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At the top of Argentines' concerns: crime

Do fears of crime in Argentina reflect reality?

Demonstrators gather in front of the Casa Rosada presidential palace to demand a tougher stance against crime in Buenos Aires March 18, 2009. (Reuters)

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.”