With the beginning of a new electoral year, the Argentine political conversation is again discussing two ever-controversial subjects: whether the age of criminal responsibility should be lower, and the real impact of crimes committed by foreigners in Argentina, an issue that is always tied to the initiative of swiftly deporting those who commit certain crimes in domestic soil. In this case, the conversation had to make room for the debate about whether taser guns are elements of torture, following a governmental announcement regarding the decision of buying 300 for security forces.
The other two issues were also introduced by the government. In the first case, by letting transpire to the press that it made a list of 1,000 foreigners who could be deported. And in the second, by announcing it will send a bill to Congress to change the youth criminal system. The article that stands out the most, predictably, is the one that lowers the age of criminal responsibility from 16 to 15 years of age. However, this would only happen if the teenager committed crimes that are punished with 15 or more years in prison, such as murder and rape.
A staunch supporter of tough-on-crime policies, Security Minister Patricia Bullrich was the official chosen by the government to defend these arguments. The two initiatives, however, are different, and is worth contrasting them with stats and/or precedent to get the bigger picture, so let’s take a look at them one at a time.
Deporting Foreigners who Commit Crimes
In an interview on Monday, Bullrich said that “lately, especially in drug-trafficking-related issues, there has been a big increase in crimes committed by foreigners, reaching 20 percent of all detainees.”
While some media outlets merely echoed this figure, others were quick to indicate that, in accordance with figures from the National Prison System, the overall percentage of foreigners in Argentine prisons is six percent. Both figures – overall percentage of criminals and percentage of drug-related criminals – that have barely fluctuated in the past 12 years.
The figure is in line with the overall percentage of foreigners over the Argentine population (5 percent). And the 20 percent figure, when given out of context, could feed into many Argentines’ existing xenophobia. A recent global Ipsos/Mori poll showed that, of all countries polled, Argentina ranked second in terms of wrong perception regarding the percentage of foreigners living in the country. In average, those surveyed assured that 33 percent of the population was not born in Argentina.
In another passage of the interview, Bullrich announced the decision is part of a broader initiative, which would see the creation of a court especially tasked with ruling over foreigners who commit crimes, as well as a unit within Federal Police to track them down. However, the minister indicated that deportation “will be done within the legal frame of existing legislation.”
The thing is, the existing legislation is also controversial. In 2017, the government passed a decree – i.e a law that did not go through Congress – which eased the requirements to expel foreigners who commit crimes in the country.
The most relevant aspects of the decree prevent people with criminal records or who have been a part of a criminal organization, like drug, human and organ trafficking rings from entering. The policy update also stops people presenting false documentation or omitting information about their record at the time of entering the country. It also accelerates the process to expel foreigners who commit serious crimes.
The causes for “immediate” deportation, are the following, according to the government:
- If the foreign citizen is eligible for parole – the amount of time that has to pass for it to happen depends on how many years they were sentenced to. In that case, the expulsion from the country will compensate the time left to serve.
- Foreigners who are sentenced to three years in prison or less can be automatically deported from the country. Since offenders who receive these sentences are not actually required to serve time, a court can decide to expel them automatically.
- Foreigners who have firm indictments against them – meaning the decision has been upheld by both an appeals and a cassation court. In this case, the deportation also replaces all procedural measures the accused could resort to to continue arguing their innocence.
The decree is the subject of a legal battle, as human rights organizations challenged its constitutionality shortly after it was issued. After a Court of Appeals rejected the decree and a Cassation Court – a superior instance – approved it, the final decision will be made by the Supreme Court.
But regardless of the ruling, the new initiative will likely be met with resistance in Congress, as most sectors of the opposition have always been critical of this kind of policy.
Between 2015 and 2017, the number of deportations in Argentina increased by 121 percent.
According to the numbers provided by the Direction for National Migration (DNM), reported by El Cronista, in 2014 there were a total of 809 foreigners asked to leave the country because of their criminal records, a number which isn’t far from the 2015 figure of 985.
The next year, Cambiemos’ first year in power, the number rose markedly to 1,286, and followed the same path in 2017 with 1,983 foreigners deported. By mid-2018, the figure was 707, meaning that, if the trend continued, the figure could have surpassed 2,000. We will have to wait for official stats to confirm.
Lowering the Age of Criminal Responsibility
The possibility of lowering the age of criminal responsibility has been floated in Argentina for decades. However, and although all initiatives to date have failed, the government announced it will send the bill to Congress in February.
About this, Bullrich said: “it goes in line with [Rudy] Giuliani’s theory,” making reference to the former Mayor of New York and current attorney of US president Donald Trump, who during his tenure implemented his known “zero tolerance” on crime policy.
However, precedent shows that the initiative’s chances of succeeding are low. In early 2017, the government kicked off a debate over the possibility of lowering the age of criminal responsibility from 16 to 14, following the murder of 14-year-old Brian Aguianco at the hands of a 15-year-old, Joel González, in the City’s neighborhood of Flores in December 2016.
The initiative was met with vocal rejection from the opposition in the two houses of Congress. Even the leader of the PJ caucus in the Senate, Miguel Pichetto, a staunch supporter of tough-on-crime policies, said it’s a “sterile” debate, and made reference to the fact that in 2009, the Senate approved a reform to the youth criminal system, but its Lower Counterpart never gave its approval.
Members of most parties concurred, assuring that the initiatives are nothing but “campaign marketing” from the government, aimed at avoiding discussing its economic failure.
Regardless of this debate, truth is this type of rhetoric was repeatedly used to captivate more conservative voters. It is a fact that the government does not have much to show for on the economic landscape, and believes it has made progress on its security counterpart. Because for this reason, not few political analysts are speculating about the possibility that Bullrich becomes Macri’s running mate in October’s elections.
Amid a deep recession combined with high inflation, it would definitely be beneficial for the government to shift the conversation away from the economy. We will have to see if it succeeds at it.