Translation by: Patrick Moseley
[Omar Chabán]: Good evening Cromañón! Welcome to the last event of the year. Thank you to this beautiful, distinguished crowd.
[Daniel Alarcón, host]: Welcome to Radio Ambulante, from NPR. I’m Daniel Alarcón.
[Omar Chabán]: Let’s start the show. With you and for you: Callejeros!
[Daniel]: The audio you’re listening comes from December 30th, 2004. A concert from the Argentine rock band Callejeros is about to start.
[Pato Fontanet]: Are you going to behave? Are you going to behave?!
[Daniel]: And that is Pato Fontanet, the lead singer and frontman. He’s energizing his fans at República de Cromañón, in Buenos Aires.
At that time, Cromañón was a boliche —which is what they call nightclubs in Argentina. But this wasn’t just any boliche. It was big, like a barn, but with two levels. The upper level had a kind of balcony. And on the lower level, there was a space for dancing or watching the people playing on a stage, like Callejeros that night.
The venue had a permit for about 1.000 people. But that night there were more than 3.000.
In 2004, Callejeros was at its peak. They had been playing for seven years. They had released their third album and were selling out stadiums all over Argentina. In other words, by then Cromañón was too small for them.
But they decided to end the year there because the boliche and Omar Chabán —who managed the place— meant a lot to the band. Callejeros had played at the opening of Cromañón in April of 2004. And a few years earlier, when they were a small band and weren’t drawing such big crowds, Chabán had helped them get gigs. Playing at Cromañón that night was like returning the favor.
[Mailín Blanco]: I liked Callejeros, but my brother, Lautaro, liked them more.
[Daniel]: This is Mailín Blanco. She was 16 years old the night of the concert. And Lautaro, her brother, was 13. He made her listen to Callejeros for the first time, and right away, Mailín liked the bands rebellious and political lyrics. By 2000, Callejeros’ songs were talking about legalizing abortions or the fact that the government should be led by a woman.
Mailín and Lautaro felt represented by Callejeros’ sound. And for the siblings, going to concerts like the one that night at Cromañón…
[Mailín]: Meant being in a place where you felt like part of something, right?
[Daniel]: On the night of December 30th, 2004, Mailín and Lautaro arrived early at Cromañón. They wanted to hear Ojos Locos, the band that was opening for Callejeros.
[Mailín]: And I remember very clearly —it’s a feeling that I have, uh, very present— which was the fact of the difference in the number of people there when we went in and when Ojos Locos was done playing.
[Daniel]: In the roughly 40 minutes Ojos Locos played, Cromañón filled up. When the band left the stage, there were three times as many people there as were allowed in the venue.
[Mailín]: I remember turning around after Ojos Locos was over and seeing that the place was loaded with people and thinking: “It’s so hot in here! This place is full of people.” Having that feeling in my body, that heavy feeling, and the heat.
[Daniel]: After Ojos Locos, Mailín and Lautaro…
[Mailín]: We waited for a little in the back, and “Jijiji” by Los Redondos started playing.
(SOUNDBITE “JIJIJI” BY LOS REDONDOS)
[Daniel]: “Jijiji” is one of Argentina’s rock anthems. And while the song was playing on the speakers in the venue, the manager —Omar Chabán— went on stage.
[Omar Chabán]: Cut it out with the flares! We haven’t been able to see the show for two hours! Cut it out, you can’t see a damn thing!
[Daniel]: He was saying: “Cut it out with the flares.”
[Mailín]: That if we kept throwing that stuff, we were all going to die.
[Daniel]: The crowd was lighting sparklers and flares. Sparklers are small fireworks that shoot little burning cinders into the air. And flares light a flame and give off smoke.
Chabán kept saying…
[Mailín]: That there were more than 3.000 people in there. That if anything happened, we’d all die. I mean, at that moment, Chabán described everything as it happened five minutes later. And it’s not because he had a crystal ball, but because he knew that the place was a disaster, that it couldn’t have a permit for that many people.
[Daniel]: Mailín was worried about what Chabán was saying. But it wasn’t uncommon for people to use flares at that kind of concert in those days, either. The same thing happened at smaller shows.
[Mailín]: At the time, flares were part of rock culture. They were fireworks that people would throw at… during shows for all of the rock bands. There was no band that was exempt from that… from… from… from… people doing that, I mean.
[Daniel]: It wasn’t the first time pyrotechnics caused problems at Cromañón. Seven months earlier, at another show, the people in charge of security had to put out a fire and evacuate the crowd. And just days before the Callejeros concert, a flare had started another fire, which they also managed to put out.
While Chabán was still talking from the stage, Mailín and Lautaro went up to the bathrooms, because they wanted to get some water.
[Mailín]: And when we started going down the stairs, uh, Callejeros started playing. It was nothing, one minute. And I see the saxophone player point up to the ceiling in front of us and I turn my head and see the smoke that was coming down from above us and the light of the sparkler bouncing off the ceiling.
[Daniel]: Mailín asked the guy at the bar what they should do, but he told them he didn’t know, to try to get out if they wanted. And Mailín said he kept serving beers like it was nothing.
[Mailín]: So I’m there with Lautaro, and I tell him: “Well, let’s hope they put it out soon, and we’ll leave,” I tell him. And a little after I tell him that, the lights go out. And well, the lights go out. Then, you could tell that they weren’t going to put anything out and that… that something serious was happening.
[Daniel]: The fire was spreading quickly.
[Mailín]: It was dense, thick darkness. And so, at that moment, I lose Lautaro in an avalanche of people. I was alone.
[Daniel]: Mailín remembers something she had seen on TV: in a fire, there’s still oxygen a meter from the floor. So…
[Mailín]: I threw myself to the floor, I took my shirt, and I put it over my mouth, and I waited.
[Daniel]: Mailín had lost sight of Lautaro, and while she was on the floor, she fainted.
[Ezequiel Denhoff]: Me, when the lights went out, I was on the second floor. I was with my friend. We had both gone alone. Martín, that’s… that was my friend’s name.
Well, I’m Ezequiel Denhoff. I was in the Cromañón tragedy.
[Daniel]: From the second floor of the boliche, Ezequiel and Martín saw how the ceiling caught fire. And, in their desperation, they made an extreme decision: they jumped down to the first floor, to get as far away as possible from the fire on the ceiling.
[Ezequiel]: I’m falling on top of people. But you don’t know who or how many. You feel that you’re falling on people.
[Daniel]: Ezequiel fell next to the stage. He lost sight of Martín.
[Ezequiel]: I knew more or less where I was without seeing anything. There was a lot of shouting, and I stayed there. I stayed on the floor, and I think that’s what saved me, because I stayed on the floor, and I said: “Well, that’s it. This is it for me.”
[Daniel]: Ezequiel didn’t know where to go because he couldn’t see anything. He was trapped between the stage and the guard rails, those barriers they put in front of stages at concerts.
[Ezequiel]: For me it… it was an hour, it must have actually been five or ten minutes.
[Daniel]: At one point, Ezequiel felt a gust of air.
[Ezequiel]: I followed the gust of air, and I go out the back, to a parking lot. I go out to the street vomiting.
[Daniel]: He made it to a corner and started looking for Martín.
[Ezequiel]: I was looking for my friend. He was 1.94 meters tall (6’3″) wearing a red shirt. I mean, I have to find him.
[Daniel]: Ezequiel got to a plaza very close Cromañón, where there were others who had managed to get out, but he didn’t see Martín anywhere. So, he went back into Cromañón. It sounds crazy, but he wasn’t the only one. The people who made it out went back in to find their loved ones, their relatives, and friends trapped inside. It was chaos.
[Daniel]: The people who had made it out were coughing, shouting the names of their friends and relatives to see if they were OK. Ambulances were arriving, taking the wounded.
[Ezequiel]: People thrown on the street. People coming and going. People who were already dead.
[Daniel]: After the ceiling —which was covered in highly flammable materials— was burned through, an extremely toxic, black smoke poisoned the air. And, as two forensic doctors would later report, that smoke plus the panic caused most of the deaths.
[Ezequiel]: Well, I kept looking for my friend. I was going in and out when… and one of those time —it was three or four times— they’re taking him out. Nothing, they put him in an ambulance. He was… He had lost consciousness. He was vomiting black.
[Daniel]: Let’s get back to Mailín. She doesn’t remember how she got out of Cromañón. Someone, she doesn’t know who, took her out. She woke up hours later.
[Mailín]: Between four and five in the morning, after being in a light coma at Ramos Mejía hospital, using a breathing machine. I wrote my name and phone number on a piece of paper so they could tell my parents where I was.
[Daniel]: And she stayed at the hospital. It was very serious. She was in intensive care. Mailín didn’t hear anything about Lautaro for several days. For the doctors and her parents, the most important thing was her recovery.
[Mailín]: I asked about Lautaro, and they would say… nothing, dodge… It was like that. Until, at one point, I stopped asking because I already had the feeling that, well, that Lautaro was fine. So I said: “OK, I’ll stop asking.”
[Daniel]: They didn’t tell her anything about what had happened at Cromañón after she fainted either. When she left intensive care, the doctors gave her parents permission to tell her more. And her mom…
[Mailín]: She told me everything. She told me what happened at Cromañón. She told me what happened, and she told me that Lautaro had died.
[Daniel]: It’s not clear when or how Lautaro died.
Martín, Ezequiel’s friend, was also taken to a clinic. He died a few hours later. Ezequiel had to tell Martín’s mom and his girlfriend. He called them that night on a payphone. And he hasn’t spoken to them since.
[Ezequiel]: No, not since that day. It’s like I was responsible. Also guilty for having gotten out alive. That’s a guilt I also feel. Maybe they feel like: “Why am I alive, and he isn’t.”
The whole situation you went through and that you’ll always remember. It’s something you have to learn to live with. Nothing, it happens. There are times I’m listening to the radio or I’m alone, and I cry. Tears fall from my eyes. Not to the extent that I have to pull over or do anything. A tear falls from your eye. You hear a song… I haven’t stopped listening to Callejeros, I kept going to see them. But it’s something you have to live with.
[Daniel]: Lautaro, Martín, and 192 other people died as a result of that fire. Nearly 1.500 were wounded. The evacuation of the building ended at two in the morning on December 31st. More than three hours after the fire started.
We’ll be back after the break.
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[Daniel]: We’re back with Radio Ambulante, I’m Daniel Alarcón.
There are hundreds of stories like Lautaro’s, Mailín’s, Ezequiel’s, and Martín’s. But what came of that night at Cromañón was much larger than what happened in that boliche. This is also the story of a mired, politicized, and emotional legal case.
A lot of people are responsible for what happened that night, and understanding who and how has been a long process. This is also the story of how this tragedy affected Argentines and the music scene.
This is the journalist Pablo Plotkin:
[Pablo Plotkin]: It was a kind of apocalypse really what you… what you saw in Cromañón. Because the scale of it was so tragic, what happened was so painful… That end of the year in 2004 was one of the worst I’ve experienced in my life, and I didn’t have any relatives or direct friends at Cromañón. But the social wound really was enormous. And it took a long time to get out of that… that shock.
[Daniel]: Pablo writes for the newspaper La Nación, and he investigated what happened in Cromañón in a series of stories Rolling Stone magazine.
Had you been to Cromañón?
[Daniel]: And as an audience member or music critic surrounded by so many people, with the exits, and also with the rock culture with so many flares, had you felt afraid?
[Pablo]: No, the truth is no because I was very used to that kind of place. And there were other places that looked worse. There was a kind of pride in general —and I think in Argentine rock in particular— in that kind of marginal aesthetic and an aesthetic of… I don’t know if it’s a decadent aesthetic, but it comes from the tradition of maybe the CBGB in the ‘70s: of dirty bathrooms, of.. of the humidity that… that eats away at the walls and ceiling, where the most, let’s say, street rock lived; I really used to spend a lot of time in that kind of atmosphere. I mean, it was something almost even suffocating.
[Daniel]: The flares were already a part of Argentine rock culture, and according to Pablo, it had already gotten to insane levels.
I mean, having fireworks in closed spaces was already absurdly dangerous. Several journalists —including Pablo—had noted that but, at the same time, he told me that it had already been normalized. Yes, Cromañón was dangerous. But that on its own no longer got anyone’s attention. Rockers lived with danger. I’m thinking about the bartender on the second floor —the one Mailín mentioned— serving beers while the ceiling was burning.
In those first days, what surprised you when you started reporting on.. on what had happened?
[Pablo]: One of the first surprises was warning people how obvious and how, perhaps, predictable it all was and what little ability we had to prevent it at the same time. In other words, what little ability we had —in my case, as a journalist, for example— to foresee the scale of the danger of what was happening, in the way live rock was being experienced here.
[Daniel]: And the Cromañón case is an example of this. The night of the concert, only one of the three ventilators was working, and none of the extinguishers were in working order. Also, a large door next to the stage with a sign that read “EXIT” was locked with a padlock and wire.
When the lights went out, the exit sign at that door was all you could see. A lot of people went to that door hoping to get out. Firefighters were able to beat and push it open almost an hour after the fire started.
The venue had six double doors, like at movie theatres. That night only two were open. In the VIP section on the second floor, there was a metal door that also couldn’t be forced open. A firefighter had to make a hole in the wall so some people could get out.
[Pablo]: I think you have to start with the political responsibilities at Cromañón that have to do with the… the dissolution of… of a regulatory and supervisory structure in the city of Buenos Aires that favored corruption.
[Daniel]: I’ll explain: The city government was —and still is— responsible for issuing permits to and regulating the boliches. At the end of 2003, a year before the fire at Cromañón, the head of the city government at that time, Aníbal Ibarra, had dissolved the organization in charge of inspections.
The reason, according to Ibarra, was because that organization was, and I quote: “More than a focal point, it was a hotbed of corruption.” An official told the newspaper Página12 that, at that time, they were receiving on average three complaints a week against inspectors, complaints that they were soliciting bribes. With this change that Ibarra enacted, building permits went to being issued by independent professionals.
[Pablo]: So, what started with that… that dissolution, with perhaps the intention of creating more transparency, ended up being the dismantling of a… a regulatory system which led to Cromañón, for example, being improperly permitted.
[Marcelo Meis]: In light of the preceding considerations, I find it just to consider the suspended head of government Aníbal Ibarra, through his action and omission, to be politically responsible for the transformation of a venue like Cromañón into a veritable death trap.
[Daniel]: This is audio from 2006, of a legislator, Marcelo Meis, during a political trial to remove Ibarra from office. He had already been suspended from his position while they issued his sentence. Meis and the other legislators accused him of not having prevented nor regulated what happened at Cromañón.
[Marcelo Meis]: It is my hope that this fatal event and the corresponding sanction serve to keep something like this from happening in our nation ever again.
[Daniel]: Ibarra was removed from office in March of that year. Months later, a judge said that there was no reason to continue investigating Ibarra in order to bring him to a criminal trial because the direct responsibility for the safety of dance venues fell on three other officials. That fact excused him of guilt.
But the permitting problems at Cromañón came about before Ibarra’s administration. Seven years before the fire, a government inspector said that the venue shouldn’t receive a permit for public performances because it didn’t have enough emergency exits. At that time, it wasn’t called Cromañón, but the facility was already being used for concerts. In any case, just four months later, without having made any modifications, the same inspector authorized it to open.
[Pablo]: Then, well, you need to talk about the responsibility of the police who were tasked with carrying out that… that… that supervision, or in any case the closures, and that generally could be bought off with bribes.
[Daniel]: During the first trial —which began in 2008— two police officers were accused of arson and passive bribery, in other words, accepting bribes. But for a lot of people, there was one clear culprit.
What did people say? Who did they blame first?
[Pablo]: The first culprit to come into view was Omar Chabán himself because that night —before… before the sparkler set Cromañón’s shade roof on fire— he came over… over the speakers saying…
[Omar Chabán]: Cut it out with the flares! We haven’t been able to see the show for two hours! Cut it out, you can’t see a damn thing!
[Pablo]: “Don’t do that. Stop doing that. It’s going to start a fire.” In other words, he really was the person who could foresee the danger, which makes him the most responsible. But on the other hand, I think he was also being judged on his public persona. There are certain… certain social prejudices around him: a single, eccentric man who… who spoke in.. in a kind of haughty way and all that.
[Omar Chabán]: I’m trying to get bands that played at Cemento to play here. And then, there’ll be people, a lot of people. So, I’m happy. I make money. Money’s important, eh?
[Pablo]: All public opinion was against him. He was the first… clearly, public enemy number one.
[Daniel]: Well, it seems rather obvious to me to blame Chabán, to blame the authorities who, let’s say, allowed such a clearly unsafe space, eh, to… to be used. I’m surprised —and I think a lot of us are surprised— that… that the band itself was found guilty.
[Woman 1]: Our children didn’t come back after they went to the Callejeros show. And Callejeros is the most responsible, along with the others. None of them is a victim.
[Woman 2]: Callejeros was inciting it. Callejeros was throwing out flares so the kids could light them.
[Daniel]: That the singer or drummer or bass player, I mean these people who are musicians, in the end, incur the rage and the wrath of the people when in a way you could also consider them victims of what happened, or am I wrong?
[Pablo]: No, I mean, I think that they are victims of what happened because they lost family members, many. Think about how the VIP section was the most badly affected, I mean, because of… of how difficult it was to get out. A lot of the musician’s relatives were inside and died.
[Maximiliano Djerfy]: I didn’t do anything for this to happen, and we didn’t… I mean, we went to a party, and it ended up a disaster.
[Daniel]: This is Maximiliano, the ex-guitarist for Callejeros.
[Maximiliano]: We’re also in pain because a lot of people close to the band and relatives died.
We went in with seven and two came back.
[Daniel]: “We went in with seven and two came back,” Maximilian says because five of his relatives who went to see him that day died in Cromañón.
[Maximiliano]: My dad and one of my cousins got out. They went grabbing onto the wall and… and managed to get free. And all the rest died. So, there’s no… there’s not much to take away from that night other than thinking that… that everyone acted poorly.
[Pablo]: What you need to understand in terms of the band’s responsibility is exactly this specific culture that existed around this type of… of group, which had to do with self-management and independence, we’ll call it. So in the case of… of what happened at República Cromañón, Callejeros was an organizer and associate producer. All… all in very informal terms because there really was no contract between them. But, Callejeros was also one of the show’s producers.
In a way, Callejeros took control of security precisely because they had the idea that if they managed security, they would avoid abuses of power on the part of the police and others. So, that is a little, that… that way of doing things and that philosophy is one of… of the fatal victims of Cromañón as well. A little because it was a failure of… of that production system.
[Daniel]: There was no corporate entity that was responsible, and therefore, the band assumed that responsibility. And that explains why, criminally speaking, Callejeros ended up paying that price: they made the organizing and structural decisions for the show.
The trial over Cromañón that started in 2008 is long and complex. There were several sentences. In the first one, in 2009, Omar Chabán was sentenced to 20 years. One of the police officers got 18 years. Two officials of the Buenos Aires government got two years each.
And Callejeros’ manager, Diego Argañaráz, was sentenced to 18 years in prison. But…
[Judge]: Twelfth: To acquit Patricio Rogelio Santos Fontanet, Eduardo Arturo Vázquez, Juan Alberto Carbone, Cristian Eleazar Torrejón, Maximiliano Djerfy, Elio Rodrigo Delgado…
[Daniel]: All of the members of Callejeros were acquitted.
[Juez]: On account of the crimes of arson with criminal intent followed by death, in the capacity of co-authors, in combination with the crime of active bribery, in the capacity of necessary, as well as secondary, participants.
[Daniel]: What you’re hearing is the victims of the family protesting while the sentence is being read. They didn’t accept that Callejeros didn’t get any of the blame. There were even incidents inside and outside of the courts.
[Journalist]: There’s quite a commotion at the entry to the courts.
[Pablo]: It was a fatal puzzle, let’s say, which no one wanted.
[Man]: Now with this ruling, with this sentence, we feel worse still. Worse, worse, still.
[Pablo]: The issue is that no one could come out Ok in the face of this kind of tragedy, you know? In the face of so many dead sons and so many dead daughters.
[Journalist]: Well, as you see here. Fury erupted, first against the Lavalle street entry —a large heavy door— but now they are trying to enter.
[Pablo]: There’s guaranteed dissatisfaction.
[Journalist]: Rocks were thrown at the court’s’ windows. This is completely out of control.
[Pablo]: In some places it was going to seem like little, inevitably, in others, it was going to seem like a lot.
[Journalist]: You said there’s no justice.
[Man]: There’s no justice, none. It’s true, no justice at all, at all, at all.
[Voices]: There are killers! There are killers! There is no justice!
[Pablo]: To me, this is a tragedy without a villain.
[Daniel]: Or rather, with many villains. With a shared guilt. And it’s hard to determine to what degree each one is responsible. Several of the cases have followed a pattern: someone pays a price —be it emotional, political, or legal— and then, after a time, they’re let go. They take it back. That tendency says something, I think. How complicated the case is. How hard it is to reach a satisfactory resolution.
Under pressure from the prosecutors and the families, that sentence was revised. And in the following years, all of the members of Callejeros have been in and out of prison —except the drummer, Eduardo Vázquez, who is serving a life sentence for killing his wife Wanda Taddei in 2010, by setting her on fire.
Omar Chabán was under house arrest with terminal cancer. He died in 2014.
The last person to get out of prison on charges related to Cromañón was Pato Fontanet, the lead singer of Callejeros. He was put on parole in May of 2018.
[Pablo]: The band Callejeros —beyond the responsibility they have— is a bunch of kids who were left torn apart, very damaged, you know?. You have a singer like Pato Fontanet who is now going back on stage but who was psychologically very… very affected by this situation.
[Daniel]: We tried to reach Fontanet through a friend of the band, and his lawyers told us that Fontanet was not giving interviews. With his release from prison, the case is closed. But not for the families. For them, there’s no sentence that can cover up or cure that pain.
And for the survivors, it becomes, in many ways, a cross to bear.
[Pablo]: Many said they didn’t couldn’t get out of Cromañón.
[Mailín]: Sometimes at night, I… I couldn’t sleep, and I would end up sleeping with my mom like I was a five-year-old.
[Fabio Lacolla]: A lot of phobias, a lot of fear. You live in a state of alert, almost with one eye open, I would say, for a long time. Because, you see, any sound at night… You don’t know.
[Luis Lamas]: Those of us who got out, we got out… It was by chance, it was luck. It was a lottery. So, when all that started to get stuck in your head, you had to do the right work to learn how to live with that.
[Maximiliano]: You have that anguish and that constant pain, every day. That if you think about it, you’ll throw in bed and never get up… because there’s no solution.
[Luis Lamas]: Those wounds and those things that you… those emotions that you experience never go away. You have to learn where to locate them and how to live with them. It’s impossible.
[Mailín]: I was able to talk about it a lot, all the time. I was able to cry about it a lot when I had to. And it helped me to work through, eh, what happened. And try to deal with it differently, you know?
[Daniel]: And of course, there are those who couldn’t take it. People who it hurt too much. In the years after Cromañón, 18 survivors of the tragedy have taken their lives.
[Pablo]: I think they are also the… the consequence and the direct victims of… obviously, of what happened that night.
[Daniel]: In 2013 a law that provided reparations and assistance to the survivors and families of the victims of the Cromañón tragedy was passed. But at that time, they didn’t create the necessary programs for them to receive treatment.
The complaints from family organizations and the concern over the suicides of some of the concert’s attendees caused the government to create a network of mental health providers throughout the country in 2015. The network is coordinated by the “Doctor Fernando Ulloa” Center for the Assistance to Victims of Human Rights Violations, which specializes in post-traumatic stress.
Groups of Cromañón survivors and employees of the center have reported a lack of financing and insufficient attention paid to the center. The Ulloa Center denies any lack of resources or personnel.
Please, if you have depression or suicidal thoughts, seek help. Speak with your friends and family and consider professional help. If you think a loved one is in such a situation, ask them, listen to them, help them. We’re going to put links to resources that can help you on our website.
This story was reported by Anto Beccari, Ariel Placencia, and Federico Pissinis. It was produced by Silvia Viñas with help from Victoria Estrada, and it was edited by Camila Segura, Luis Fernando Vargas and myself. Ana Prieto did the fact-checking. The music and sound design are by Andrés Azpiri and Rémy Lozano.
Thanks to Pablo Plotkin from Rolling Stone.
The rest of the Radio Ambulante team includes Lisette Arévalo, Gabriela Brenes, Jorge Caraballo, Andrea López Cruzado, Miranda Mazariegos, Diana Morales, Patrick Moseley, Laura Rojas Aponte, Barbara Sawhill, David Trujillo, and Elsa Liliana Ulloa. Carolina Guerrero is the CEO.
Radio Ambulante is produced and mixed on Hindenburg PRO.
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Radio Ambulante tells the stories of Latin America. I’m Daniel Alarcón. Thanks for listening.