At the top of Argentines' concerns: crime

BUENOS AIRES — On April 15, 45-year-old Daniel Capristo was shot dead in front of his family by a kid who wanted his car.

The next day, more than 3,000 banner-bearing residents of greater Buenos Aires filled the streets, chanting pro-death penalty slogans and demanding that minors be tried as adults for violent crimes, according to local media. They also revived the refrain that chased out three successive Argentine presidents during the financial collapse of 2001: “All of them must go; not a single one may stay.”

In the weeks ahead of Argentina's congressional elections, the consensus on editorial pages and the street is that crime is foremost in voters' minds. The survey firm Ibarometro found that the issue outranked all others considered — including poverty, education and corruption — by a factor of two in the greater Buenos Aires area, and by four inside the city proper.

As in Buenos Aires, so in the rest of the country. According to a monthly survey by the University of Di Tella, almost 40 percent of metropolitan Argentine households have seen a crime against a household member in the past year, the same rate as in the capital. Most of those offenses were robberies, about half of them violent ones.

That crime rate — colorfully called the “Index of Victimization” — has jumped 35 percent in the past year. The increase may represent a new surge in Argentina, which last saw a major crescendo in violent crime leading up to and following the economic crash in the beginning of the decade, as mounting unemployment led to desperation. As the economy recovered, crime rates began to fall again.

Even if the rates fell for much of this decade, however, it seems that fear of crime has only grown. Gilson Jorge, a Brazilian student of international relations, got a time-lapse image of the Argentine mood between his first visit to Buenos Aires in 2003 and his return this year to start his master's degree program.

“People appear to be much more afraid now than they were before,” Jorge said. “Now, people look scared when you walk up to them in the street.”

To Jorge, the fear seems overblown.

After all, the homicide rate in Argentina is only about a fifth of that in Jorge's native Brazil and in Venezuela, for example, and a tenth of that in Colombia and El Salvador. Although Argentina had the 20th-highest “Index of Victimization” — out of 77 countries analyzed by the Network of Latin American Technological Information — it's near the bottom of that list for American countries. While Latin America is one of the highest crime regions in the world, Argentina (hysteria aside) remains one of the safest countries in the region.

“In Argentina, everything is exaggerated, especially if it's bad news,” said Miguel Winazki, journalist and author of the book “Panic Attack: Chronicles of Fear in Argentina.” “There's a long apocalyptic tradition of believing that the world is collapsing, and that Argentina is worst off.”

Argentina's secretary of security, for one, has tried to counteract the doomsday fears, maintaining that the crime rate has been decreasing steadily since 2001, and publicly blaming the media for “constructing an image of insecurity which, at times, is distorted.”

Winazki notes that the media's ratings rise when they report scary news, and he's a bit skeptical about a real rise in the crime rate. “It probably has risen, but I don't know if it has risen dramatically,” Winazki said. “But what has risen dramatically is the priority the issue has in the public agenda."

Recent months have brought new and controversial public initiatives — from security cameras on some posh neighborhood streets to a partially constructed wall dividing an affluent neighborhood from a poorer one in the suburbs of Buenos Aires. There has been talk of bringing gendarmerie forces from the borders that they have traditionally patrolled into city slums in the country's interior.

The crime controversy is a favorite with politicians of all stripes, whom Winazki says are as guilty of feeding and exploiting the hysteria as the media. Perhaps they have to be, upon pain of losing their jobs: In the Ibarometro poll that found crime to be the top election issue, two-thirds of respondents thought the Buenos Aires province government mishandled the issue. That provincial government is home to the pivotal race of the June 28 elections — a hint that Argentina may be in for a regime change this month.

And whatever the contributions of politicians and media types, a popular front is clearly growing where crime hits home. “We are all Daniels in the street,” said the 24-year-old son of the slain Daniel Capristo, surrounded by thousands of outraged supporters and mobbed by television cameras. “We must say 'Enough.' "

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