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Argentina´s war on crime could backfire

Hard-line approaches to combating criminal violence are hardly new to Argentina. But they do mark a change from the previous decade. Español Português

This article is published as part of the campaign Instinto de Vida

Argentina's President Mauricio Macri attends the three-day World Economic Forum on Latin America in Buenos Aires, Argentina, on April 6, 2017. Xinhua/SIPA USA/PA Images. All rights reserved.

Heavy fisted approaches to public security are making a come-back across the Americas, including in Argentina. Despite registering some of the lowest rates of criminal violence in Latin America, the country´s new government wasted no time to applying so-called "mano dura" strategies to fight organized crime. In 2015, just weeks after getting into office President Macri issued a state of "public emergency" (which was extended into 2016). He came to power vowing to eradicate organized crime. His initial efforts suggest he´s made some headway. While appealing to many, militarizing the fight against crime can backfire.

Hard-line approaches to combating criminal violence are hardly new to Argentina. But they do mark a change from the previous decade. Over the past year, the Argentinian public authorities pushed for an array of reforms - to lower the penal age of criminal responsibility from 16 to 14, speed-up deportations of foreigners involved in crimes, incarcerate low-level drug offenders, extend prison sentences, and authorize the shooting down of planes suspected of involvement in drug trafficking. While these approaches go down well with voters, their record of success in the longer term is mixed.

Is Argentina's war on crime warranted? While robbery and assaults have risen in recent years, talk of a "crime wave" may be overstated. When compared to its neighbors, Argentina actually registers an unusually low murder rate: it appears to have declined from 7.4 per 100,000 in the early 1990s and 6.6 per 100,000 in 2015. While it´s true that the national homicide rate seems to have decreased by 19% in the first half 2016, it was already among the lowest in the Americas. The government claims these reductions are due to interventions such as "Barrios Seguros" but the truth is that no one knows due to lack of any impact evaluations. 

Notwithstanding low levels of violent crime, the Argentinean public supports the crack-down on crime. One of the reasons for this is that many citizens are fearful of being a victim themselves. Surveys conducted by the Latin American Opinion Project (LAPOP) suggest that roughly a third of Argentinians believe that public security is the single biggest challenge facing the country. The recent murder of a young activist from the “Ni Una Menos” (Not One Less) shed light on the problem of femicide in Argentina. It has also hardened the public mood toward criminal offenders. 

Part of the challenge with deciding how best to respond is that reliable crime data in Argentina is exceedingly hard to come by. In 2016, the public authorities released official crime statistics for the first time in eight years. This is to be commended. The data they made available does not support the widespread panic over criminal violence and drug trafficking. To the contrary - the rates for most types of crimes appear comparatively stable, and low by regional standards. But there are still gaping data gaps, especially when it comes to assessing the scale of the drug market and extent of homicide. 

While tough on crime measures are enthusiastically supported by many Argentinians, especially those living in the capital Buenos Aires, they are potentially risky. For one, they could lead to the increased involvement of the armed forces in ostensibly domestic law and order matters. Soldiers are not trained to prevent crime or arrest suspects - they are taught to shoot to kill. At the moment, military involvement seems to be limited to shooting down planes suspected of carrying drugs. But it is a slippery slope. As the experience of Mexico´s war on drugs has shown, the deployment of the military can generate short-term gains, but it can also result in a massive escalation of violence and human rights violations –as citizens of a certain age know only too well.

Likewise, the campaign to accelerate the imprisonment drug traffickers will appeal to some voters, but it can also generate new problems. As public authorities from Brazil and Colombia have found out, over-crowded prisons give rise to a new generation of criminals. A more effective strategy is to focus scarce law enforcement resources on violent offenders, and explore alternate sentencing strategies for low-level dealers. Consumers should be removed from the criminal justice system entirely. In 2009, Argentina´s Supreme Court declared the criminalization of personal possession and use of drugs unconstitutional. Even so, the police continue with prohibitionist policies, because the parliament has yet to adapt the laws.

The fight against crime cannot be won by repressive policing and tougher sentencing alone. Prevention is potentially even more important. There is widespread evidence that aggressive counter-narcotics measures not only fail on their own standards, they can also inadvertently increase violence by destabilizing drug markets. This does not mean that the state is powerless to act. To the contrary. Rather, the point is that the criminal justice system would do well to focus its resources on the most serious crimes. Be tough against the tough, but be compassionate with vulnerable. 

Historically, most people who are arrested in crack-downs across Argentina are in possession of small amounts of drugs. They typically belong to marginal segments of society, and are not necessarily part of a well-oiled criminal organization. As experiences from elsewhere in Latin America show, the Argentine authorities will achieve better results when it uses repression to curb the power of corruption, money laundering and violence rather than going after low-level dealers and users. By the same token, the state and municipal authorities should adopt preventive measures to reduce the risks of criminal violence and alleviate the suffering of the most vulnerable.

The current government has a real opportunity to adopt effective pathways to reducing crime and victimization. It could start by setting a balanced strategy. This means setting clear goals and targets focusing on the most extreme forms of criminal violence - especially homicide. Focusing on especially murderous cities - such as Santa Fe, which registers homicide rates of roughly 26 per 100,000 – will yield important returns. Effective violence prevention also requires developing a culture of prevention, one that embraces data-driven and evidence-based strategies to fight crime. Heavy-handed measures may help win elections, but they can also generate far-reaching unintended consequences. Sometimes the proposed cure can make the disease even worse. 

This article is published as part of the campaign Instinto de Vida (https://www.instintodevida.org).

About the authors

Robert Muggah is the Research Director of the Igarapé Institute, Brazil, a Research Director of the SecDev Foundation, and teaches at the Instituto de Relações Internacionais, Pontifícia Universidade Católica do Rio de Janeiro. He is also a fellow at the University of Oxford, the University of San Diego and the Graduate Institute Switzerland

Robert Muggah es el director de investigación del Instituto Igarapé, Brasil, director de investigación de la Fundación SecDev, y profesor en el Instituto de Relações Internacionais, Pontificia Universidad Católica de Río de Janeiro. Es también Fellow de la Universidad de Oxford, de la Universidad de San Diego y del Graduate Institutre Switzerland.

Juan Carlos Garzón es investigador asociado de la Fundación Ideas para la Paz, del Woodrow Wilson Center (Washington D.C) y asesor regional del Instituto Igarapé (Brasil). Politólogo de la Universidad Javeriana (Colombia) y especialista en Teoría y Resolución de Conflictos Armados de la Universidad de Los Andes (Colombia), recibió su titulo de Maestría en Estudios Latinoamericanos de la Universidad de Georgetown (EE.UU). Escribe para El País en España y para El Espectador, La Silla Vacía y Razón Pública en Colombia.

Juan Carlos Garzón is Research Associate at Ideas for Peace Foundation, the Woodrow Wilson Center (Washington D.C.) and regional advisor of Igarapé Institute (Brazil). Political scientist from the Universidad Javeriana (Colombia), and specialist in Theory and Armed Conflict Resolution at the University of Los Andes (Colombia). He received his master's degree in Latin American Studies at Georgetown University (USA). He writes for El País newspaper in Spain and El Espectador, La Silla Vacía and Razón Pública in Colombia.


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