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Crime rate threatens Uruguay's Broad Front dominance

Ruling-party Broad Front’s candidate for president and former leader of Uruguay Tabaré Vázquez.
Ruling-party Broad Front’s candidate for president and former leader of Uruguay Tabaré Vázquez.
Ruling-party Broad Front’s candidate for president and former leader of Uruguay Tabaré Vázquez.
By Carolina Thibaud
Herald Staff

Issue is voters’ top concern but initiative to lower age of criminal responsibility loses steam

With presidential elections less than a month away, crime and the generalized feeling of insecurity are threatening to put an end to a decade of leftist Broad Front rule in neighbouring Uruguay. According to surveys, crime tops voters’ list of concerns — around 30 percent say it’s their main worry ahead of the election — and the issue is becoming increasingly dominant in the media as the campaign enters its final stretch. Just a few days ago, the death of a man who was murdered in cold blood while riding on a public bus in Montevideo shocked public opinion and led to calls for tougher punishment.

With official statistics showing that homicides and violent theft have soared during the last decade, ruling-party candidate and former president Tabaré Vázquez has often been put on the back foot, failing to defend the government’s security record.

A pledge by him last week to keep Interior Minister Eduardo Bonomi in his post if he were elected was immediately slammed by opposition candidates Luis Lacalle Pou (from the National Party) and Pedro Bordaberry (from the Colorado Party) and even questioned in the press, with many considering it to be a tactical mistake considering that Bonomi is the most unpopular minister in President José Mujica’s administration.

The former president is still the frontrunner ahead of the first round but polls have consistently shown that he will face the National Party candidate in a runoff vote, where the two would be neck-and-neck, with the majority of Bordaberry’s voters likely to back Lacalle Pou.

With crime on the rise, Bordaberry and his Colorado Party have championed an initiative to lower the age of criminal responsibility — from 18 to 16 — and have managed to gather enough signatures to put the proposal to a public vote in a referendum that will be carried out on the same day of the presidential election, October 26.

Yes

By including a “Yes” vote along with their chosen presidential ticket, Uruguayans will back the penal reform. Failing to do so will naturally imply that they are against it. Those who back the lowering of the age of criminal responsibility argue that the system favours the status quo and they are fighting to keep the issue on top of voters’ minds.

Among the supporters is Fundación Propuestas (Fundapro), an NGO linked to Vamos Uruguay, Bordaberry’s political grouping within the Colorado Party alliance. Fundapro has been crafting its own statistics on crime for several years now and argues that those released by the government “lack transparency.”

“The numbers provided by the Interior Ministry lack transparency and the information is partial,” said Guillermo Maciel, the head of Fundapro’s Observatory on Public Security. “There’s no correlation between, for example, the number of homicides reported by the media and those that appear in official statistics,” he added.

According to a recent editorial by El País, Uruguay’s best-known newspaper, during the first half of 2014 the number of violent robberies rose 10 percent compared to the first half of 2013. And when it came to homicides, the statistics are even worse — the country registered more murders than New York, even though its population is almost three times smaller.

“Of the 138 homicides committed in Uruguay during the first half of the year, 83 took place in Montevideo, the capital. This means that “inhabitants of Montevideo (with a population of 1.3 million) are three times as likely to be murdered than inhabitants of New York,” the editorial stated.

A recent UN report however put Uruguay among Latin America’s safest countries, even though its homicide rate is well above that of the region’s best-ranked countries. While Chile’s homicide rate is 3.1 for every 100,000 inhabitants and Argentina’s is 5.5, Uruguay’s is 7.9.

Maciel argues that close to 20 percent of homicides are committed by adolescents, who are under the age of criminal responsibility and who gamble on the fact that they won’t be punished for their crimes as an adult would.

He played down the influence of drugs, however, saying that less than 10 percent of those arrested are under the influence. He did admit, however, that drug use is increasingly an issue in Uruguay, with free-base (in Spanish, pasta base) the main substance consumed by marginalized youth.

Critics have pointed out that those under 18 might not have the same ability to discern between right and wrong that adults have, but Maciel says that the reform leaves the “window open” for each judge to decide if the young person on trial should be tried as an adult or not.

The reform would bring Uruguay’s stance on the subejct in line with Argentina’s, which has set the age of criminal responsibility at 16 years old. The threshold is a lot lower in several other American countries, including Mexico (12 years old) and the US (it varies from six to 14 depending on the state).

No

On the other side of the debate sit a number of Uruguay’s large institutions and the ruling Broad Front. The “No a la baja” commission (“No to the age reduction”) goes even further, branding the proposal immoral.

“The juvenile penal system breaks the links that an adolescent has with society. We are condemning people to a life of crime,” the association states on its website, highlighting that the Church, universities and unions also oppose the proposal.

The commission is composed of a wide range of social organizations, ranging from Uruguay’s biggest union, the PIT-CNT, to several student, teacher and women’s groups, most of which sympathize with the ruling Broad Front.

The leftist coalition is dead set against the initiative and Vázquez has equated lowering the age of criminal responsibility to “a definitive sentence against young people.”

President Mujica and his wife, Senator Lucía Topolansky, have also spoken out publicly against the bill.

“It won’t fix anything. Adolescents don’t think about what’s going to happen to them when they are going to commit a crime,” Mujica has said.

The National Party’s Lacalle Pou, meanwhile, has taken a third path: he has tried to get away with saying as little as possible on such a divisive issue.

“Whenever he is pressed to answer, he says that he is in favour of the initiative... but he doesn’t wear its ‘colours,’” political analyst and director of the Interconsult polling firm, Alejandro Lourido, told the Herald.

But with the campaign entering its final stage, Bordaberry has began to apply pressure on the campaign trail, insisting that Lacalle Pou take sides. The younger candidate eventually gave in, saying that he will vote in favour of the reform, even if his vice-presidential candidate, Senator Jorge Larrañaga, has often argued against it.

Uruguayans divided

With less than a month to go, surveys show that Uruguayans are still divided on the issue, with analysts expecting a close call. The latest poll by Cifra showed that 48 percent are in favour of the reform (interestingly down from 65 percent two years ago), while 40 percent are against it and 12 percent remain undecided.

Among Broad Front voters,support for the reform has dropped dramatically, from 45 percent prior to primary elections in April, to 25 percent in a poll taken earlier this month.

But even if they don’t support the age reduction, “they still want to see improvements (on crime),” Lourido said. “Bonomi is more of the same,” he added, perhaps revealing just a little of the public’s feelings toward the unpopular minister.

On Wednesday, three of the four top stories on El País’ website concerned crime. One video showed a recording of a crime taking place. One story reported on comments from Mujica concerning recent attacks on buses. Another featured the defence minister discussing an apparent rise in people carrying weapons on their person and the likelihood of attacks on politicians.

Regardless of what happens at the end of the month, the subject is unlikely to go away. Until Uruguay’s political leaders deal with the issue, crime looks set to continue dominating the frontpages — and the election.

@carothibaud

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