Buenos Aires: The Ghost Train of the Cartoneros

“The poor, as everyone knows, are invisible when you speed past their homes on the highway,” journalists for the Buenos Aires daily Clarín wrote on Sept. 26.

Amid all the economic statistics, amid all the talk of debt defaults and monetary policy, the people most affected by the Argentine financial crisis—poor and working-class Argentines—are almost as invisible in much of the world's reporting on the crisis. “Argentina's 35 million citizens will not be the only ones to pay a heavy price for that country's latest financial crisis,” a prestigious journal intones before going into a detailed analysis of economic policy. “Angry crowds protested outside bank buildings, a sign of growing social unrest,” an international news agency dutifully reports.

When the Argentine economy collapsed in late December 2001, the residents of José León Suárez, a neighborhood on the outskirts of Buenos Aires, were among the first to lose their jobs. In the following months many, faced with the prospect of starvation, joined piquetero organizations—informal networks dedicated to mutual aid and often destructive political protest. In José León Suárez, residents successfully lobbied the government to begin nightly train service from their community to the more salubrious neighborhoods of downtown Buenos Aires, where cartoneros—cardboard collectors—sort through the day's trash in search of recyclable material that can be exchanged for money. Today, according to the International Red Cross, some 2,000 cartoneros use the train. Volunteers staff a nursery school so that children will have a safe place to be while their parents are at work every night.

In the evening, the cartoneros pile on to a government-supplied train, a stripped-down wreck without seats, heat for the winter, or air-conditioning for the summer. El Tren Blanco, or the “white train,” as most cartoneros call it, leaves downtown Buenos Aires before dawn. Most Argentines never see the cartoneros. Aware of their invisibility, the cartoneros have taken to calling the train El Tren del Fantasma, or the “Ghost Train.”

In a special report for World Press Review online, Italian photojournalist Andrea Di Martino chronicled the Ghost Train's voyage one night in August 2002.
—Elijah Zarwan, Web editor

To the photographs

Andrea Di Martino is a Milan-based photojournalist who specializes in Latin America.

He can be reached by e-mail at dimartino@erewhon.it. More of his work is available at his Web site, http://www.erewhon.it/adm.