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‘The biggest challenge is police reform’

A man is seen being detained in the Buenos Aires district of La Matanza in this June 2 photo.

Specialist Alvaro Herrero talks to the Herald on anti-crime measures, statistical problems

Álvaro Herrero is a senior researcher at Argentina’s Public Policy Laboratory (LPP) and co-author (along with professor Sofía Mercader) of a recent report on public safety in the country.

At a time when the public debate over anti-crime measures has been affected by some populist moves, Herrero expresses to the Herald his call for serious policy-making based on something a country lacks — reliable statistics.

A recent report from the UN Office on Drugs and Crime said that Argentina is among the Latin American countries with the lowest murder rates, while an earlier study said the country tops the regional ranking of robberies. How is that possible?

The greatest problem we have here is statistical data. There are no recent figures, there is no trustworthy data. This year two surprising reports came out: the global homicide report, that said that Argentina, Chile and Uruguay were the Latin American countries with the lowest murder rates, and another study affirming we had the most robberies per 100,000 inhabitants. Something worth mentioning about the latter: Argentina included attempted robberies in its official reports — while other Latin American countries did not.

How about the so-called victimization rates?

Households with members reporting being the victims of crimes during the last 12 months have been rising steadily since 2007.

But these statistics are not released by the national government, are they?

No, they’re mainly from the Torcuato Di Tella University and other private sources. The Security Ministry is actually conducting surveys but this information is not being made public. They are releasing information from three, four years ago, which is completely useless.

Is there any province doing a better job?

Buenos Aires province has some interesting data. Santa Fe, too. But crime has not been examined in any systematic, comprehensive fashion. We need to cross-reference all data. Who is in jail? On what charges? Where does he or she come from?

Do you know about good practices in other countries?

The issue with criminal statistics is not only an Argentinean problem. It affects the whole region. The IDB (Inter-American Development Bank) is making efforts to create a reliable and comparable set of indicators. It’s important for countries to use the same set of basic categories of crimes so that different episodes can be compared throughout the region. But then comes the big problems: to reform police forces, to improve its investigative capacities, to refine crime prevention strategies.

And what’s your opinion on the government’s work so far?

The major challenge is police reform. It may sound anachronistic after 30 years of democracy — but, for instance, the rules of the Federal Police were written in the 1950s. Buenos Aires province had its reforms, mainly through (former Security Minister León) Arslanian, but also its counter-reforms. The national government has good intention regarding civil control of security forces, but the Federal Police has remained untouched.

Is the Penal Code reform going to change anything for public safety?

It’s a necessary reform — it had suffered hundreds, maybe thousands of small changes that have distorted its original purpose — but it won’t change a thing with regards to crime. What can make a difference is the Criminal Procedure Code, with its attempts for some stages of a trial to be conducted in oral (rather than written) form and confirming prosecutors’ leading role regarding criminal investigations. Current tools are making it difficult, if not impossible, for police forces to fight organized crime.

@fedebillie

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