Politics

Sergio Berni, the Putin-like sheriff within Peronism

16th July 2020

By Victoria De Masi

Sergio Berni, the Putin-like sheriff within Peronism

It was June 1989 when Sergio Berni jumped off a truck and stepped foot for the first time in “Planet Rospentek”, a small town so far from anywhere else that officials serving there said they were in “a different galaxy.” In a map, Rospentek is barely a dot in the south of Santa Cruz Province’s south, next to the Andes, where cold cuts through the skin and the sun’s reflection in the snow blinds the eye. 27-year-old Berni, with a medical degree and a rank of lieutenant, had arrived at the local military post where the Army sent him as punishment.

Berni, Buenos Aires Province’s current Security Minister, is the same disobedient man who has spent the last few weeks touring the media. A permanent presence that is at the same time annoying and useful to the national administration. At times, it seems like Berni is a part of Channel 2’s permanent staff. In only a week he was invited to Polémica en el Bar, Fantino a la Tarde, Animales Sueltos, and Intratables, as well as making an appearance on TN. But maybe the most annoying appearance for Alberto Fernández was on Nada Personal, where Berni told interviewer Viviana Canosa that he wanted to “be president”. It was a potential headline that the traditional media decided not to run with.

Punished in the south

Back in 1989, Berni got to Rospentek with his dog, a Doberman called Taboo. An officer of his rank had the right to be flown to his destination, but he opted to drive with Taboo from Buenos Aires in a van that broke midway through the trip, and had to be retrieved by another military vehicle.

He arrived in civilian clothing and was turned down at the door by a young conscript. “Is there any coffee here?” — Berni asked. “You can’t come in, you are not an officer”, the conscript responded. “Soldier, I’m your lieutenant. I just arrived and had no time to dress in uniform.” That was Berni’s presentation, dodging the classic military initiation in which novices can be put through some brutal rites.

But why was Berni sent to the southernmost continental military base in the country? Part of the answer is that Berni had asked for an exemption of the then-mandatory military service to finish his medical studies and continue his martial arts training. By the end of the 80s, he was part of Argentina’s karate Olympics team, getting ready to compete abroad. But he was caught by authorities at the Ezeiza international airport, right before boarding, and sent to serve as a doctor at the San Lucas Hospital in Veintiocho de Noviembre, a town just to the north of the Rospentek base, where he would live for two years, between 89 and 91. The wives of all the colonels, the story goes, started getting sick much more often, eager to have the new handsome doctor check their coughs and stomach aches in a city where little else was going on. In that end-of-the-world Rospentek base, between gravel roads and lenga trees, Berni’s history started.

A Putin-like air

Members of the Armed Forces like to use the military alphabet code to create aliases. For Sergio Berni, it is “Sierra Bravo.” Berni likes to draw inspiration from Vladimir Putin. Something in his aesthetics attracts him. Both like to cultivate an air of adventure.

While the Russian president scuba-dived and fished in Siberia, Berni slept in a tent in Tigre for a week to clear the weeds of a patch of land he purchased with his machete. It wasn’t his first time sleeping in precarious conditions: when he worked in Alicia Kirchner’s Social Development Ministry, near the south of Buenos Aires City, he spent his nights in a tenement home in the working-class neighborhood of Constitución, with only an old bed that needed a sleeping bag above it to make it comfortable.

A popular (but fake) meme of the Russian president pictures him bare-chested and riding a bear. Not long ago, Berni was also pictured with a rifle while the police chased after a man suspected of gunning down a Border Guard in Zárate, Buenos Aires Province. Like in Putin’s meme, there was something fake about this one: the rifle turned out to be only an accessory that turns a Glock gun into a longer weapon. “For a soldier it is normal to have a gun in your hands. The soldier spends more time with his gun than with his woman,” Berni said after the incident.

Sergio Berni rides a chopper during Cristina Kirchner's presidency

No friend of the mayors

Berni has lived in that town for a while. He bought 19 hectares in Lima, one of Zarate’s neighborhoods, and built a house named “La Milagrosa”. So his mise-en-scène with the rifle did not go unnoticed. It was a bad look for Governor Axel Kicillof, a progressive within the ruling Peronist coalition, and an affront to Zárate Mayor Osvaldo Cáffaro, whom Berni likes to challenge directly.

In May, Berni was the protagonist of another performance in Zárate. He appeared in a Lima police station with a mask covering his face. The officer guarding the place was distracted, staring at his cell phone. “You look very relaxed here while there are robberies all over the place in my neighborhood. Where’s the police chief?” — Berni said before unmasking.

Days after that, Berni set camp just outside of the Zárate City Hall. He had just assisted a woman who was hurt during a robbery and wanted to look at the tapes from the security cameras. After being initially ignored, he started complaining from the sidewalk: “The only thing the Zárate mayor cares about is those property development businesses.” There’s a silently unanimous verdict among BA province mayors: they are not fans of Berni’s style of politics.

Helping the Kirchners

If Putin admitted to being part of Russia’s intelligence services, Berni was only marked as a spy on some occasions. In 1994, Lieutenant Berni had already served the sentence imposed by the Army and was running the San Lucas military hospital in the small town of Veintiocho de Noviembre, in the Kirchner’s Santa Cruz province. Berni is a big man for the town: he cures the ill and helps women give birth in one of the harshest places to live in the country.

This was enough for Governor Néstor Kirchner to know he should keep him close. When a strike broke out in the nearby mining town of Río Turbio, Berni showed up as a medical volunteer to help the workers keep their wellbeing. He assisted as they organized their protest 500 meters below ground, but in the end his constant questions and phone calls made him too suspicious.

In the culture of the Armed Forces, doctors are seen as being on par with cooks: not exactly a key part of the organization.  So Berni started seeing the Kirchner family as an opening opportunity into politics. When Néstor won the presidency in 2003, the current BA province minister was sworn in as Undersecretary of Territorial Approach to Social Development, serving under minister Alicia Kirchner. This is when the Berni we know today was born: the action showman full of anecdotes and down-to-earth, effective communication, feverishly looking for the cameras whenever he could. The one that bothers so many higher-ups today.

Political growth

Berni was still in that position at the Social Development Ministry in December 2010, when he negotiated with a large group of protesters who took over the Indoamerican Park looking for land and housing solutions. It was a terrible occasion that ended with three deaths and a lot of police brutality, but his arrival at the scene after the scandal had already broken catapulted him to a privileged place in politics as a man willing to get his shoes dirty.

He was already Secretary of Security in April 2, 2013, when Buenos Aires province’s capital La Plata suffered a deadly flood.  Berni rushed to the city before dawn, took over the desk of Ricardo Casal — who occupied his current office at the time — and started barking orders, distributing boats (even getting into one) and trash trucks, and opening up schools to receive those forced out of home by the water.

In 2014, in Monaco, he secured the support he needed (57% out of 194 police officials from across the globe voted for him) to become an Interpol delegate, beating a Colombian candidate backed by Brazil and the DEA. How did he do it? An Argentine jersey signed by Lionel Messi, which he offered to the African representatives that made up almost 30% of the votes, probably helped.

Kicillof’s minister

As a temporarily retired lieutenant colonel of the Army, 58 years of age, married and with a small kid, Berni occupies his current post reluctantly. In November, when Fernández’s cabinet was being discussed, he aspired to the national Security Ministry, but the president preferred a more moderate face, with a university background, ideally female. Thus came Sabina Frederic. Berni then tried to be her second-in-command, but Frederic refused.

Berni, who wanted part in the government at any cost, was left frustrated. Cristina Fernández de Kirchner asked her ally Kicillof to offer Berni the province’s ministry, but this time it was Berni that said “no”. He only caved in after the former president talked him into accepting. His loyalty is only for the boss lady.

The province is huge and complicated. There are 1,100 murders per year, three a day on average. Crime has gone down during the lockdown, but domestic violence hasn’t, as Berni has remarked in his TV visits, broadening his appeal towards progressives.

Kicillof was never a fan of having a hard man in charge of such a sensitive area for the province, much less one that’s so keen to tell explosive things to reporters. When the Villa Azul slum got hit by the COVID-19 pandemic, Berni took the press to the area and told reporters it was “worse than a nuclear bomb”. He did the rounds in the neighborhood dressed in a yellow hazmat suit, green gloves and a plastic head mask. His suit had two stickers, one with the police logo and the other with the province coat of arms and a “COVID-19” legend print below it.

Sergio Berni in Villa Azul

Hard to manage

Only Cristina can really control Berni. When he is asked about his clashes with Frederic, Berni minimizes the issue. “We understand each other by memory”, he says. But since taking office, the BA minister has confronted his federal counterpart Frederic more than Macri’s former security minister Patricia Bullrich. Frederic and Berni only met once, and trouble broke out when he asked her to withdraw the Federal forces from the province, in February. Since then, the provincial minister has not assisted to any meeting organized by Frederic, but everyone, Frederic included, constantly sees Berni on TV, his favorite political battlefield.

Berni’s latest high-profile incident took place in Puente La Noria, a bridge that divides the city from the province, on June 1, when Greater Buenos Aires was moving back to the stricter “Phase 1” of the lockdown. The provincial minister arrived in a motorbike and started shouting against Federal policemen saying ambulances were struggling to make it through due to the border controls. The scene had everything Berni likes: cops, doctors and TV cameras. And the cameras love him back: they know having Berni on is good for ratings.

But what Berni has not created is a political structure of his own, so he is basically fully loyal to Fernández de Kirchner. His popularity is on the rise, especially in tough neighborhoods. But his hard man profile can also be seductive for the middle classes. He combines a “common man” way of speaking, the manners of a rural doctor and those of a town sheriff. In the puzzle of the Frente de Todos coalition he is the piece that doesn’t fully fit. But in these pandemic times, he is ultimately useful: the circus he builds deflects attention from an economy that will be very hard to revive even after the virus.

La Bonaerense in the spotlight

The disappearance of Facundo Astudillo Castro puts Berni and the Buenos Aires Province police he represents and defends once again in the hot seat. On Friday, during an improvised press conference, a dysphonic Berni told the press that “there are different versions and witnesses regarding where Facundo is”. Astudillo was last pictured in handcuffs in custody of La Bonaerense officers. Berni accepted that it should be the Federals that handle the investigation if this eased the mind of Astudillo’s family.

Other cases involving the provincial police have been made public over the last week: that of Lucas Verón, an 18 year old shot in the chest by a police couple that followed him, and the one of Raúl Dávila, 22, who died when his cell caught fire after being detained by the police.

Even if he only answers to the Vice President, it is said that Berni has been running out the patience of Fernández and Kicillof. In a rational political structure, they say, a governor’s minister cannot challenge the authority of the president. But the Berni phenomenon still serves a purpose for them, as it dampens the noise of the economic emergency. “Look at me”, Berni says invitingly, and Argentines have so far been happily accepting. Despite the headaches he creates, the government wonders if firing Berni wouldn’t mean giving him exactly what he is looking for.

(Originally published in Cenital)

Victoria De Masi

Victoria De Masi is a writer at Clarín's Revista Viva and the biographer of Carlos Nair Menem, the former president's son.