Let’s face it: Buenos Aires is a big city, with almost three million inhabitants in the city proper and approximately ten million in the surrounding greater metropolitan areas (2010 Census), and we all know that crime is a by-product of all urban centres throughout the world. But despite realistic expectations of crime, here there is an underlying unease, a pervading sense that crime is everywhere, that no place is safe anymore.
Just how safe or unsafe really is Buenos Aires?
It turns out, for the present, that Argentina remains one of the safest nations in Latin America, (see Figure 1 rates of victimization, or page 128 of this report) and that the rates for heinous crimes, such as murder, have steadily gone down since 2002, as has all crime in general. (see Figure 2). At present, Buenos Aires marks 4.6 murders per 100,000 inhabitants, more than a 40% reduction since the early naughts, making it a safer place than Toronto, Canada. And although Latin America in general has high crime rates, Argentina is far below the world average on all counts (see Figure 3 3rd graph).
This would seem to be good news, and yet the data has not been heralded far and wide. Perhaps this is due in part to the fact that Spanish does not differentiate between the words ‘safety’, as in the objective sense of public safety, and ‘security’, as in the subjective feeling of confidence; seguridad is the word used to describe both the objective and the subjective state. In Argentina, the term is almost always heard in a negative connotation, that is, inseguridad, or insecurity, which makes it difficult to tell when a person is referring to their emotional state or the alleged crime wave.
At present, fear of crime or inseguridad approximately doubles the crime rate. According to various polls, including Latinobarometro and TNS Gallup, crime and delinquency are what most worry all Latin Americans and Argentines are no different, where fear of being victimized has been a growing fear since 2003.
Paradoxically, most Argentines appear to associate the start of the feeling of inseguridad with the events of the last decade, when hyperinflation and poor management brought on by the inept economic policies of previous administrations caused widespread panic and riots. Nonetheless, there is an inverse correlation between economic well-being and the feeling of inseguridad. In other words, the feeling of insecurity has increased along with economic well-being and a reduction in crime, instead of decreasing, as would be expected.
What is worrisome in this situation is that Argentines apparently are not moved by or are ignorant of the facts of the decreased crime rates and are adopting behavioural measures to protect themselves against potential and unidentified threats. These measures can vary from iron bars and security cameras to changing routes or avoiding going out entirely. But the cause of the fear or inseguridad remains unclear, because an object or situation in and of itself does not cause fear; it is the lack of control that one has over it which gives rise to the fear.
Polarisation of Society
The Argentine obsession with its own insecurity is arguably the result of the removal of those authoritarian (i.e., fascist) tendencies that characterized the political leanings of the country during most of the twentieth century. In fact, many sectors of the population can be heard to describe a utopian period “before” when “things were safer”. Other, more reactionary, sectors are clearer and make reference to an “unsafe democracy versus a safe dictatorship”.
Apparently not all crimes are equal in the minds of the Argentines: what unsettles people is the randomness or anonymity of some crimes, or the presence of an unknown sinister figure behind them, as well as the possibility that the criminal escapes unpunished, all themes that recall the situation under the last dictatorship. Thus crimes which include some form of kidnapping, torture (either psychological or physical), and murder are those which occupy a larger part of the Argentine imagination precisely because they recall those crimes against humanity (albeit these are much less frequent than deaths caused by vehicular collision which is the principal cause of death among those under age 35 and the third cause of death for the rest of the population, after circulatory disorders and cancer). And although there are few murders and even fewer of these of the kidnapping/torture type, the media follow them with morbid detail, to the degree that it appears that a murderer is lurking on every corner. Do local media faithfully represent the nature of crime in Argentina or do they exaggerate it? And if they exaggerate it, what incentives could there be to do so?
From the 80s to the 90s crime reporting gradually migrated from sensationalist publications, usually printed in capital letters, to the principal newspapers and television stations, and along with them the image of a distant ‘abnormal’ criminal morphed into a threat to middle and upper class sensibilities, and thus a matter of public safety. Since the dawn of the millennium, the crime section of the major newspapers is a permanent feature, and in fact, out of 14 Latin American newspapers, Argentine newspapers have the highest rate of crime reporting. Curiously, crime that affects the lower strata of the socio-economic divisions is rarely represented in the media, as if the crime that afflicts the poor is of no consequence. In addition, the media in other countries typically underreport crime in order to protect business and tourism interests, yet in Argentina business has never been better and every season hits a new record for tourism despite the virtual reality portrayal of crime.
Nonetheless polls and reporting that spout statistics such as “in 2005, 83% of the population was victim to some crime or knew some victim” (La Nación 06/13/06) or “every three hours someone is murdered in Buenos Aires” (La Nación 03/09/03) give the impression that society is overcome by crime, when indeed, the reliability of such statistics should be studied. Many polls are carried out by organizations controlled by the same media instruments, as in the first case, and the statistical methodology in others is suspect, above all when numbers of crimes are not computed in relation to the population and population growth figures, as in the second case. In fact it is not clear whether the increase in crime observed during the transition period from dictatorship to democracy (1983-91 approximately) is in reality just an increase in the reporting of crime. In this case the use of outdated statistics and a revisionist view of the past would lead one to believe that the city was indeed safer during the 70s and 80s.
So why is there a misrepresentation of crime rates? One reason is obvious: money. More interestingly, there is a burgeoning commercial incentive to maintaining the public in a state of constant fear. For just one niche in this hefty area, security services, the Argentine Chamber for Security and Detective Agencies estimates that business is booming at an average of 5% growth rate per year since 2006; just during the year 2010 they netted over two billion dollars, and they project better numbers for the present year. The president of said Chamber, Aquiles Gorini, however, is an ex-federal policeman, part of the generation of cops that was trained during the last dictatorship under the auspices of the notorious School of Americas, or as it is now known, The Western Hemisphere Institute for Security Cooperation. For most Argentines, the presence of more policemen, especially policemen trained by ex-military/ex –policemen, is not a comforting thought. And indeed, the NGO Centre for Legal Studies (CELS), reported that there was a 12% increase in unwarranted police violence from June 2008 to June 2009.
The second, not so obvious scenario, would, of course, respond to the political agendas that those publications wish to promote – such as the removal of the present administration from power or to distract the public from official achievements. It has been legitimately established that crime shows the insufficiency of any given government and gives the impression that the administration is not in control of the situation.
This in turn explains why the media focuses on crime that affects the middle to upper classes: because these typically a) have enough money to buy security products and/or insurance and b) are able to influence the political agenda.
The Profile of a Criminal
The threatening image of crime projected by the mainstream media here, however, often shows socially and economically underprivileged young males, though paradoxically the crime rates show that this figure is most often the victim of crime and not the criminal: “according to a 2007 UN Children’s Fund and National Secretariat for Human Rights report, juvenile facilities held approximately 20,000 children, 20 percent of whom were under age 16. The overwhelming majority had not committed a crime; rather, they were abandoned by their families or considered ‘at risk’ for other reasons.”
Nevertheless, the similarity between the media launching of the threatening criminal delinquents of today’s society bears much in common with the ‘subversive delinquents’ described by the de facto government of the military junta in the 70s. Junta leader Jorge Rafael Videla defined thus the ‘enemy’ that supposedly Argentine society confronted during the dictatorship: “a terrorist is not only someone with a gun or a bomb, but anybody that disseminates ideas that are contrary to Western Christian civilisation.” The purpose of the ‘Process of National Reorganization’ as the dictatorship was euphemistically called by its perpetrators was manifestly to systematically weed out this ‘enemy’. And unfortunately, the newspapers that spread this message during the dictatorship are the same that today are publishing sensationalist misinformation about crime.
Under this framework then, the attitudes shown by Argentines to either maintain a safe distance from and/or punish severely ‘delinquents’ or ‘criminals’ can be understood as tendencies towards new expressions of authoritarianism. Although most people probably would not ally themselves with policies that directly criminalize the poor, or youths in general, in their attempts to protect themselves, they might vote to increase punitive measures which further alienate entire sectors of the population undeservedly. As Hobbes famously said in Leviathan: “mankind will exchange liberty for security”. Therefore the question remains: Is the fear or inseguridad felt today in Argentina the result of decades of social conditioning against a threatening ‘other’, (howsoever society wishes to classify or define the ‘otherhood’ of the threat during any given period)? Or should we just write this off as an expression of, as Oriana Falacci once put it, “the little fascist that Argentines carry within.”
According to Daniel Feierstein, UN expert on Human Rights and doctor of social sciences at the UBA, the distinction between the concept of warfare and that of genocide in the Argentine context is key to understanding the national idiosyncrasy. By describing the dictatorship in terms of warfare, the general public becomes the collective victim of two hostile factions, instead of assuming the corresponding degree of responsibility for the events that occurred thereto. As collective victim, the public at large exposes itself to a repetition of the same events, and indeed, it is this sense of ‘immanent victimisation’ which Kessler uses to best describe the Argentine angst with regards to crime and safety. In short, there was no ‘dirty little war’ as it is often called. There was no civil war, no warring faction, nothing at all that could be defined as warfare during the period when Argentina was under the military’s de facto government. There was genocide: the conscious and systematic effort of hegemonic powers to eliminate anything and everything that could be construed as opposition to their plan. But to date, this period in history is not generally recognized nor labelled as genocide, not even by Argentines, a fact that impedes the capacity of the population to find closure, meaning, and peace. In short, until the period of repression is understood and accepted as genocide, the Argentine society will continue to place itself in the position of ‘victim’ when faced with situations that are ‘threatening’.
Curiously, a liberal, atheistic/agnostic, and well-educated Argentine would be immune to such fears about his/her safety, which would seem to give further proof to a recent study carried out by the University College London that shows that traditional leftist or liberal thinking shows more grey matter in a part of the brain “associated with understanding complexity”. As published in Current Science, the study found that people with conservative views have brains with larger amygdales, almond shaped areas in the centre of the brain often associated with anxiety and emotions. People with a large amygdale are “more sensitive to disgust” and tend to “respond to threatening situations with more aggression than do liberals and are more sensitive to threatening facial expressions”. Here again, what causes fear is not an object or situation, but the lack of control over them; thus an authoritarian regime tries to bring all aspects of society under its control.
Prize-winning economist, Steven D. Levitt in the book and documentary ‘Freakonomics’, explains the main reason why crime rates went down in the US in the 90s: the legalization of abortion in the 70s. While a discussion about the polemical nature of these claims is beyond the scope of this article, it is of interest to note what occurred in Argentina during the same time periods. From the time leading up to the 1976 coup d’etat all the way through to the fall of the military junta in 1982, the army succeeded in eliminating ‘the subversive threat’ by abducting, torturing, and murdering an estimated 30,000 people, the Desaparecidos or Missing Ones, most of them in their reproductive prime at the time of their disappearance. Although in this case it was the parents who were ‘aborted’ and not their unborn children, the effect on crime should be similar to the phenomena in the US given that the population cohort represented by the Desaparecidos embodied the ‘threats to society’. Nonetheless crime went up in the 90s in Argentina, when the generation raised during the ‘Process’ came into their ‘criminal prime’ which would lead one to conclude (perhaps hastily) that the military dictatorship killed off the law-abiding sector and left themselves, the real criminals, to breed. To further confirm these suspicions, crime went down in 2003, right when the ‘children of democracy’ came of age, another sign that something is wrong with the perspective that justifies authoritarianism as a legitimate replacement for democracy.
But perhaps the most serious situation arises from the efforts the developing world still directs towards a system of government that will somehow solve its problems, instead of searching for more internal, domestic, or organic solutions, such as grassroots movements or community projects. It has been argued that the tendency towards authoritarianism per se is just the seeking of an exoskeletal structure that will ease the burden of government from the people themselves, and obviously apposite idea from the concept of democracy. There seems to be no middle ground here: either a government of the people, for the people and by the people, or a paternalistic, despotic, authoritarian regime where the citizen is freed of responsibility, but also of certain ‘inalienable’ rights, and freedoms, and at times, of life itself. It is clear that in order to overcome the feeling of insecurity that plagues the imaginations of Argentines, there must be some degree of co-responsibility for historical events, including the horrific ones occurring during the dictatorship: “Without a strong transformation of the processes by which we construct our identities, without a reformulation of the limits of our responsibility when faced by ‘others’, without the understanding that we are an undividable part of the social practices which arise in the societies in which we live, which therefore make us morally responsible for the effects felt thereto, there is no possibility of putting aside the genocide.”
For those who suffer from fear and loathing in Argentina, the Process continues.
Lead image by Diego Herrera
Feierstein, Daniel. El Genocidio como practica social. (Genocide as Social Practice). Fondo de Cultura Economica, 2007.
Kessler, Gabriel. El Sentimiento de Inseguridad. (The Feeling of Insecurity) Siglo XXI, 2009.
Levitt, Steven D and Dubner Stephen J. Freakonomics. Harper, 2009.