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Argentina’s soaring crime, a legacy of the roaring ’90s

An Argentinian researcher argues that Argentina’s soaring crime rates go back to the early 1990s when the gap between rich and poor widened due to IMF-backed structural adjustment changes.

Many blame Argentina's soaring crime rates on the recent collapse of the economy. But one Argentinian researcher believes the roots of crime go back much further – to the early 1990s.

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 crimes fell 73 per cent between 1988 and 1992 in Buenos Aires but rose 286 per cent between 1992 and 1995. In 1995 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 Hernán 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.

Héctor 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 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."

Jorge Garcia Cuerva, a Catholic priest in La Cava says: "The economic situation has created conditions for arms and drug trafficking to flourish. But these are businesses run for people who don't live here. People here are the victims. There is fear but mainly there is anger, because people here really want a better quality of life."

A survey by the economic think-tank Union for a New Majority shows that 40 per cent of poor are victims of crime as against 12 per cent of the middle-class.

The economic changes in the early 1990s created boom years for some, and the country's Gross Domestic Product grew 42 per cent between 1991 and 1998. But the income gap also grew. In 1991 the richest 10 per cent earned 19 times more than the poorest 10 per cent; by 1998 it was 28 times higher.

At the same time the economic changes – privatisation of state companies and deregulation of the labour market to make it easier for companies to hire and fire staff – did not create the anticipated new jobs and Argentina's economic implosion at the end of 2001 made the picture worse.

The World Bank report, Argentina, Crisis and Poverty 2003, highlights that in 2002, 58 per cent of Argentina's 38 million people were living below the poverty line and joblessness stood at 22 per cent.

"Compared to other countries experiencing crises [Mexico, Indonesia, Korea, Thailand, Malaysia and Russia], the parameters for Argentina are more severe than most in terms of poverty, unemployment and falling wages," says the report. "Falling revenues have further cut social programmes, adding to the poverty of the poorest and leading to increasing social unrest and crime."

Hernán Olaeta says the government is trying to stem the crime rate with social programmes aimed at the poor, better street lighting and more policemen patrolling the city. "However, crime remains at a high level and is a serious problem."

Many people have reacted to the spiraling crime in the same way as the Villarino ranchers, triggering a minor arms race. A 2003 survey conducted by pollster Graciela Romer found that over a third of respondents said they either had a gun or planned to buy one.

"There is a significant stock of unregistered guns in the hands of citizens, who could challenge the state's monopoly of the use of force," Romer says.

Some politicians, government officials and police chiefs have voiced their concern about facing common folks armed to the teeth, but a sizeable portion of the population do not share such feelings.

In mid June, shooting instructor Jose Manuel Mainardi killed two men who had robbed him of US$3,370 in Buenos Aires – he shot them as they were fleeing the scene of the crime so self-defence was out of the question. Call-in radio shows were inundated with messages saying Mainardi, who faced trial for killing his attackers, was being "mistreated" and prosecuting him only gave the green light to robbers.

But for the poorest in Argentina, the double blow of poverty and crime is not about to go away. According to the latest figures, 70 per cent of youths under 18 in Buenos Aires live below the poverty line.

"Practically a whole generation in the country's main urban conglomerate is growing up with a nutritional, intellectual, cultural and social deficit, which will jeopardise its future inclusion in society, political life and the labour market," says Gorgal. "A new kind of society is emerging right in front of the eyes of the old one and not many voices of concern can be heard."

Jorge San Pedro is a Buenos Aires-based freelance journalist, formerly with the Buenos Aires Herald as National Politics Editor.

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08/05/2004

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