backed his colleagues' comparison of escraches with the marking out of Jews by the Nazi state. "I believe they are completely correct because this is taking the protest into people's private space."