December 20, 2014
Crime in perspective
If crime has been at the forefront of popular concerns for some years according to all public opinion surveys (despite powerful competition from inflation and, more recently, job jitters), any democrat should respect the verdict but at the same time the recent United Nations report on worldwide crime shows that this anxiety needs to be seen in perspective — the sovereign cannot be allowed to become a tyrant. This report shows the Southern Cone murder rate (in Uruguay and Chile, as well as Argentina) to be more on a par with Europe than with Latin America, excluding places like Monaco and Liechtenstein with zero murders (which does not make these tax havens innocent in other respects). This is all the more impressive considering that Latin America has overtaken strife-torn Africa to become the world’s most violent region (even if Venezuela and the maras gangs of the smaller Central American republics are most of the reason).
Concretely, the UN report shows Argentina to have 5.5 homicides per 100,000 inhabitants, below the global average of 6.2 (even if Chile’s murder rate is half the latter figure). Even if the report is based on 2010 data, this figure cannot stray too far from the truth — while there is every reason to believe that robberies are massively underreported because of low police credibility, it is much harder to ignore a corpse. Yet this moderate figure does not mean that the general public is wrong in its crime anxieties — even when presumably underreported, robberies are rising inexorably with at least a third of families reporting some experience of crime against one of its members in the last year. But it is precisely a hysterical exaggeration of the problem and the escalation of extreme counter-measures which would risk tipping the scales from robbery to murder.
If the public has long demanded serious figures for inflation, why not also for crime? The hysteria stoked by some media all too often corresponds to a malicious political agenda, although not always — sheer mindless sensationalism should never be underestimated (thus in the United States journalism was dominated by police reporting for almost a century before the birth of serious political analysis and it is striking how some pro-government television channels here can play up crime stories as much as anybody). Precisely because the general public is right to consider crime a serious problem, it deserves serious coverage.