Tag Archive | "crime"

Editorial: On Lynchings, The Media, and Missed Opportunities


It began on 26th March. “18-year-old thief lynched by locals in Rosario dies”, read the headline in La Nación. The ‘thief’ was David Moreira, who succumbed to severe head injuries four days after being beaten by a mob of up to 50 people who accused him of snatching a handbag from a young mother in the street.

Lorena Torres, David Moreira's mother holds a photo of her murdered son (photo: Carlos Carrión / Indymedia)

Lorena Torres, David Moreira’s mother holds a photo of her murdered son (photo: Carlos Carrión / Indymedia)

In the days that followed, reports started coming in of similar incidents around the country. Then, on 29th March, a Twitter user gave a vivid account of another brutal mob attack on a suspected mugger in Palermo, catapulting the issue to the front pages and opening a national debate.

Analysing the causes and psychology of collective violence is beyond the scope of this article. But before the news cycle moves on, it’s worth reflecting on some of the things we have seen and heard over the last week, and adding a bit of context and perspective to the hyperbole.

Modern-day lynchings are not a new phenomenon, nor unique to Argentina

Lynchings are already an established phenomenon in other parts of Latin America, especially in Guatemala, which reported 488 cases (and 47 deaths) in 2013 alone. However, these typically take place in rural areas and display more ritualistic tendencies, such as dragging the victim to a symbolic public place and burning or torturing them. There are more lines of comparison between here and Brazil, where a similar national debate is underway after a 15-year-old boy was beaten, stripped, mutilated, and chained to a lamppost with a bike lock by a mob who accused him of stealing in a middle-class neighbourhood of Rio de Janeiro.

There is no official data on lynchings in Argentina, but one university study found 24 cases reported by the media between 1997 and 2008, while an online search reveals sporadic recent examples, including an almost identical case in November 2012 on the same corner where Moreira was murdered.

Experts signal that there are also likely to be other cases that are not reported at all. Sociologist Javier Auyero, co-author of ‘La violencia en los márgenes‘ (Violence in the margins) spoke on radio about how violent revenge attacks are not uncommon in the shantytowns and poor urban neighbourhoods, yet the press pay little attention. When it comes to crime and security, says Auyero, the media focuses overwhelmingly on that which affects the middle and upper classes, even though it is the poor that suffer from it most on a daily basis.

There is a disconnect between crime rates and the feeling of insecurity in Argentina

When Buenos Aires Mayor Mauricio Macri recently expressed relief that his daughter spent 2013 living in San Francisco, he probably had not checked that the murder rate was higher there last year than in Buenos Aires. Yet Macri is not alone: according to Latinobarometro, 35% of Argentines consider crime the biggest problem in the country, more than any other Latin American state except Venezuela and Uruguay, despite data suggesting it is relatively safe.

National crime statistics have not been published since 2009 – a major problem in itself – but in the province of Buenos Aires, the most populous and most affected by crime, the murder rate in 2013 was an estimated 9.7 (per 100,000 people). This is among the lowest in the region, according to UN data, with only Chile and Uruguay enjoying significantly lower rates. Even localised spikes in violence – the homicide rate in Rosario reached an alarming 22 last year – remain far below the worst affected urban areas of Brazil, Colombia, and most of Central America. The same UN report does show that Argentina has the highest rate of robberies in the region, though it has not changed significantly since 2005.

Rosario has seen a surge in violent crime related to drugs gangs (photo: José Granata/Télam/ef)

Rosario has seen a surge in violent crime related to drugs gangs (photo: José Granata/Télam/ef)

Argentine sociologist Gabriel Kessler, author of the book ‘El sentimiento de inseguridad’ (‘The feeling of insecurity’), says this disconnect comes from a mix of relatively high and risings rates of victimisation (the number of households that have been a victim of crime, mainly minor offences), and the media exposure of the most violent crimes and murders. This generates fear about the potential to be a future victim, centred especially on the arbitrary nature of street crime.

None of this is to deny the existence of violent crime or diminish the emotional impact it has on those who suffer its consequences. But a legal system exists precisely to strip emotion from the judicial process – everyone has a right to demand a better judicial system, but not to circumvent it. And if there is to be a considered debate on the problem, it should be based on objective reality and not a feeling of persecution.

Condemnation comes in shades of grey

One thing that has resonated is the public response to this outbreak of lynching attacks, today more visible than ever thanks to social networks. Opinions in newspaper comments and social networks range from outright rejection of violence to unashamed celebration at the death of a ‘criminal’. Of course, virtual anonymity tends to bring out extremist views, and there has also been a strong online campaign rejecting vigilantism under the slogan ‘No cuenten conmigo‘ (‘Don’t count on me’). Yet a softer version of this ‘uno menos‘ (one fewer) mentality seems to have at least a foothold in the social conscience: two separate surveys published late last week found that around 30% of respondents support the use of violence against suspected criminals.

Media pundits and public figures have been almost universal in condemning the lynchings, though this is often nuanced with understanding for those that took part in them. Meanwhile, subtle judgements are cast through the select use of language: the person being beaten to death remains the ‘criminal’ while the mob is made up of ‘locals’ who are taking ‘justice’ into their own hands. The word ‘murder’ is largely missing from the coverage of the Moreira case, even though at least two Supreme Court judges and several prosecutors have made it clear that this is the only way it can be treated by the law.

Efforts to empathise are also one-sided. Talk of social frustration, suffering, and injustice is directed at the ‘normal’ people who resort to brutality out of ‘desperation’. The background story and social context of the person they are beating is largely irrelevant – he is defined solely by his alleged criminal act, and disregarded as just another anonymous thug from the slums.

Lurking behind it all is an undercurrent of racism. Even though in Spanish, the translation ‘linchamiento‘ does not have the same connotations as the English original, there is a clear profile of the dark-skinned, cap-wearing criminal that is reinforced by the media. It is this type of stigmatisation that led to a group of taxi drivers in Rosario to chase down, shoot at, and beat up a young man on a motorbike last week because he looked like someone who had just robbed their office. If we are talking about the feeling of insecurity, what about those of a certain complexion who now have to fear being wrongly accused by an angry mob?

Talk about an ‘absent state’ is misleading

Politicians have also weighed in on the debate, with opposition leaders Sergio Massa (Frente Renovador) and Macri (PRO) quick to point the finger at an ‘absent state’, as though Alto Palermo were South Sudan. This media-friendly soundbite is designed to appeal to those who demand a quick solution to the problem of crime via more police, more prisons, and harsher sentences.

This call to get ‘tough on crime’ has been heard before. But the state has long contributed – through corrupt or abusive security forces – to the violence that exists in the marginalised areas most affected by crime. In 1999, ex-governor of Buenos Aires province, Carlos Ruckauf, boasted about how his police would “use bullets” on criminals, effectively legitimising a type of lynching in uniform. News this weekend of current governor Daniel Scioli’s knee-jerk declaration of a “security emergency”, and the reincorporation of 15,000 retired police officers, is not going to be comforting to all.

A protester outside a villa dresses up as the grim reaper in a police uniform (photo: Kate Stanworth)

A protester outside a villa dresses up as the grim reaper in a police uniform (photo: Kate Stanworth)

The demands for sterner punishments are also selective: last week, there was an outcry over the swift release of the adolescent who was allegedly caught stealing and ‘lynched’ in Palermo, but no one seemed too concerned in September after the acquittal of five men who took part in the beating to death of 15-year-old Lucas Navarro in La Matanza in 2010 after he attempted to rob one of them with a toy gun. Meanwhile, little is being said about the fact that no one has even been arrested for the murder of Moreira.

The real state deficit in these “factories of violence”, as Auyero calls the slums and impoverished suburban enclaves, is the failure to provide public education, social services, and work opportunities. Those who were cut adrift in the rampant neoliberal reforms of the ’90s and have not felt the benefits of the so-called ‘decade won’ under Kichnerism know more about injustice and helplessness than most. As the villa-based cooperative magazine La Garganta Poderosa surmised last week: if inequality does not justify anyone going out to steal, why do some claim that insecurity justifies some people going out to kill?

An opportunity is being missed

Amid tragic circumstances, there is an opportunity to discuss seriously the complex and sensitive issue of crime, justice, and security. However, this discussion needs to be balanced and without prejudices: if we are going to try and understand social violence, we need to examine all of it. If we only ask ourselves whether it is acceptable or not to lynch a certain type of criminal (no one is talking about lynching people who cause road accidents or businessmen who steal), it will inevitably reinforce stereotypes and social divisions.

A full debate cannot exist without more voices from the margins, like those of La Garganta Poderosa or César Gonzalez, the former teenage drug addict and mugger who is now a publisher and filmmaker, and perhaps the most powerful argument against those who support lynching. “The demand for more security is shared by all,” said Gonzalez on one radio show last week. “But it’s only a certain social sector that ends up getting beaten.”

@marcdrogers

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Latin America News Roundup: 8th January 2014


President Nicolás Maduro addresses the governors and mayors at the government house (Photo: AVN/Télam/dsl)

President Nicolás Maduro addresses the governors and mayors at the government house (Photo: AVN/Télam/dsl)

Venezuela: President Nicolás Maduro called for the creation of a “model of democratic authority” in order to address the high levels of crime in the country. Maduro held a meeting today with Venezuela’s governors and mayors, as a response to the public outcry caused yesterday by the murder of a former Miss Venezuela and her husband. In the meeting, the president stated that the current model of “war against criminals” has failed, and that it must be replaced by a new model that is “integrally humane, that guarantees protection, but also brings peace and substitutes the anti-values of violence and disrespect towards life.” He proposed a number of measures, including the alignment of all the country’s police forces and a national plan to disarm criminals and integrate them into the labour market.

Chile: The country’s Supreme Court closed the investigation into the death of former President Salvador Allende, stating that there is no evidence supporting allegations that Allende was murdered. The case was brought before the Chilean justice in January 2011, when prosecutor Beatriz Pedrals challenged the theory that the former head of state had committed suicide. With regards to the alleged participation of military personnel in his death, the ruling considers that such personnel arrived at the scene after the suicide, and that no witnesses were able to confirm the theory of a confrontation between them and Allende.

Brazil: A video was released showing inmates from a prison in the Brazilian state of Maranhao playing with the heads of beheaded men from a rival gang. The video, filmed in December but released yesterday by personnel from the Pedrinhas prison, has reignited the debate over the state of the Brazilian penitentiary system. Pedrinhas is considered to be particularly violent, as a conflict between rival gangs left 62 people dead in less than a year and dozens of family members of inmates denounced being raped upon entering the prison. Human rights organisations such as Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch, as well as the UN, have expressed their concern over the “terrible state” of Brazilian jails, and demanded “the immediate, unbiased, and effective investigation” of the violent incidents that took place in Pedrinhas.

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Latin America: UN Report Reveals that Crime Still Plagues the Region


United Nations flag

United Nations flag

According to a report from the United Nations Development Program, ‘Seguridad ciudadana con Rostro Humano’ (Citizen Security with a Human Face), despite decreasing levels of poverty, Latin America remains the most unsafe region in the world.

“Today Latin American countries have stronger and more integrated economies, there is less poverty, more consolidated democracies and Nation States have taken on greater responsibility in areas of social protection. However, the region’s weak spot remains to be violence, crimes and insecurity,” says the report which bases its analysis on 18 countries in Latin America and the Spanish-speaking Caribbean.

According the the report, between 2000 and 2010 the murder rate increased by 11%, meaning than during the decade more than one million people died as a result of criminal violence. In the majority of other regions worldwide, the figure decreased or remained stable.

However, within the region there are exceptions to this trend, notably countries that have experienced armed conflicts or situations of extreme insecurity saw a decrease in the murder rate. Colombia, for example, reduced its murder rate by almost half in ten years and, more recently, the murder rate in Guatemala (since 2009) and El Salvador (since March 2012) experienced a substantial decrease in their murder rate.

In the countries where the relevant information could be obtained, the report reveals that robberies almost tripled in the last 25 years and is now the crime which affects Latin Americans most. Furthermore, one an average day 460 people suffer the consequences of sexual violence, the large majority of the victims being women.

The report also revealed that violence particularly and disproportionately affects young Latin American men. The murder rate of young people – almost 70 for every 100,000 young people – is double that of the rate for the rest of the population. And, although the majority of the perpetrators and victims of these crimes are men, one in every ten murder victims is a woman.

According to a report on Citizen Safety published in 2012 by the Organisation of American States, in Central America 78% of murders are carried out with a firearm, whilst in South America the figure is 83%. Between 42% and 67.5% of the prisoners interviewed for the report stated that they had had access to a gun before they were 18 years old, and a high percentage revealed that they had been given the firearm by the police themselves.

According to the United Nations’ report there are a number of reasons that explain the increase in violence and crimes in the region, such as the economy, which does not provide for the creation of enough jobs and therefore, for social mobility. Secondly, it cites social aspects such as the change in the Latin family structure, with many more one-parent families and, as a potential consequence, school drop outs. Thirdly the report mentions the availability of guns, alcohol, and drugs. Finally, it cites the failure of the State security system such as the police, judiciary, and prisons to confront the problem of crime and insecurity. The report also highlights that social institutions such as families, schools, and the community have become less influential in their role as promoters of peaceful living.

In conclusion, the report stressed the need to address the problem of violence in Latin America on many different levels in houses, schools and in politics, for example, and added that security policies should be periodically evaluated to ensure their effectiveness and impact.

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Santa Fe Robbery Connected to Drug Trafficking


Ana Viglione (photo courtesy of Utrapol Santa Fe)

Ana Viglione (photo courtesy of Utrapol Santa Fe)

The house of Ana Viglione, the Secretary of Complex Crime, was robbed yesterday, a crime that is suspected of being connected with the recent attack on governor of Sante Fe, Antonio Bonfatti, and with the Santa Fe government’s recent investigations into drug trafficking.

Despite Viglione’s house’s security system, which included alarms and cameras, thieves managed to break in last night and steal two computers, a laptop, a tablet and the memory of the security cameras. They took neither money nor other valuable objects.

Vilgione spoke about the theft to Radio Universidad this morning, referring to the possibility that suspects were provoked by her part in the investigation into drug traffickers in the area and her suspicion that the thieves were searching for “information”.

She said: “We are very resolute. We think this could be a consequence of our work. They are trying to intimidate us in our private homes because they have no other way of approaching us. We’re going to continue down the same path that we’re on.”

On 11th October, masked assailants on motorcycles drove past the houes of Santa Fe governor, Bonfatti, shooting at it. Viglione said this morning that advances were being made in the investigation into the attack on Bonfatti’s residence, which is also suspected of being linked to the investigation into drug trafficking.

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The Angeles Case: A Murder-Mystery Reality Show


The case of Angeles Rawson, a 16-year-old girl who disappeared on 10th June and whose body was found 24 hours later in a rubbish disposal site has enthralled the nation for the last three weeks.

Since the case began, 24-hour news channels have kept the audience constantly updated, presenting each new potential piece of evidence as dramatic breaking news, providing more and more details to a captivated audience.

Before long, the media coverage of the case came under scrutiny. Critics began to question the media’s apparent obsession with this case, and to debate the ethics and implications of such invasive, constant coverage.

The Media Firestorm

Despite the fact that little was actually known for the first two weeks, the coverage was relentless, making up for lack of new information with endless speculation about the identity of the killer, possible motives, interviews with anyone remotely related to the case, and, largely, an in-depth dive into the life of Angeles Rawson herself.

The public got to know Angeles, personally, as though she was the main character in her own TV show; all of her friends, family and acquaintances introduced as supporting characters. It became a spectacle complete with broadcast animated analysis of the wound marks on the body and re-enactments using a girl around the same age to demonstrate how the killer may have put her body in the bag.

The Federal Police had to set up a tent in front of the court building to avoid (Photo: Raúl Ferrari/Télam/aa)

The Federal Police had to set up a tent in front of the court building to avoid the intrusion of the press (Photo: Raúl Ferrari/Télam/aa)

Argentine press-watch agency, Ejes de Comunicación reported that “the television coverage of the case consisted of 594 hours on the air between the 10th and the 28th June, the equivalent of 25 days of uninterrupted airtime from a single channel, five times more than the 120 hours of coverage during the election of Argentine cardinal Jorge Bergoglio as Pope.”

On 28th June the intensity of the coverage peaked with the publication of photos by Clarín’s tabloid, Muy, of Rawson’s dead body, wrapped in plastic bags in the trash truck where she was found with the caption, “Photos of Horror”.  Social media exploded, denouncing the publication, calling for boycotts, and expressing general outrage, with hashtags such as #ClarínMUYLacksEthics and #MuyANationalShame trending.

Rawson’s father filed an injunction to stop the photos from being disseminated further, and his lawyer, Pablo Lanusse made the statement: “This is not journalism at all, we respect the freedom of the press, but everything has a limit.  We want a judge to take appropriate action on this case because this needs to be put to a stop. We do not want something like this to happen again.

The Forum of Argentine Journalism (FOPEA), published a statement saying that “media outlets should consider the possible moral damage such content can cause to the victim’s family before publishing, as well the affront it has on a society’s common values,” and the Authority of Audiovisual Communication Services (AFSCA) declared that the treatment of the case was “in violation of the rights of girls and women,” and that it would investigate and apply appropriate sanctions.

The coverage of the story had turned into a story unto itself, sparking a dialogue about the limits of journalism and analysis as to why this case has so completely dominated the national media.

Why Angeles?

“It is a matter of class,” says Liliana Hendel, psychologist and journalist. Rawson was from an upper-middle class family in a nice neighbourhood in Palermo, in the centre of Buenos Aires. Neither the disappearance of Luciano Arruga nor the murder of Kiki Lescano, to provide two examples of lower class teenagers about the same age as Rawson, have generated this type of media fervour.

She was also female. The publication of the photos in Muy was reminiscent of the publication of photos of the naked body of model Jazmín de Grazia found dead in her bathtub by the tabloid Crónica in 2011. Argentine journalist María Florencia Alcaraz writes, “It is no coincidence that images of corpses exposed victims the most resonant most in the media are women… Cultural industries consider themselves owners of females bodies as though they are a territory to dispute.”

Psychologist and journalist Liliana Hendel

Psychologist and journalist Liliana Hendel (photo courtesy of Liliana Hendel)

Hendel agrees, “female victims are subject to the same machismo and patriarchal gaze when they are living as when they are dead.” Rawson’s sexual history and private life was scrutinised, and as is common in a society that views women as either whores or saints, plenty of time was spent exposing her virtue, people lamenting at what a “good girl” she was, “an angel,” “as though had she been less sexually pure her violent murder would have been more justified,” scathes a feminist blogger on ‘Basta de Sexismo’.

In addition to the details of the case, critics looked at the nature of media itself.

“In occasions such as these, we see a dramatic demonstration of the difference between journalism as a right and journalism as a business,” writes Florencia Saintout, Dean of Journalism at the National University of La Plata, in Página 12.  When journalism and media coverage are subject to the whims of the market, Saintout argues, the public becomes a resource to be exploited, “like a cow from which they must extract even the last breath, like a mine in which they must rip out every last mineral, until it is left empty.”

Journalism and the media ostensibly have a role to play in a democracy, one of keeping people informed and exposing the truth, yet when the focus is on the bottom line and generating a profit, media tends to tell a ‘good story’ above all else. In that end, the news tend towards spectacular, ‘gossipy’ topics and coverage, which ends up feeling more like entertainment than information, and feeds into the base emotions and morbid curiosity of the audience.

An attempt to cater to the appetite of the audience by any means can be harmful, crime Journalist Emilio Ruchansky explains, noting that here the media interviewed two young friends of the victim and broadcast it on TV the same day the body was found. “That could have been dangerous if one of them had known the killer,” he says.

Ruchansky also claims it is likely that the justice department was feeding the media tidbits along the way to encourage the publicity of the case, a common occurrence in his line of work. Between the police and the media, “It’s an ‘I’ll help you, you help me’ sort of relationship,” he says. This relationship can be positive when journalists feature specific cases they feel deserve more coverage, but it can also be a rather “dirty business” where journalists go to police for any information they can get and “publish news they’ve been given without having the real sources of the information.”

The Legal Limits 

Because Angeles was a minor, the distribution of her images was called into legal question under laws protecting rights of children. However, putting legal limits on what journalists can and cannot print in general is highly contentious.

The press talk to the porter's lawyer (Photo: Daniel Dabove/Télam/lz)

The press talk to the porter’s lawyer (Photo: Daniel Dabove/Télam/lz)

“Some dead bodies are important,” Ruchansky comments, recounting the photos of Maximiliano Kosteki and Darío Santillán, killed by police ten years ago. “Publishing these photos helped make people aware and less tolerant of police violence everywhere.”

Rather than specific laws, many critics argue, there should be better training for journalists, and a protocol for situations such as Rawson’s.

“There should always be consent with the family of the victim, they shouldn’t be able to use the images without the consent of the family… There will always be a public that consumes this type of material, like there is a public that consumes pornography,” says Hendel, yet she feels that the onus is on journalists and media companies to bring to their profession a level of ethics and a consideration of the consequences of irresponsible reporting. 

As of now, the case seems like it should be wrapping up.  All evidence points to the porter, and the suspicion surrounding the possible sexual molestation motive on the part of her step-father seems to be disproven. In normal cases, the media attention would die off -the shows’s over, folks. However, the coverage is continuing.

Journalist Ricardo Canaletti puts forth a controversial argument to explain this: the public cannot accept that it was the friendly-faced porter. The stern stock photos of the step-father position him as a better villain. The reality show had become so enthralling and the hype behind the step-father hypothesis was so much more intriguing that the public could not leave it alone, This mix of reality and entertainment has created an exciting drama but it did not end how a scripted show would end, so it has left its audience unsatisfied.

 

What do Argentines think about the media coverage of the Angeles Rawson case? Click here to find out.

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How safe do you feel in Buenos Aires?


A recent study has shown that Venezuela’s residents feel the most unsafe in the world, while Mexico and Honduras have shown up as the most unsafe countries for journalists. How does Argentina compare, and how safe do the local residents of Buenos Aires feel? Indy reporter Laura Benitez finds out what people have to say on the matter.

Carlos, 55, businessman, Caballito

I really don’t think the crime rate here is worse than in other countries. And I don’t think we have a particular problem here in Buenos Aires. I don’t think it’s particularly dangerous here either, people make it out like it’s much worse than it is. Obviously the city suffers from crime but it’s not a situation that has become any worse then it ever was. And especially when you compare it to other countries in South America such as Colombia, Venezuela and Brazil, I think Argentina comes out relatively well.

 

David, 27, creative industry, San Telmo

For Buenos Aires it’s difficult to judge the crime rate on the whole as there are some areas that are much safer than others. There are some pretty dangerous areas which you would know to be careful of, like in any city. It also depends on if you’re with people, if you have any valuables on you, and what time of the day it is, to how vulnerable you feel. I certainly don’t feel like the crime rate has become worse than it was, it’s not a huge problem that needs to be addressed like in other neighbouring countries like Bolivia, Peru, and Venezuela, where women and children are vulnerable on a day to day basis. It’s much worse in these countries than it has been in Argentina. But saying that, I don’t think that the police do that much of a great job when it comes to petty crime in the city.

Ihomeno, 45, tourist, Peru

In terms of how I feel about crime here in Argentina, I haven’t heard anything too extreme, and in the three days I’ve been here I’ve felt very safe walking around as a tourist. It feels the same as it does in Peru, I don’t feel like I’m in danger on a day to day basis. Of course there are zones and areas across Peru where you would be much more careful and where you know it’s particularly dangerous; there are places you’re told not to go to at all. And of course if you go to these places on your own then you’re in trouble, but on the whole, it’s really not that bad, it’s pretty relaxed. But since I’ve been in Buenos Aires the people have been very friendly towards me which has put me at ease a lot.

Camila, 34, businesswoman, Recoleta

You know that crime exists here in Argentina, and in Buenos Aires, but I’ve been living here all of my life and I’ve never had any bad experiences. I’ve always been careful so as long as you’re on the look out it’s fine; I don’t think there are any problems in this country. However, when you look at the US, I think in comparison our crime rate is worse, but then again, compared to Venezuela Argentina is a much safer place to live.

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A Never Ending Story: Dealing with Criminality in Latin America


Latin America is one of the most dangerous regions in the world, and according to some international reports, in fact tops the list. Just a few weeks ago, Gallup, a US-based research company, released a worldwide survey on safety perception that showed that Venezuelans are the people least likely to feel safe.

Eleven countries in the ‘top 30′ of Gallup’s ranking – which includes 134 countries – are Latin American, a worrying number that shows the notorious reputation this region has.

Venezuela’s crime problems are among the worst in Latin America, as could be seen in the last presidential election, when both candidates made this issue a key focus of the campaign. Though the Venezuelan government no longer releases official crime statistics, it is well known that the country continues to struggle with high rates of murder, kidnapping, and drug trafficking. In 2012, 40% of Venezuelans told Gallup there were illicit drug trafficking or sales in their area, and 10% said they had had a relative or close friend murdered in the past 12 months. Low ratings on Gallup’s physical security question are nothing new in Venezuela. Indeed, since 2008, less than one third of Venezuelans have said they feel safe walking in their neighbourhood alone at night.

Whilst Venezuela is a conspicuos example of a country with alarmingly high crime rates, it is not alone in Latin America. Hard data shows that high homicide rates are a constant in the region, especially in countries with serious and on-going drug trafficking and gang problems such as Mexico and Honduras.

San Pedro Sula, Honduras (photo courtesy of Wikipedia)

San Pedro Sula, Honduras; the most dangerous city in the world (photo courtesy of Wikipedia)

The Most Dangerous Cities in the World

‘Seguridad, Justicia y Paz’ (Security, Justice and Peace), also referred to as the Citizens’ Council for Public Security and Criminal Justice, is a civil society organisation from Mexico that emerged in July 2002. Its members describe it as “a non-partisan network, secular and independent.” At the end of 2012, they published a study which ranked the 50 most dangerous cities in the world, based on homicide rates.

While homicides are far from being the only crime there is, they are widely used to measure crime rates because, unlike other types of offenses such as theft or rape, are generally reported to the authoritites. Homicide rate is considered an imperfect index for measuring insecurity and violence.

The report shows that three out of the ten most violent cities in the world are Mexican, while 47 of the 50 most violent cities are located in the Americas, with 40 being in Latin America. The first city on the list that is not in the continent is Cape Town in South Africa, ranked 27th.

Not much has changed on the top of the ranking since the previous year. With a rate of 169 intentional homicides per 100,000 inhabitants (ten more than in 2011), the Honduran city of San Pedro Sula was declared the most violent city in the world for a second year in a row. The city of Acapulco, Mexico, came in second with a rate of 143 murders per 100,000 inhabitants, followed by the Venezuelan capital, Caracas, with a rate of 119.

The report states that “a worsening of public safety and an increase in violence” has occurred in the last few years in countries like Honduras, Venezuela, and Mexico.

Indeed, despite a Mexican city (Ciudad Juárez, in the state of Chihuahua) having been displaced from the top position by San Pedro Sula, the country still has three cities in the top ten, and the violence unleashed in the last few years as consequence of the ‘war on drugs’ is notorious.

Honduran factory worker murdered in San Pedro Sula in 2010 (photo by Globovisión)

Honduran factory worker murdered in San Pedro Sula in 2010 (photo by Globovisión)

The behaviour of various government authorities in Mexico does not inspire confidence in official figures, since there are large amounts of conflicting data. For example, back in 2010 the governor of Chihuahua stated that there were around 4,000 homicides in his state, while the Attorney General offered two other numbers: 5,836 and 7,209. The final figure published by the National Institute of Statistics, Geography and Informatics (INEGI) in December 2011 was 6,421 intentional homicides. With such conflicting information, it is difficult to know for sure what is the real number.

The UN officially published that there were 20,585 homicides in the entire country of Mexico for 2010. In November 2011, INEGI’s researchers noted that this number was inaccurate and should be in fact 38% higher. In their opinion, the mistake was induced by Mexican authorities, who were trying to make the country appear safer than it is.

A similar accusation was levelled at Honduran authorities by Seguridad, Justicia y Paz, who stated in their report the difficulties they found to obtain official information. “We would not be surprised if this lack of information by official sources had the purpose to try and hide the reality of the large cities in the country which is, today, the most violent in the world,” they said.

There is general consensus among sociologists and criminologists regarding the causes of crime in our region. Peruvian political analyst Carlos Basombrío explains: “These factors include rapid, large-scale urbanisation that is incapable of sustaining basic services; extreme inequalities between rich and poor; a culture of violence carved from many years of internal wars; poverty, exclusion, and lack of opportunity for young people; police abuse, corruption, and inefficacy; and the unimpeded availability of guns, drugs, and alcohol, including an overwhelming presence in many cities of small-scale drug trafficking.”

Killing the Watchdogs

Not even the individuals who spread the word to the world are safe. ‘Watchdogs’, who investigate and report from the most dangerous zones of our planet, are willing to risk their own lives just ‘to get the story’. This seems to be especially true in Latin America: according to a recent report by UNESCO, Honduras has the world’s highest number of journalists assassinated per capita.

Since the 2009 coup, Honduras has been one of the Western hemisphere’s most dangerous countries for journalists, with 26 journalists killed in the last four years, according to US-based Freedom House. Their report, published earlier this year, states that: “Harassment against broadcasting outlets has included assaults, threats, blocked transmissions, and power outages.”

Freedom House considers Honduras “to have a culture of impunity, where people who attack journalists are not actively brought to justice.” Many Honduran journalists fear the violence that has been (and is still being) carried out is approved by the government, the 2012 Freedom of the Press report on Honduras stated.

Mexico is not far behind on the ranking. According to a report by the Mexican Centre of Social Communication from 2010, it is the third most dangerous country to exercise the profession.

Is Argentina Becoming Less Dangerous?

Despite the region’s overall danger, it is somewhat of a relief to know that Argentina is getting safer. At least according to official criminal rates.

The Buenos Aires Province’s Ministry of Security stated that overall reported crime in the Province has dropped 5.67%. In the first quarter of 2010, there were 171,342 reported crimes, and in the first quarter of 2011, there were 161,620. The types of crimes included are generally violent ones, such as murder, rape, kidnapping, and theft.

Supreme Court judge Eugenio Zaffaroni (photo by departamentjusticia on Flickr)

Supreme Court judge Eugenio Zaffaroni (photo by departamentjusticia on Flickr)

“Argentina has gone through some serious situations of social and institutional violence, but currently does not have an alarming crime record, comparing it to the region,” says Supreme Court judge Eugenio Zaffaroni.

According to the latest available data, from 2009, Argentina recorded a murder rate of 5.5 per 100,000 inhabitants – considerably less than the average continental rate of 15.6, as published in the ‘Global Study on Homicide 2011′, prepared by the UN Office on Drugs and Crime (UNODC). The same report states that the homicide rate in the Americas “more than doubles the world average (6.9), while with the rate of 17.4 per 100,000 inhabitants, Africa is the continent with the highest rate.”

Nilda Garré, then minister of security, spoke about criminality in Argentina confidently: “According to the UN data, Argentina is well bellow other Latin American countries with regards to homicides.”

For a complete understanding of the UN’s research, it is important to point out that the 2009 study did not include murders in Buenos Aires Province. In 2008, 45% of all the country’s homicides happened in this province, so the results could lose some of its representation.

Even so, Buenos Aires did not make it to the top 50 most dangerous cities. In fact, the homicide rate for the Argentine capital, according to a study by the Supreme Court’s Research Institute, is well below the last city on the list – Barranquilla, Colombia. While in Buenos Aires the rate is 6.57 homicides per 100,000 inhabitants, in Barranquilla it is 29.41.

“If we compare the security situation of Argentina in 2009 with Venezuela, Brazil, and Mexico, the murder rate is much lower. However, when we compare it with other countries in the region, the differences are not so clear. Peru, Chile, and Uruguay do not have very different rates from those observed in Argentina,” explains Lucía Freira, analyst at the Crimes Research Laboratory of the Torcuato Di Tella University.

Despite the hard data, Argentina was still listed between the countries where residents are the least likely to feel safe walking alone at night. It hit 16th place, with Venezuelans and South Africans taking the top spots.

Two thirds of the world’s adult population (67%) feels safe walking alone at night in the area where they live. A figure that rose sharply since the global financial crisis began in 2008. “That is good news for global recovery, because public perceptions of physical security and social order are prerequisites for healthy economic activity. Widespread fears of bodily harm discourage people from venturing out to buy and sell in marketplace, for example, or taking jobs that require them to stay out after dark,” stated Steve Crabtree of Gallup.

Dealing with Criminality in Latin America

Crime and street violence, while prevalent in most parts of the world, are still considered an extreme and intractable problem in Latin America. And there is no visible sign of criminal rates lowering.

Political analyst Carlos Basombrío.

Political analyst Carlos Basombrío.

Numerous human rights violations occur as a consequence of efforts to combat crime, including police brutality, restrictive laws that curtail civil liberties, and the militarisation of the public order. Basombrío states: “Because the police in Latin America suffers from lack of training, scarce resources, and, in some instances, complicity with criminals, they frequently abuse and sometimes kill suspects. They almost always enjoy impunity from these acts because many segments of the public welcome such behaviour as means of promoting a safer environment.”

One of the most striking things about security issues in Latin America is the level of interconnectivity that can be found at every level.

“There is no doubt that keeping pace with the sophisticated and transnational nature of criminal organisations will require a sophisticated and transnational strategy – more time consuming, and complex for all actors involved in combating them,” said Maninder Gill, sector manager of the Social Development Department of the Latin America and Caribbean Region with the World Bank.

Addressing the problem of crime, as it affects people’s everyday life, is an enormous challenge for human rights advocates across Latin America, and even more so to defend their right to a secure environment. As Basombrío argues: “The issue of crime presents human rights advocates with challenges that must be resolved, if we are to build legitimacy for human rights principles.”

And that process – if it is ever fully completed – will be extremely long. For those living in or visiting the continent, the best advice is to exercise a greater degree of caution. For when it comes to avoiding crime, you can never be too careful.

 

How safe do porteños feel in the streets of their city? Click here to find out.

Lead image by Rodrigo Gómez Sanz on Flickr.

Posted in Current Affairs, News From Latin America, TOP STORYComments (1)

Venezuela: Citizens Feel ‘Most Unsafe’


The Gallup, Inc. world headquarters in Washington D.C. (Photo courtesy of katmeresin on Flickr)

The Gallup, Inc. world headquarters in Washington D.C. (Photo courtesy of katmeresin on Flickr)

A study released on Monday, 13th May, indicates that out of 134 countries worldwide, Venezuelans are the least likely to feel safe.

Gallup, a research-based company known for its trusted public-opinion polls, conducts safety and security studies every year, asking citizens of participating countries if they feel safe walking alone at night in the city or area that they live. The recently released data comes from the most recent study, conducted in 2012.

In the 2012 poll, nearly two-thirds of Venezuelans responded that they did not feel safe walking alone at night, with only 24% indicating otherwise.

South Africa came in just behind Venezuela in the 2012 poll, with 73% of its citizens reporting that they did not feel safe walking alone at night where they live.

Gallup researchers collected the data from approximately 1,000 telephone and in-person interviews with participants aged 15 and older in each country.

According to Gallup, although Venezuela no longer releases official crime statistics to the public, the country has some of the highest homicide, kidnapping, and drug trafficking rates in all of Latin America.

The release of data indicating Venezuela as the country where citizens feel most unsafe coincides with President Maduro’s announcement earlier this week that troops would be deployed to Caracas to increase safety.

Of the 134 countries included in the Gallup study, in 31 less than 50% of adults indicated that they felt safe walking alone at night. Twelve of these 31 countries are in Latin America, a statistic that Gallup researchers think is directly related to slowed economic growth and lack of stability in the region in comparison with the rest of the world after the global crisis of 2008.

Other Latin American countries that ranked high on the Gallup list of places where citizens feel most unsafe are the Dominican Republic at number seven, Bolivia at ten, Haiti at 11, Paraguay at 15, Argentina at 16, and Colombia at number 17.

The appearance of these countries with such high numbers of citizens reporting feeling unsafe walking alone at night is not surprising, as UN statistics show that although only 8% of the world’s population lives in Latin America, 42% of global homicides occur in the region.

 

 

Posted in News From Latin America, Round Ups Latin AmericaComments (0)

Mexico: Nine Policemen Killed in Guerrero


Nine Mexican police officers were killed on Tuesday evening in the southern state of Guerrero as the country’s violent drug war rolls on.

Mexico’s state prosecutor’s office announced the deaths on Wednesday.

The officers were attacked in police vans during a routine surveillance check. The attack is believed to have been carried out by 30 gunmen in vehicles who surrounded the officers and opened fire.

Additionally, one other officer has been seriously injured, according to the authorities.

A spokesperson said: “The state police officers were conducting a routine patrol in the municipality when they were surprised by a group of gunmen and a confrontation began.”

“Police from three levels of the government arrived at the scene to protect the crime scene and to begin removing the corpses of the officers,” the spokesperson added. 

Guerrero is known for the bloody disputes and turf wars between criminal organisations, which are connected to the Los Zetas and the Knights Templar drug cartels.

It is estimated that around 70,000 people have lost their lives from Mexico’s drug-related violence since December 2006.

Posted in News From Latin America, Round Ups Latin AmericaComments (0)

Mexico: New President Lays Anticrime Groundwork


Mexican president Enrique Peña Nieto, less than two weeks after taking office, gave indications of his strategy regarding one of the most pressing issues facing the country: crime.

Yesterday he announced that his 2013 budget proposal, currently under review in Congress, includes US$9m for prevention programs, an increase from previous years. “My administration proposes, within the strategy we have for the security and peace between Mexicans, to put special emphasis on prevention,” the president explained. The budget is designed for “the greatest prevention activity against what Mexico does not want: insecurity, unease, and least of all a climate of violence.”

United States Secretary of Homeland Security Janet Napolitano and members of Peña Nieto’s cabinet met today to discuss security and commerce concerns. Governing Secretary Miguel Ángel Osorio Chong planned to appeal to Napolitano to further the Mérida Initiative, a joint crime-fighting program, and for reciprocity in bilateral cooperation regarding security, especially concerning border affairs. “One of the proposals will be: all the support and backing for the United States’ security interests, but we require and demand all the support and backing for Mexico’s interests,” Osorio Chong told Voz de América. Napolitano and US Ambassador to Mexico Anthony Wayne’s visit will last three days.

Peña Nieto also highlighted the benefits of culture and the arts. “Education, art, and culture are instruments that will empower and allow us to truly avoid that children and young people, for lack of other options, might wind up being victims and being kidnapped by organised crime,” he asserted during the inauguration of the Musical Arts Centre in the northwestern state of Tijuana. Peña Nieto has instructed Rafael Tovar y de Teresa, official of the National Culture and Art Advisory (Conacultra) to replicate the centre throughout the country.

The alarming rise in organised, often violent, crime that dominated much of his predecessor’s six years in office poses one of the greatest challenges for Peña Nieto’s administration. According to private research centre México Evalúa, a total of 101,199 people have been murdered since 2006, an increase of 36% from the previous administration.

Posted in Current Affairs, News From Latin America, News Round Ups, Round Ups Latin AmericaComments (0)

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