The Violence of Gated Communities in Buenos Aires’s Wetlands

This essay on private neighborhood development and local resistance in Argentina is the first piece in the Violent Environments series, which explores how violence is enacted through, for, and on environmental spaces, including land, water, and air. Series editors: Kristen Billings, Rebecca Laurent, and Rudy Molinek.

Nordelta, one of Buenos Aires’s most exclusive areas, is a conglomerate of gated communities with over 50,000 residents. It sits on the wetlands of the River Paraná, second only to the Amazon in South America. And it was built by emptying and refilling canals, which encroached upon people and wildlife and reduced the wetlands’ capacity to absorb rainfall.

Nordelta opened in 2001, right when the economy collapsed after a decade of extreme neoliberal adjustments. In 2001, Argentina had five presidents in the span of 11 days, police killed 39 citizens during protests, and personal bank accounts were frozen while poverty and economic insecurity rose dramatically. Despite this social upheaval, Nordelta’s main attraction for consumers was not so much gated security, like in other Latin American developments, but rather a distinguished, United States lifestyle. Argentina’s history of promoting mestizaje (“race-mixing”) with European immigrants was intended to create a more refined society, which led to the national myth of white exceptionalism, or the belief that mestizaje in Argentina would result in a gradual whitening of its population. Since then, the urge to emulate European and North American standards of modernity has continuously shaped the production of race and class discrimination.  

When U.S. MasterPlanned Communities Meet White Argentina   

Master-planned communities (MPCs) are privately built and designed neighborhoods in the city outskirts constructed by large-scale developers, offering amenities, services, and rules through homeowner associations. Originating in the U.S. during the 1960s, they have inspired similar developments worldwide that are shaped by different racial, economic, and colonial geographies.

When I first went to Nordelta in 2022, I rented a car. While driving through the main road to the conglomerate, I saw a straight canal supporting various water sport ventures and, to the right, malls, apartments, and private schools with English names that are only accessible by car. There was no trace of the shantytowns and informal houses one often encounters upon leaving the metropolitan area of Buenos Aires. Once I reached the main entrance, I scanned my Argentinian ID that opened the gates to a ring road. While I could not enter any of the neighborhoods, I was free to drive in circles as much as I wanted as long as I did not need to stop, for the lack of shoulders or parking lots made it impossible.  

Modern houses built along a canal
Brochure of one of Nordelta’s gated communities. Image from Grupo Monarca, 2012

Over 8,000 workers cross these gates daily to provide multiple services. They often have mixed feelings about Nordelta for producing both class discrimination and job opportunities in an area that suffered the 1990s deindustrializing policies. These workers cannot walk on the avenues because “Nordelta residents do not want to see them around,” as a man who worked in construction told me. He could easily bike from home but had to always wait for the designated bus. His words resonated with the 2018 viral news of a woman who was denied access to a public bus despite available seats because residents, who quickly identified her as a worker, did not want to share space.  

This segregationist structure of Nordelta emerged alongside the expansion of the neoliberal state. While Nordelta today resembles Miami, it was initially thought of as the French ville nouvelles (“new towns”), which aimed to integrate rural migrants within European cities. In 1977, engineer Julián Astolfoni acquired the first plot of land from the descendants of Ángel Pacheco, a general who had obtained the lands previously peopled by Guaraníes and Carupás after fighting in the “Desert Campaign against the Indians.” When Astolfoni got the plot, Nordelta was conceptualized to fix the problem of undesired urban sprawl at a time when the terrorist state of the last civic-military dictatorship was trying to “eradicate” the villas miseria (shantytowns) for being “filthy” spaces threatening private property and national moralities.  

Master-planned communities are met with different forms of slow violence rooted in colonial and postcolonial national geographies.

The project goals shifted once it was finally approved in 1992 when Astolfoni partnered with businessmen Eduardo Constantini and other North American corporations, including Price Waterhouse, and Robert Charles Lesser & Co., a U.S. real estate specialized in MPCs. In his Master’s thesis at Lynn University, 46 miles from Miami, current U.S. Army Chief Daniel Martinez analyzed consumer research data from partnered global corporations. There, one can learn that the partners sought to capitalize on transforming rural wetlands into upscale residences. Rather than assimilating the poor, the new model sought to monetize segregation, focusing on luring the Argentinian elite with amenities and designs that would be exclusive to them.  

Despite the change, Nordelta retained the enduring idea of the desert as a space to be filled. Like every pioneer narrative, it positioned Astolfoni and Constantini, the engineer-corporate duo, as heroes saving “neglected” environments and conquering a wetland that would remain otherwise “vast, useless, dangerous, and vacant.” They would do this by emulating the U.S. MPCs of the 1960s, the ones that turned public malls into consumption centers, which are portrayed as successful examples of how privatization and consumer-oriented practices generate property value. 

Nordelta’s shift from assimilation to segregation reflects broader changes in Argentina. Since the end of the nineteenth century, Argentinian elites fostering national modernization helped crystalize the myth of white exceptionalism or the idea that mestizaje with European immigrants in Argentina led to the gradual dilution of any trace of non-whiteness. However, with the sedimentation of the neoliberal state, elitism became less concerned with national development and more with individual growth and consumption. In the 1990s, president Carlos Menem’s government extended neoliberal measures and promoted Miami as a tourist destination for middle-class families seeking to visit Disney theme parks and engage in shopping. Miami became a fantasy city where one could acquire electronics, clothing, and, recently, vaccines. Despite its diversity, Miami became a symbol of whiteness and economic success for many Argentinians, with Argentina being in the top five countries of origin for tourists visiting Florida.   

Dry desert landscape with some weeds in the foreground and housing developments in the background
The conquest of Buenos Aires’s wetlands builds upon the enduring metaphor of the desert as a space to be filled. Photo by author, 2022. 

Miami also became a fantasy migrant destination for settlement, and half of the Argentinians living in the U.S. today are in Florida. Many of them have formed their Latinx identities alongside other Latin American and Caribbean migrants who have also rejected the politics of their country of origin, emphasizing the history of violence, economic crises, and financial regulations as the cause of middle-class impoverishment. While positioning the U.S. as the future and Argentina as the past to be overcome, this American Dream narrative is informed by the experiences of emigrants who left with economic means and who are often portrayed as either winners or traitors in the Argentinian media. Likewise, the narrative is shaped by the silencing of rural, Indigenous, Brown, and Black Argentinian migrants who do not fit the white Argentinian type and who, once in the U.S., also face American standards of racialization and segregation as Black Latinx people.  

The neoliberal reconfiguration of white exceptionalism as a desire to emulate western geographies became Nordelta’s mark, offering global lifestyles to the elites who can now “live like in Miami, but a few miles away from the Buenos Aires Obelisk,” as an Argentinian newspaper with connections to Nordelta claimed.

Nordelta’s main attraction is a distinguished, United States lifestyle.

Even the developers themselves were initially surprised by the conjuncture of neoliberalism and white privilege during consumer focus groups. Trying to assess preferences about marinas and schools, they found that the desire for “American construction standards with variety and distinction” was not as crucial as their desire to maintain the “status quo” and, above all, to preclude non-residents from accessing the community.  

In addition to segregation, elite distinction also shaped the distribution of environmental risks. In this area, most houses are built over pillars to prevent flooding. However, because ground-level houses have more property value, Nordelta chose not to adhere to the standard convention. Instead, its design involved draining entire canals, extracting vast amounts of soil, and finally refilling the land with the extracted soil. In this way, they elevated the terrain by around 1.7 meters and met the residential level of flooding while creating new environments using existing canals and turning them into marinas. Although this style protects the newly built properties, it increases vulnerability outside the gates by destroying wetlands that are vital buffers against flooding and droughts.  

Destruction and Resurgence at the Edges of Development  

Outside the conglomerate, driving is rather challenging. Beyond the frontier of real estate expansion, Google Maps guides you to roads that no longer connect places. Instead, these “non-roads” lead to inaccessible walls, paths interrupted by creeks filled with plastics, abandoned railroads, factories covered in weeds, and bridges no longer crossable. Moving through the dystopian landscape dominated by excavation machines, I could not avoid thinking how their rapid unearthing and refilling capacities barely leave room to think with the soil and the memories, bones, and stories it helps compose and decompose, as Kristina Lyons would put it.

excavator digging up something at a construction site
Excavators are rapidly unearthing, refilling, and expanding the real estate frontier. Photo by author, 2022. 

Far from abandoned, this ruinated landscape is monitored by cameras and guards. Located in the walls, these agents of surveillance provoke fear. When I stumbled onto a wall and approached a guard, he rapidly and authoritatively told me to turn around without responding to my request for guidance. Asking anyone I found for directions, I also realized I was not the only one confused; it seems that the rapidity of these changes has also disoriented those who had lived for years in this area now transformed to the outskirts of Nordelta.

In 2001, when the machines were opening the soil, a woman from the area went to check how the work was progressing. She found ceramic pieces and bones. The finding led to an organized movement that, five years later, reached out to the National Institute of Anthropology and Latin American Thought (INAPL). A team of archaeologists who had been working in the area before visited the place, corroborated the existence of an ancestral site, and registered it as the Punta Canal archaeological site. In that same year, EIDICO, another real estate corporation that develops projects like Nordelta in Argentina and Miami, became interested in the site.

a fence in front of trees and a waterway
Watching fences. Photo by author, 2022. 

Despite protests against ruining an ancestral territory and the lack of legal permits, the company sent excavators and destroyed a significant portion of the site. Once devastated, the developer hired the same archaeologists who had previously marked the site to conduct an archaeological impact assessment, a strategy to reassure permissions to transform the land into for-profit development and prevent its classification as sacred. After a ten day campaign excavating only 18 square meters (about half the area of a parking lot), their new report confirmed the presence of bones and ceramic pieces. But given the condition of the site, it was now impossible to determine its origins; therefore, the developer decided that the “archaeological site” should be “liberated,” meaning that it should be made available for real estate development. 

Argentina’s history of promoting mestizaje with European immigrants led to the national myth of white exceptionalism.

In response to the conflict, the organized group of neighbors and Indigenous peoples constituting the Movimiento en Defensa de la Pacha Mama set out to protect the archaeological remains and the Indigenous cemetery through permanent camping beginning in 2009. Despite multiple illegal attempts to evict them, their organization pushed for the recognition of the land, now named Punta Querandí, as communitarian in 2020 and as sacred ancestral land by the National Institute for Indigenous Affairs in 2022. 

Furthermore, after demonstrations at conferences hosted by the archaeologists, the movement achieved the return and reburial of 42 bodies from ancestors whom an archaeologist from the U.S. Central Intelligence Agency had exhumed in 1925. I learned about this long, complex, and well-documented story of the emergence of Punta Querandí in the museum, el Museo Autónomo de Gestión Indígena, which also has a digital archive. Despite the developers’ representation of the area as wild and rural, Punta Querandí has “made visible that the reality of Indigenous Peoples also occurs in Buenos Aires,” as Aymara sacred land defender Pedro Moreira has claimed. 

Framed newspaper article with the headline "LA REBELION DE LOS MUERTOS"
One of the newspaper clippings hanging at the Museo Autónomo de Gestión Indígena. Its headline reads “The Rebellion of the Dead,” referring to their fight to defend the burial site. Photo by author, 2022. 

In a patchy landscape surrounded by gates and cameras, this land is also highly economically valuable and, for that reason, permanently at risk. As Querandí descendent, historian, and researcher Sergio Smith told me when we were on the boat crossing the creek to enter the Territory, the community feels content that nobody is fixing the bridge once it fell, giving them some partial security after multiple threats.  

Presenting Punta Querandí’s community resistance as “an alternative” emerging from the borders could mislead us toward uncritical and romanticized celebrations of agency, which glosses over not only the level of violence, risk, and encroachment community members face daily, but also social and political complexities beyond their resistance to elite real estate expansion. Nonetheless, I want to highlight the desegregationist project of Punta Querandí, a land not attached to geneticized or archaeologized visions of Indigeneity, but rather a Territory where Guaraní, Qom, Colla, Moqoit, or Aymara Peoples, among many others, can reunite with their ancestors. They engage in their resurgence while defending access to wetlands and waterways, enjoying water and nature, protecting biodiversity, growing food, and revitalizing languages.

The Lesson of Nordelta

Encroaching over Buenos Aires’s wetlands, developments such as Nordelta that emulated U.S. MPCs capitalize on the transformation of rural land into elite residences, which, at the same time, generate value from the Argentine myth of white exceptionalism. Simultaneously yet highly asymmetrically, Punta Querandí and its desegregationist project shows the power of edges.  

One of Buenos Aires's wetlands, a waterway in the foreground, with a dock, a boat, and a parking lot in the background
Access to Punta Querandí, one of Buenos Aires’s wetlands now protected from development. Photo by author, 2022. 

The story of Nordelta exposes how violent environments are enacted through whiteness and drives for elite distinction. Exemplified by Nordelta, MPCs generate profit by transforming rural into elite lands while rearticulating racial and spatial borders that make distinctions sharper, more guarded, and less porous—between centers and peripheries, grounded and flooded lands, or poachers and conservationists. MPCs originated in the U.S. and continue to circulate American imaginaries of race, segregation, and neoliberal commons worldwide. In this process, they are met with different forms of slow violence rooted in colonial and postcolonial national geographies. Furthermore, in seeking to capitalize on those racialized differences, global real estate corporations also circulate and help materialize homogenizing visions of racial formation.

Consequently, this story highlights the importance of dialectical racial discourses that are capitalized on to help legitimate violent environments. By selling reductionist archetypes, such as the fantasy of white Miami, in order to profit from them, real estate developments obscure how environments continue to be complex, multiple, and diverse despite the violence enacted upon them. Notably, what makes the socio-environmental history of these lands particularly remarkable is the anti-racist movements that parallel the racial justice struggles in the U.S., or, in this case, the story of Punta Querandí and their defense of the territory.

Featured image: Nordelta’s conglomerate of gated communities with waterfront houses built over the wetlands of the River Paraná. Image from Google Earth.

Mara Dicenta is an Assistant Professor in Anthropology & Integrative Conservation at William & Mary. She works mostly in Tierra del Fuego, where she collaborates with various organizations on issues of conservation-related injustices. Her own research explores relations between race, animals, and science from an ethnographic and historic perspective. Her latest article titled “White Animals: Racializing Sheep and Beavers in the Argentinian Tierra del Fuego” was recently published by LACES Journal. WebsiteTwitterContact.