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article imageArgentina's economic woes exacerbate the misery of slum life

By Alexandre PEYRILLE (AFP)     Sep 27, 2018 in World

Drug gangs and addicts are a common scourge in the Villa Zavaleta slum in Buenos Aires, where even before the recent economic crisis brought them to their knees, the 1,200 families faced a daily struggle just to eat.

Rubbish and excrement fill the streets where a dog chews on a cow's jaw bone and a drugged woman staggers about.

"Many people lost their work. Here, we live off not much: solidarity and part-time jobs," says Alejandra Diaz, who runs the slum's La Poderosa charity, an organization working throughout the city's shantytowns.

Some 90 percent of Villa Zavaleta's residents are struck by poverty while only 10 percent have a fully declared job, often for a waste disposal company.

At "Nelly's Diner" on Iriarte Avenue, the 60-year-old owner, Nelly Vargas, serves more than 300 free meals a day alongside 16 other charity workers.

"I've had more and more people over the last few months. Prices are increasing so quickly that they're struggling to buy basic foods such as milk, pasta or sugar," says Vargas, who, as well as food, offers her guests a warm smile and a comforting word.

Inflation predicted to reach 40 percent this year is largely to blame for that. The peso, which has lost around half its value against the dollar since January, goes a lot less far than it did at the start of the year.

Nelly Vargas feeds more than 300 people a day for free but sometimes she runs out of food and someon...
Nelly Vargas feeds more than 300 people a day for free but sometimes she runs out of food and someone has to go hungry
EITAN ABRAMOVICH, AFP

"Some days, I don't have enough for everyone to eat," adds Vargas, sobbing.

"She does a lot for the neighborhood," says Diaz. "She showers the kids who've been a bit neglected by their drugged parents, gives them clothes -- she has a big heart."

- 'We keep fighting' -

It's not just the economy that makes life hard in the slums, where rival drug gangs settling scores can make life dangerous for residents.

One day in 2013, a stray bullet killed nine-year-old Kevin Benega.

"We keep fighting for a dignified home, but we're a long way away," says Roxana Benega, Kevin's mother.

"I don't know if we can have a better future, but we hope so."

Poverty acts as a magnet for crime and drugs.

And then there is the police. Last week, three officers were convicted of torturing youngsters in Villa Zavaleta.

"Living in a slum is very hard, very violent. You have to endure economic violence, police violence, political violence. We run the place ourselves because there's no state presence," said Fidel Ruiz, 23, who finds it increasingly difficult to find little part-time jobs.

The tight winding streets in Villa Zavaleta can become a hazard when it rains due to the lack of a p...
The tight winding streets in Villa Zavaleta can become a hazard when it rains due to the lack of a proper sewage system
EITAN ABRAMOVICH, AFP

Villa Zavaleta was created in 1968 as temporary accommodation, but 50 years later it's still there.

And life is getting harder.

"In just a few months, the gas cylinder went from 95 to 270 pesos. How do you want us to get by?" asks Benega.

"I hardly sell anything any more, only basic necessities," says Amelia Corbalan, who runs a two meter-squared micro-market in a corner of her home on Ernesto Che Guevara Street in the heart of Villa Zavaleta.

"People don't have a single peso. No-one buys my yoghurts anymore," says the 42-year-old, who has taken in a pair of 15-year-old neighbors to try to prevent them from sinking into a life of crime and drug addiction.

- 'Poorer than before' -

Disease is another issue due to poor sanitation.

There's no running water nor an effective sewage system. When it rains, the winding streets of brick homes with precarious-looking roofs, quickly flood.

Lola Carrera, 46, tries to get by selling homemade embroidery. She lives in a ramshackle home with her brother and 23-year-old son. She makes around 4,000 pesos ($100) a month that goes into a common pot.

Few people from the shantytown have full-time jobs. Most can only afford to buy basic necessities  a...
Few people from the shantytown have full-time jobs. Most can only afford to buy basic necessities, and many cannot manage even that
EITAN ABRAMOVICH, AFP

"We're poorer than before. I can no longer buy yoghurts, which the doctor advised me to eat, nor butter. Too expensive."

She would like to repair her leaking roof as every time it rains more and more droplets make their way inside.

Thanks to Poderosa, though, her son and other local youngsters turn recycled palettes into furniture.

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