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September 15, 2014
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Crime: few answers from political leaders

New police officers are sworn into the Buenos Aires province force in March.
By Marcelo Falak
Guest columnist

A lack of real answers from the government leaves fertile ground for hard-line proposals

From inflation to growth and poverty, Argentine society has been trapped for too long in a statistical mess. Since something similar happens with crime data, it is no surprise that the discussion about public safety is so fierce and endless. Reality or mere sensation? That is the question.

“Men will sooner forget the death of their father than the loss of their assets,” said Niccolo Machiavelli in The Prince, expressing a low vision of human nature. But ours is not necessarily the case, given that Argentines complain both of theft and murders.

The former are clearly statistically underestimated because many robberies are not reported to the police, even when they greatly contribute to the social feeling of helplessness. Let us remember that the last regional United Nations Human Development Report says that Argentina is, on average, the Latin American country with the most robberies. However, the latter — the blood crimes — are what scare people the most, especially in periods with daily news items about murders.

People who defend the idea that Argentina is a generally peaceful society quote, for instance, studies such as that the one recently issued by the UN, which placed Argentina as one of the Latin American countries with the lowest murder rate, 5.5 per 100,000 inhabitants, with only Chile and Cuba better off and far below Brazil, Colombia, Mexico, Venezuela or Honduras. But a closer look at numbers justifies some doubts and popular feelings about the phenomenon.

The UN statistics, elaborated on the basis of national figures, refer to 2012 but Argentina is an exception (as usual) with data for 2010. That occurs because the government stopped issuing national-level figures after Buenos Aires province started to count intentional deaths on the basis of judicial data, higher than those provided by the police. So what can we learn from more recent and verifiable statistics?

Supreme Court Justice Eugenio Raúl Zaffaroni presented last November a report on intentional homicides, which showed that in 2012, Buenos Aires City registered a rate of 5.46 assassinations per 100,000 inhabitants and Greater Buenos Aires one of 7.66. This difference is an important beginning to understand the clash of feelings of insecurity.

An interesting article on the matter published by the Herald on April 27, written by Federico Poore, brings us closer to our point of discussion. The piece showed that, according to lawyer Gustavo Arballo — who writes the highly recommendable blog Saber Derecho — BA province increased to a rate of 8.37 per 100,000 in 2013.

Moreover, the journalist cites Arballo to disaggregate that figure, showing that, always according to judicial information, that proportion rises to 12.55 in Quilmes, to 10.13 in La Matanza and to 10.05 in Zárate-Campana, for instance.

It is clear that the media and opinion leaders contribute a lot to social alarm, with news channels devoting most of their broadcasting time to police matters, often in a hysterical way. It is clear that the subject, even presented in such a grotesque style, contributes to better audience figures. But if we talk about sensations, we are also talking about concrete people or, rather, about individual experiences condensed in social terms.

Going back to the aforementioned UN report, the quoted local numbers bring “reality” closer to that of countries like Peru, Paraguay or Russia. Insecurity feelings could be, in smaller geographical terms, as much as twice as high as the ones supposedly suggested by the UN study.

Let us insist that nobody experiences crime or any other social phenomenon on the basis of national statistics, especially in a vast country with 40 million people. It is logical to assume that local reality will prevail over a national one, which will be seen by many as an entelechy or a simple lie.

If the problem really exists, we should ask our political class what its plans are to solve it. But the answers are regrettably limited and unsatisfactory.

The Kirchnerite government looks uncomfortable with the issue and trapped in its disappointment over not having solved it via social assistance policies. This possibly explains its reluctance to treat it.

The debate in the official space ranges between possible presidential candidates who still deny or downsize the problem and those, such as Interior and Transport Minister Florencio Randazzo, who struggle to recognize it without being admonished by his superiors. The problem is that the lack of a real official answer leaves a fertile field for the growth of hard-line proposals. How else are we to regard the anachronistic and bizarre ideas about restoring compulsory military service for youth heard in the last few days?

The centrist space (let us define it thus so as not to fall into the mistake of calling it “progressive” and as a way of simplifying its differences) UNEN-Broad Front does not have a clear stand on the matter.

Mauricio Macri and Sergio Massa coincide in presenting themselves as being too prone to a populist approach, which sums up the worst social feelings, with ambiguous opinions on lynching cases and a curious and unfounded rejection of a new Penal Code, even when it is still subject to social and legislative debate.

Daniel Scioli insists on “remedies” that have failed many times during his years of administration. A “state of security emergency,” higher police budget, taking personnel out of retirement (perhaps because of wrongdoings informally solved?) and all his old, well-known and ineffective set of reactions.

I do not mean that more police presence and more money devoted to security are not part of a solution. What I do mean is that discussing insecurity without speaking frankly about judicial inefficiency and police complicity is absolutely useless.

Daily chronicles are full of cases in which the police is called and seems absent. The same happens with investigations plagued with procedural errors which lead to suspects being released. The effect of a lack of resources, incapacity or corruption?

Let us take, for example, the drug-dealing problem in Rosario. We find a Santa Fe police chief in jail because of supposed links to dealers, other senior officers also arrested for the same reason, uncontrolled violence and drug business. It is also surprising to learn about “bunkers” constructed with double-brick walls and concrete to serve as permanent outlets of drugs. How did nobody — from police to prosecutors (with honourable exceptions) — know anything about them until the recent Border Guard offensive? Similar things could be said about other provincial police forces, of course.

So more police officers on the streets? Of course. But what police are we talking about? To strengthen a suspected force does not seem a plausible idea.

Thus, it is unavoidable to definitely purge the various provincial and federal forces. It is also necessary to reform judicial procedures, which are the main reason for the lack of firm convictions, the large numbers of people imprisoned without sentences and endless trials.

There are many people committed to real solutions. But the government and the majority of our political class shows no will to solve the problem of police and crime links. They also seem too worried about determining if the Argentine Pope likes the proposed Civil Code or if this is the right time to discuss a new penal regulation. Given those precedents, will the key debate about a new Procedural Code recently started by the Lower House of Congress really succeed?

There is not much room for optimism.

* Marcelo Falak is a political scientist and international news editor at the daily Ámbito Financiero.

@marcelofalak

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