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Crime Increases as Argentine Economy Suffers  - 2004-08-28

In Argentina, crime rates have soared since the country's economic meltdown of 2001. Nowhere is that more true than in the areas surrounding the capital, Buenos Aires, where kidnappings quadrupled in the past two years. Angry Argentines are once again taking to the streets to demand change, thanks in large part to the efforts of one man who has become a reluctant hero in the cause.

Juan Carlos Blumberg is a man of his word. After his 23-year-old son Axel was kidnapped and killed five months ago, Mr. Blumberg made a pact with his late son. He says, [he] promised in front of Axel's tomb that I would fight, so that what happened to Axel would never happen to any other child."

Mr. Blumberg has since become Argentina's best-known anti-crime crusader. He led a peaceful demonstration Thursday in front of the National Congress to demand increased police protection and political action. Seventy-five thousand people showed up.

Protester Maria del Carmen Merago wants justice. Her son was killed during a robbery attempt. She says [she's] here to fight and to support Mr. Blumberg because he is a man who is brave enough to confront the mafia that is Argentine politics.

The politicians are feeling the pressure. They approved stricter laws to deter criminals after Mr. Blumberg held similar protests in April. But crime, especially kidnappings, in Buenos Aires' middle-and-upper-class neighborhoods, remains a daily threat in a city once considered one of the safest in South America. Other cities on the continent, like Bogotá and Sao Paolo have long struggled with violence and kidnappings, but only recently has Buenos Aires been confronted with this problem.

President Nestor Kirchner has purged the notoriously corrupt police forces and appointed new security ministers. But 19-year-old demonstrator Pilar Gonzalez is cynical about politics and even about the protests. "These marches make noise, but I don't think they are going to change anything because the people that change things are there and they don't care about the country, they care about having money. Maybe, I hope things change, but it's going to take a long time," he says.

In fact some Argentines are calling for outside help, and some outsiders are heeding the call.

"I think we can offer, coming here, an example of how police can impact on crime," says John Timoney, a member of the New York Police Department for 29 years. He's currently the chief of police in Miami. Mr. Timoney recently visited Buenos Aires. "It reminds of New York in the 1970's and 80's when one of the reasons for not engaging in aggressive policing was the fear of corruption and so we see here time and time again politicians talking about police corruption as if somehow that becomes the number one issue before you can deal with crime. It's my suggestion that you can walk and chew bubble gum at the same time you should be dealing with police corruption, that does not relieve you of your obligation to also deal with other issues."

Juan Carlos Blumberg says he'll make sure the politicians and police continue to feel the heat. He says he owes it all those affected by crime in Argentina. He says people in the street tell me not to abandon them, to continue the fight and that they support me fully.

Mr. Blumberg's protest concluded with a meeting with government officials and other crime victims like Carlos Garnil.

Mr. Garnil marched because his teenage son was just held hostage for three weeks. After the anti-crime protesters dispersed, Mr. Garnil realized that someone had stolen his wallet.