BUENOS AIRES, Argentina (Reuters) -- "I was like you. I'd see these
crimes on TV and say: 'Poor woman.' But now it's happened to me," a
distraught woman recently told Argentine television viewers. "They've killed
my sister, the best person in the world."
Claudia Cejas was gunned down by robbers outside a bank in April in the
kind of senselessly violent crime that is rapidly ruining Buenos Aires'
reputation as one of the world's safest big cities, an oasis in Latin America.
Days later her sister Elba, whose pain really brought home the crime wave
for many Argentines, was consoled in person by President Carlos Menem.
She said the Peronist leader "looked me in the eye" and promised to put a
stop to such bloodshed.
Crime may not pay, but the ruling Peronist Party and the centre-left
opposition Alliance, neck and neck for October's presidential election, are
cashing in on it as the top campaign issue above perennials like corruption
Faced by hysteria in the media and fear in the capital and suburbs of Buenos
Aires, Menem has put the border guards and coast guards on the street to
back up the Federal Police.
While they struggle to catch vicious hoods with a brazen sense of impunity,
politicians think up vote-winning solutions, from the death penalty to naming
a "National Police Day."
Meanwhile alarming statistics are splashed on the front pages and one gas
station owner in the Buenos Aires suburb of Haedo, Eliseo Garayoa, calmly
recounted how his business had been robbed 129 times, including 23 times
in January and 16 in February.
"One day they robbed me three times, in the morning, noon, and eight
o'clock at night," said Garayoa. But he refuses to be scared away: "I'm not
leaving. I've got a family to keep."
Security Secretary Miguel Angel Toma told Reuters the panic belies the
that Buenos Aires is still comparatively safe.
"The murder rate is still one of the lowest in the Americas. In Santiago
(Chile) it's three per 100,000 people, in Montevideo (Uruguay) it's four and
in Buenos Aires it's 4.5-5.0. In New York it's 10 and in Bogota, over 80."
The murder rate in the outlying suburbs, policed by Buenos Aires Province
and not under Toma's federal jurisdiction, is reported to be 12 per 100,000.
But Toma has no doubt crime is on the rise, especially the mindless violence
he says is often linked to drug use.
"Many of these killings bear no relation to the money they get -- young
people who kill for just 10 dollars or a pair of sneakers," he said.
Such brutality was largely ignored while it stayed in the slums. But the
began when it invaded middle-class areas where it was always safe to walk
the streets to cinemas, cafes and bars at hours when most big cities have
long been asleep.
Robbers enjoy such impunity that restaurants full of diners and buses full
passengers are held up at gunpoint. Taxi drivers mug their clients, Cabinet
ministers are robbed in their country houses, judges are mugged under the
noses of their bodyguards and police officers are gunned down by
under-age suspects they are not allowed to search or cuff.
One man sauntered into a church in Virrey del Pino, southwest of the capital,
held up the whole congregation with a knife and stabbed one of the
He was caught. But statistics suggest such successes are rare. Congressman
Alberto Natale calculates that if less than a third of robberies are reported,
most victims cannot identify their assailants, few are found and only half
those caught are sentenced, "only 0.6 percent of all criminals go to jail."
SCORN FOR POLICE
Public scorn for the police, especially the 40,000-strong force in Buenos
Aires Province that surrounds the capital, is inevitable considering a
fearsome reputation for corruption and brutality that has long outlasted the
"They should stop asking for bribes and do what they are supposed to do
look after us," said the bitter Elba Cejas.
Congress, in its haste to get tough on crime, botched a bill meant to crack
down on firearms so badly that it ended up making powerful guns easier to
own. Red-faced senators asked Menem to send the faulty bill back for
Though mindful of the dictatorship, when thousands died at the hands of
military death squads waging a "Dirty War" on leftists, the public is crying out
for a firm response.
One recent poll showed 91 percent backing for lowering the age of criminal
responsibility to 16 from 18 while 64 percent of people would consider
arming themselves against crime. The number of registered firearms has risen
up to 1.8 million this year from 400,000 in 1993, in a country of 35 million
Menem came to power in 1989 demanding the death penalty for
drug-related murders. That has not gone beyond idle debate in a country
which has only had capital punishment during military dictatorships. But
Menem often recommends "zero tolerance."
He deflects opposition charges that the rise in crime is linked to an increase
in unemployment and a growing divide between rich and poor.
"Ninety percent of people in the prisons of Buenos Aires Province have
completed primary education, which shows crime is a social problem," said
Federico Storani, a deputy for the Radical Party, one of the two Alliance
Menem accuses the Alliance of "dangerous attitudes mindful of dictatorships"
for "confusing the dignity of poverty with the pathology of crime." The
Alliance in turn accuses Peronism of "returning to the darkest episodes of
our country's history" with bills proposing draconian powers for the police.
But security chief Toma said Congress needs to give police greater powers
to search and arrest suspects and the country's slow, choked law courts
more power to jail repeat offenders.
"In the three or four years it currently takes to sentence a criminal,
remains free and can repeat lesser crimes 15 or 20 times and just walk in
one door and out the other. We want him to be jailed on the second, or at
most third, offence," he said.
Until that happens, Toma said, "it is impossible to apply a zero-tolerance
policy because we'd have to act outside the law. And we all know what
happens when police act outside the law."
Menem steps down this year. The Peronist bent on succeeding him,
Eduardo Duhalde, is now governor of Buenos Aires Province, which has the
worst crime levels and a police force with an appalling record of involvement
in some of most notorious crimes in recent years: drug rackets, the killing of
a journalist and a car-bomb attack on a Jewish centre in 1994.
The governor has now dismantled a police force he once called "the best
the world." He wants to debate introducing the death penalty for murder in
drug and kidnap cases and child rape. He promises, if elected, to build "30
or 40 new jails... In four years, there will be a cell for every criminal."
But criminologist Eugenio Zaffaroni warned of the risks of seeking draconian
powers to combat crime: "You give the police arbitrary powers hoping
torture and executions will help prevent crime. But the police, instead of
monopolising law enforcement, end up monopolising organised crime."
Copyright 1999 Reuters.