Inseguridad is a word that you hear often in Argentina, whether it is plastered across the front page of your paper, thrown from the politician’s pulpit or grumbled between two grandmothers at a café. You’ve probably heard it even more recently.
Bus driver unions have protested against rising crime by shutting down public transportation, leaving hundreds of thousands of commuters stranded in the city. A so-called “lynch mob” beat an 18-year-old to death after he stole a purse in Rosario, and ever since the story made the national headlines, reports of these “lynching” incidents have been multiplying all over the country. The governor of Buenos Aires, Daniel Scioli, has called a state of emergency to start his own war on crime. All of these instances indicate a public perception of crime that, while it certainly is on the rise, is drifting dangerously far from reality.
The reality is that Argentina has a “Europe-like” murder rate that ranks among the lowest in the continent, according to a report released earlier this month by the United Nations. At 5.5 murders per 100,000 people, Argentina ranks behind only Chile and Cuba for the lowest murder rate in Latin America. The three countries have rates that are “stable and lower, which gives them homicide profiles closer to those of European countries,” according to the report.
Still think Buenos Aires is too dangerous? The city’s murder rate is ranked third lowest among populous cities in North and South America, falling behind only Toronto and Santiago, and just edging out New York City. Yes, you read correctly, more people are murdered per capita in the Big Apple than in Buenos Aires.
Compared to its MERCOSUR buddies, Argentina might as well be Switzerland. Brazil kicks off its kill rate at 25.2, Venezuela clocks in at 53.7, and Central America… let’s not even go there.
(Graphics via UNODC, Global Study on Homicide (2013)
The media has taken advantage of this crime hysteria; some would argue they had a large role in creating it. Sensationalist headlines, such as “Overwhelmed by crime, Argentina Declares Emergency in Buenos Aires,” “Menace of the Motochorros (robbers on motorcycles)” and “Rising Crime in Argentina Sparks Wave of Lynch Mobs, Dividing the Public,” make it sound as if Buenos Aires has turned into some kind of post-apocalyptic “Mad Max” showdown. The word “lynch” alone has been used so many times I’m starting to think the hipster neighborhood of Palermo is the new Jim Crow South. Let’s be clear: nobody has been strung up from a tree and lit on fire. Argentina does not have the violent gangs that are present in countries like Honduras (90.4 murder rate), nor does it have an ever-growing gang of vigilantes to fight them.
Last week, the C5N channel decided to take media incompetence to the next level. On his program Chiche en Vivo, tele-journalist Chiche Gelblung invited two supposed motochorros to his program for an interview. One of them showed up in a hat with fake dreads (it lends to one’s fake gangster credibility) and both proceeded to talk about how many cars and motorcycles they’d stolen, how much money they make, how much drugs they smoke, etc., occasionally interrupted by Chiche asking them to repeat themselves. Afterwards, the two men were met by federal agents outside the station and placed under arrest. Panic ensued, during which the show’s producers claimed that the men were actually just actors whom they had paid $300 pesos, according to police sources. Chiche denied paying the men. You can watch the comedy-ske….errrr interview below (in Spanish):
Politicians have also jumped on the paranoia bandwagon. Sergio Massa, the opposition congressman who looks to be a frontrunner in the presidential elections next year, said that, while he opposed their actions, the citizens who had taken justice into their own hands were justified in light of the “absence of the state.”
The Governor of the Province of Buenos Aires, Daniel Scioli – who also plans to throw his hat in the ring – declared a 12-month state of emergency for the province and announced plans to invest 600 million pesos in security equipment, buy patrol cars and rehire 5,000 retired police officers. In addition, Scioli plans to create eight agencies with the capacity to host 1,000 prisoners and four penitentiaries, and will be submitting bills to the legislature to “limit prisoners’ release.” “This is the most sacred fight: the fight for life,” he said.
If Scioli’s plan sounds familiar, that’s because it is basically a microcosm of the United States’ failed criminal justice model. Towards the end of the 20th century, the criminal justice system in the US shifted drastically towards more punitive policies, despite the fact that crime in the US was dropping overall. In every federal system and in every state, sentences were increased, incarceration was made more onerous and more juvenile offenders were allowed to be tried as adults. The end result is a US system infamous for its draconian punishments as well as an incarceration rate that towers above any other Western democracy.
Now, crime is still a serious problem in Argentina and I’m in no way trying to diminish the situation. Lesser crimes such as theft and assault are much more common. In fact, Argentina had the most robberies in Latin America with 973.3 per 100,000 inhabitants the last time statistics were published in a United Nations Development Programme report in November, 2013. I know first-hand about assault: in 2010, six porteños with a bad attitude were kind enough to add chichón and ojo morado (bruise and black eye) to my vocabulary.
Sex trafficking in Argentina has also received some much needed attention lately, thanks in large part to the efforts of human rights champion Susana Trimarco. After her daughter was abducted and sold into the sex trade in April 2002, Trimarco launched a campaign to find her. She herself infiltrated human-trafficking gangs under the guise of wanting to “buy” women. The information she gathered led to the rescue of dozens of sexually-exploited women, and her foundation Fundacion Maria de los Angeles, has helped pass laws to fight human trafficking. Trimarco still has not found her daughter but recently, after a lengthy trial and appeal process, ten of her daughter’s kidnappers were sentenced to up to 22 years in prison.
Improved police response and judicial competence are needed to reduce these criminal offenses, but throwing 5,000 retired police on the street and building more prisons is just putting Band-Aids on bullet holes.
While insecurity in Argentina needs to be addressed immediately, remember the UN report’s statistics next time you hear this country is turning into an unlivable hell. Is the situation ideal? Far from it. But that doesn’t mean we are living in a post-apocalyptic nightmare. In the meantime, it’s up to the political elite to tackle crime in a comprehensive and efficient way fast – one that takes into account underlying issues such as poverty, mental health, drug addiction, corruption and lack of adequate education – in order for crime decrease in this country.