Wednesday, September 27, 2023
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Argentines feeling unsafe despite declining official crime rates

Reductions in national crime rates haven't translated into citizens feeling safer. But why?

BUENOS AIRES, Argentina (CN) — Argentines are growing increasingly concerned about crime and insecurity despite official figures showing improvements in recent years.

“Everyone who lives in and visits Buenos Aires can be calmer than ever,” according to center-right Major Horacio Laretta. “Crime rates are at their historic lowest,” he added. “Buenos Aires is the safest capital city in Latin America and the second safest city in the continent, after Ottawa."

The capital city registered 88 murders in 2022, which was 14% lower than in 2019 and the lowest in 28 years. Other areas of crime — car thefts, armed assaults and robberies — also decreased.

Despite these reported improvements, citizens feel increasingly less secure, as the topic of crime becomes politicized in the lead-up to presidential elections this October.

Back in February, the center-left president Alberto Fernández, who is not running for reelection, announced that national security forces would begin using stun guns in response to concerns over crime. 

In April, the opposition-run city of Buenos Aires announced its police force will start using stun guns once they have gone through the appropriate training. Human rights groups have raised concerns over their possible indiscriminate use and lethality.

The two main political parties’ positioning on law and order reflects the preoccupations among Argentines, who are living with 108% annual inflation and a decimated national economy. A recent survey by the University of San Andres found that 33% of respondents said that crime, robberies, and insecurity are some of their main concerns.

Only inflation and corruption are bigger concerns among Argentines. Even in the deeply polarized political landscape of Argentina, supporters of the government and the opposition place crime and insecurity high up among their areas of concern.

While citizens are growing concerned about high levels of crime and insecurity, the statistics are showing the opposite trend. So where is the disconnect coming from?

“For several years now, the gap between the rates of certain crimes and the feelings associated with them has been showing different dynamics,” said Victoria Rangugni, an expert in conflict and social change at the University of Buenos Aires. “Victimization surveys have been carried out since the late 1990s, which are an essential instrument to make visible those crimes that actually occur but go unreported in official statistics. This helps to explain feelings associated with crimes that remain hidden in what is known as the hidden figure of crime.”

This disassociation between official and perceived crime differs depending on the type of crime. It tends not to happen with homicides, but it does occur with crimes against property and crimes linked to gender violence, with people’s real fears not reflected in official statistics.

For example, a survey found that 60% of women said they have been sexually harassed on public transport in Buenos Aires, yet 87.5% of victims did not register a complaint for fear of reprisals, shame or having a lack of information. It also highlighted widespread insecurity felt by women in public spaces, finding that 9 in 10 felt unsafe at night. 

“In the case of Argentina,” said Rangugni, “several studies have linked the emergence of insecurity and its associated fears to broader social, political and economic processes and the dismantling of the welfare state. The emergence and strengthening of what is generically referred to as neoliberalism entails dynamics of deregulation of economic processes that have a strong impact on daily life.”

The privatization of education, healthcare and pension systems as well as the gentrification of urban spaces foster deep senses of uncertainty, according to Rangugni, which fuel subjective fear and insecurity in the face of crime.

Larger cities are more likely to absorb these broad set of fears compared to smaller cities. Yet the epicenter of crime in Argentina is located in the mid-sized city of Rosario, which sits along the Paraná River that snakes south towards the River Plate in Buenos Aires.

Rosario, the country’s third largest city in the province of Santa Fe, has seen a surge in narco-related violence in recent years amid territorial disputes and waves of Mafia-style murders. In response, President Fernández designated half of the country’s security budget towards Santa Fe, “with the immense majority specifically destined for the city of Rosario,” he said.

In 2021, the murder rate in Rosario spiked to 18.5 per 100,000 inhabitants, by far the highest in the country. That’s a similar figure to the 20.8 recorded in the same year for Sinaloa, Mexico, from where the Sinaloa cartel operates.

Zooming out to the national level, the impact of the current economic crisis is impacting how Argentines psychologically perceive insecurity along with its recent experiences of dictatorship. “It is possible to think that the most unequal societies — especially if this gap has increased abruptly as is the case in Argentina since the military dictatorship to the present day — are societies more marked by a sense of fragility,” said Rangugni.

In addition, “the recurrence of economic crises, as is the case in our country, brings with it moments of social tension and disputes that are staged in the streets, especially in Buenos Aires, which is a city with high levels of social and political mobilization.”

For Rangugni, “This may lead us to think whether a society that is used to mobilization, has very high levels of social protest, and is going through a new inflationary crisis is not a fertile field to cultivate feelings of insecurity that are not just symbolically assigned to a specific fear but that are much more complex than that.”

Courthouse News correspondent James Francis Whitehead reports from Buenos Aires, Argentina.

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