Argentina's Soaring Crime Rate

Article excerpt

THESE days Argentines not only have to cope with their economic malaise but also what they see as its most worrying by-product: a violent crime wave that has swept the country and encouraged some to take the law into their own hands.

The problem is not confined to big cities. In early March the mayor of Villarino, a little-known rural district lying 700 km south of the capital Buenos Aires, found much sympathy when he declared he would stand by those who shoot criminal intruders.

Mario Ahumada, a 61-year-old Villarino landowner echoed the mayor: 'If I see a stranger on my land, I'll shoot him', he declared. And the Villarino Cattle Breeders' Association admitted that its members had been organising armed night patrols since mid-2002, when the economic crisis was hitting hard.

Argentina's economic crisis forced President Fernando de la Rua to resign in December 2001 amid street protests, triggered by severe recession, high unemployment and a general bank account freeze that turned even his middle-class supporters against him. The economy worsened in 2002 when a financial arrangement that had kept the peso pegged to the US dollar at a rate of one-to-one since 1991 was abandoned, and the exchange rate soon reached the three pesos per dollar mark.

Most citizens blame the worsening crime wave on the financial crisis. But a recent academic paper by Diego Gorgal, lecturer at the Buenos Aires-based Argentine Catholic University, says the seeds of the current problems date back further--to social changes that followed IMF-backed structural adjustment policies introduced between 1990 and 1993.

'The qualitative transformation came hand-in-hand with new conditions in the labour market, the dismantling of the welfare system and, moreover, the development of an informal and, in most cases, criminal economy that took advantage of a retreating state', says Gorgal.

Government statistics show that crime fell 73 per cent between 1988 and 1992 in Buenos Aires but rose 286 per cent between 1992 and 1995. In 1995 the former President, Carlos Menem had been re-elected amid international praise for achieving low inflation, privatising state-run companies and the currency peg. Argentina, Menem liked to boast, had become part of the First World.

By contrast to the sharp rise in the early 1990s, between 1999 and 2002 the crime rate only grew 5.25 per cent. 'It had grown so wildly that levelling off was the most likely outcome', says Hernan Olaeta, an adviser at the Justice Ministry.

Gorgal says spiralling crime rates can be found across the region. 'Latin America is currently the world's most violent area, measured by its homicide rate', he explains.

Hector Recalde, an expert in labour law who advises trade unions, has no doubt about the link between the 1990s economic changes and increasing crime. He shows a chart representing the official unemployment, poverty and crime rates--the upward trend of the three curves almost exactly match.

Argentina's undersecretary for criminal policies Mario Ciafardini admits 'there is a strong positive correlation between extreme poverty and the crime rate', but rejects the idea that people in poverty turn to crime, saying probably a mere one per cent take up crime.

Nevertheless, the starkest face of Argentina's worsening poverty is found in the Buenos Aires' slums, which grew by 114 per cent in the 1990s to 113,000 people. Slums lack the most basic public services, including law enforcement, and have become safe havens for criminal activities.

Elena, a 27-year-old single mother who lives in La Cava, the capital's largest slum, says: 'Sometimes you become very depressed. This is not a place to raise two children, but for the time being I have no choice because moving out is too expensive. I can't stand the drug dealers anymore and I can't stand the fact that the last thing my children hear before falling asleep every night is gun shots'. …