Paco, the priest from Malaga sent by the Pope to a marginal district of Buenos Aires

Francisco Olveira, painting the mural with local children.
Francisco Olveira, painting the mural with local children. / SUR
  • Paco Olveira, who has been fighting poverty in South America for 29 years, is leading a project to bring dignity back to Isla Maciel, a suburb of the Argentinian capital

Paco -his name is Francisco Olveira, but nobody at Isla Maciel calls him that: he is Paco or simply "the priest"- discovered shortly before Christmas, surrounded by tins of paint and boys playing pranks, that he has been awarded the VIII Provincial Prize for International Solidarity and Human Rights.

"There were rumours, but this is the first time I have heard about it officially," he said to me, on the phone. It was 2.30pm in Argentina and the 51-year-old priest from Malaga, who has spent 29 years in Latin America, was painting a Christmas mural with residents of one of the most deprived areas of Buenos Aires, Isla Maciel. It is an old port district with high unemployment and a major drugs problem. Paco was sent there 12 years ago by Pope Francis, when he was archbishop.

The mural, like this priest's conception of Christianity, has a strong social message. "In Argentina there was a programme called 'Plan Qunita': every mother who gave birth was given a kit with a cot and necessary items for the baby. The government has cancelled that, which is hitting the poorest families hard, so we are painting a Christmas mural with baby Jesus in one of those cots," explained Paco, who was intending to spend Christmas Eve holding a sit-in with 58 local factory workers who had lost their jobs. He immediately began to think of giving some of his 10,000-euro prize from the Malaga provincial government towards the workers' cause.

Small loans

This money will be tremendously useful for the Maciel Foundation, from which Olveira leads the social transformation of this district, because the 10,000 euros will be divided among numerous needs. "For example, we have a programme to help people improve their homes, Casitas de Belén. It works like a fraternal bank and gives small loans to the families. We need more funds for that," he explained. He also wants part of the money to stay in Spain, "where there are people in great need."

At Isla Maciel, a place which until not long ago was a hell in which drugs, misery and violence were common, Paco has found his "place in the world". Before, he had travelled across much of South America with different humanitarian projects. "I'm happy here," he says, and he is grateful to the Pope for having guided him to this suburb of Buenos Aires 12 years ago. Olveira was returning from the Colombian jungle and looking for a new placement in Argentina. "He told me he had found the perfect place for me," he recalls.

Since then, Paco, who is also a qualified nurse and a lawyer, has been immersed in a crusade to bring dignity back to the district. The key to his success is that he knows how to get local people involved. A centre for prevention and rehabilitation of addictions, social canteens, housing improvements, free legal advice... Life is still hard at Isla Maciel, but there is hope. "The person who runs things receives all the praise, but it is the people who do the work who deserve it. My job is to bring people back together," he says. Olveira is also an activist: he is currently fighting for the release of Milagro Sala, an Argentinian social leader jailed early last year "for political reasons".

In 1999, in conjunction with the San Pedro Apóstol church in Malaga, Paco set up the PIBE project, which operates as a 'bridge of solidarity' between Malaga and Argentina. Next summer he will return to his home city to try to attract more sponsors for the Maciel Foundation, then he will return to his place in the world which, thanks to him, is becoming less marginal.