The Mugging of Latin America

By Young, Clifford | Americas Quarterly, Fall 2007 | Go to article overview

The Mugging of Latin America


Young, Clifford, Americas Quarterly


Rising crime rates have triggered enormous public pressure on politicians across the continent. Whether and how they will respond is unclear.

"Hey Tio, do you have any change for some food?" The two teenagers-they couldn't have been more than 15 or 16 years old-seemed polite as they stopped me one evening, two blocks from my São Paulo apartment, on my way to the neighborhood supermarket. Before I could respond, they flashed a weapon and ordered me into a nearby car. Stunned and scared, I followed without another word. All they wanted, they told me calmly, was my money. A few moments later, we pulled up in front of a nearby bank. At their bidding, I withdrew the 500-real limit on my ATM card, and handed it to the boys. They left me standing on the street as they sped away.

I was lucky. As a public opinion researcher, I've worked intensively on the subject of crime and violence, polling on all the topics related to the issue. However, all this experience was in the abstract. Now I had become yet another statistic. My street encounter left me both humbled and shaken-with a new appreciation for the human toll represented by those reams of data.

The entire incident was over in 10 minutes, but the rush of fear-who would take care of my family if I was hurt?-and the shock of being mugged in a familiar middle-class neighborhood lingered for days. As the shock wore off, my emotions turned to anger. I became infuriated and frustrated with a government that collects my taxes but fails to police my street.

And then my anger turned to despair: who would care about yet another victim of street crime in São Paulo? Indeed, an IPSOS-Instituto Futuro Brasil (IFB) survey shows that a full 66 percent of São Paulo inhabitants are victims of some form of street crime in a given year-in real terms, 6.6 million in a city of approximately 10 million inhabitants.

And there was another surprise waiting for me. When I told my story to friends and colleagues, it elicited an emotional outpouring of similar incidents that they had experienced, some much worse than mine: assaults, robberies, kidnappings. It was hardly a comfort to know that I was not alone. Latin America now has the highest violent crime rate in the world. What is striking is not only the level of violence, but the fact that crime has become intertwined with the daily routine of most Latin Americans, what sociologists call social proximity.

In Brazil, a June 2007 IPSOS survey shows that 61 percent of Brazilians have either been victims of crime or have known a victim of a crime in the last few years. Moreover, 38 percent of the known victims were either the respondent or members of the respondent's immediate family.

At a regional level, Latin Americans are equally familiar with crime. The same 2007 IPSOS poll shows that 64 percent of Latin Americans have been victims or have known a victim of crime in the last few years.1

Urban Jitters

Media coverage underscores the widespread feeling of insecurity. News headlines portray the large urban areas in Latin America as no-man's lands while the upper and middle classes hide behind walled complexes, buy bullet-proof cars and hire private security guards for protection. The poor, meanwhile, take their chances with an ineffective and often disinterested state.

Insecurity and the media coverage of it, in turn, affect people's perception of risk. As a pollster, this so-called "social proximity of crime" to our daily lives intrigued me. If crime so closely affects the majority of us, why don't things change? Where are the creative policy solutions to meet the expectations of a weary citizenry?

Until recently the primary concern of Latin Americans, according to opinion polls, was economic development and job creation. Let me repeat: until recently. The polls now show a dramatic change: crime is fast becoming the primary concern for the public. According to the IPSOS Public Affairs survey (2006-2007) and Latinobarómetro (2006), 11 of 18 national populations surveyed rate delinquency or public security as the number one or number two issue in their countries. …

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