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Crime Wave May Cause Political Crisis in Argentina - 2003-12-19

This month Argentines commemorate the second anniversary of the bloody uprising that ushered in a political and economic crisis from which Argentina is still recovering. Since the economic collapse in 2001, the country has experienced record poverty, unemployment and crime. Crime is so rampant many citizens are protesting in the streets to ask for more security. Some say that could become a serious problem for new President Nestor Kirchner.

On a cool spring evening in Buenos Aires, 60-year-old Susanna Gonzalez and her neighbors hit the street to make their voices heard. "Everything is very dangerous here… We don't know what to do," she said.

Gonzalez and about a hundred others from the wealthy neighborhood of Recoleta staged a pots-and-pans banging protest earlier this month following the murder of a local restaurant owner during a robbery attempt.

Violent crime and kidnappings in Argentina's capitol have become an everyday part of life since the country's economic collapse in 2001.

Eighteen-year-old Clara Tadossi lives one block from where the restaurant murder took place. She moved to Buenos Aires earlier this year to start college and says that the constant feeling of insecurity here has been a big shock for her.

"I'm from the interior of the country and I'm not accustomed to this type of violence, and I'm a little scared, so I want to try to help Argentina change, especially in the neighborhoods," she said.

The city's neighborhoods are where the violence is really taking hold. According to government numbers, the overall crime rate in Buenos Aires city has jumped an exceptional 900 percent in the past decade. But it has been the recent rash of kidnapping cases that have enraged the public. During the first half of 2003, six kidnappings per day took place in the greater Buenos Aires area, many involving the relatives of business executives, actors or professional athletes, who could afford to pay big ransoms for their loved ones.

"It's very complicated, the situation that we are suffering right now, very complicated," said Diego Canto, a security analyst for Kroll, Incorporated, a risk consulting company. He says that kidnappings have long plagued other Latin American cities like Bogotá and Sao Paulo, and that Buenos Aires is just now catching up with the rest of the continent.

"The problem that maybe the Argentineans have is that maybe we cannot consider Argentina like an island in the middle of the ocean… We are a part of a very hot region. For example, you mention a lot of cities… Very, very dangerous in Latin America, and Buenos Aires is a part of it," he said.

So much so that security has become a booming business here. Some security firms, like Kroll, have seen business increase three fold in the past year alone. Buenos Aires now boasts at least half a dozen armored car factories and one of its fastest growing career choices is bodyguard. These new developments have clearly put many people in Buenos Aires on edge and altered the normally outgoing ways of some Argentines, such as Patricia Rocca.

"We can't go out in the streets. All the women are afraid that our purses will be snatched. We can't even use earrings because they'll rip them right off your ears. For me, this isn't a problem with the police, this is a political problem," she said.

A political problem that is threatening to end the honeymoon of new President Nestor Kirchner. Mr. Kirchner has maintained a high public approval rating during his first six months in office as he purged the country's Supreme Court and armed forces and abolished laws that had protected former military leaders accused of human rights abuses.

But Mr. Kirchner's decision to try and reform the notoriously corrupt provincial police forces is causing a power struggle that political analyst Carlos Gervasoni says could eat away at both Mr. Kirchner's political power and his popularity.

"I think this has become politically so relevant because [Mr.] Kirchner is obsessed with current high level of public opinion approval and he knows that security is a threat for that," he said.

Thousands more police officers are now patrolling the streets and President Kirchner's administration has promised to eliminate the corruption that has plagued Argentina for so long. But even with the increased police presence, Susanna Gonzalez does not think that Buenos Aires will ever return to being one of the safest cities in the world.

"It is terrible, I don't know… I hope everything changes," she said.

Some here have suggested that bringing in experienced law enforcement officials from outside Argentina may help to shake up the system and stem the growing crime wave. One name that has been mentioned many times: former New York mayor Rudolph Giuliani.