- Title: ARGENTINA: Crime fears pressure leader as vote nears
- Date: 19th March 2011
- Summary: (SOUNDBITE) (Spanish) ALEJANDRO CATTERBERG, DIRECTOR OF CRIME CONSULTANCY POLIARQUIA, SAYING: "The numbers have stayed stable for the last two years. Around 30 percent of households have a member of their home that has suffered some kind of crime in the last year. Now, there's not really a clear relationship between the crimes suffered, which are stable, and the feelings of insecurity. That sometimes depends on just a few cases with big media impact, which can change things from month-to-month, so feelings of insecurity may rise even if crime doesn't."
- Embargoed: 3rd April 2011 13:55
- Location: Argentina, Argentina
- Country: Argentina
- Topics: Crime / Law Enforcement
- Reuters ID: LVAAZP2I4EJ3CIO1VGJK8HSMNP0Q
- Aspect Ratio: 4:3
- Story Text: From affluent suburbs to the slums next door, residents live with burglar alarms, iron window grates and a growing fear of violent crime in the urban sprawl that fringes Argentina's capital.
Argentines used to be proud of their country's reputation for safety in a notoriously violent region, but things have changed dramatically.
Raul Martino looks like a prisoner as he pets his dog through heavy bars on the patio of his home in Ramos Mejia, a suburb outside the capital Buenos Aires.
A businessman, Martino's son was shot in a bungled burglary at this same home.
"My house had been like this for ten years because Argentina has been like this for ten years. You see it, barred windows, reinforced doors, three locks on the reinforced door. This fence is always locked. And they day I didn't lock it? What happened? Why didn't I lock it? You feel guilty. Why didn't you lock it," he said.
In the yard outside the Martino's well-kept home is a virgin icon with a picture of his son and signs demanding a life sentence for the assassins.
Martino, and many others like him, may feel a religious icon is more help than President Cristina Fernandez's government, who they say has abandoned is too soft on crime.
"Solutions aren't appearing. No one talks about crime in Argentina. The president doesn't talk about crime. The little bit you do hear is that they put 5,000 officers in the province of Buenos Aires. What for? To stop who?" Martino said.
Seven months from a presidential election, polls show crime is voters' top concern -- even more than double-digit inflation -- and the issue could prove a weak spot for Fernandez, a center-leftist, if she runs for a second term as expected.
Rightist opponents of Fernandez are targeting the issue in early campaigning, saying she is out of touch with popular demands for a zero-tolerance approach to crime.
While Fernandez's approval ratings run at about 50 percent, far ahead of her nearest rivals, right-leaning opponents such as former President Eduardo Duhalde and Buenos Aires Mayor Mauricio Macri could use the issue to cut into her lead.
In her state of the nation address on March 1, Fernandez appealed to rivals and the largely opposition media to refrain from using crime for electoral gain or to bash the government.
"(We must) provide better safety, and it can't be subjected to childish arguments and tug-of-wars on either side. Security issues must not be wrapped up with ideology. Above all, they can't be used for media or advertising purposes for campaigns," Fernandez Trying to win back the initiative, Fernandez created a new security ministry in December and temporarily beefed up the Buenos Aires province police force with border guards. But the criticism has continued as public anger rises.
Alejandro Catterberg, the director of crime consultancy Poliarquia in Buenos Aires, looked at pre-election opinion polls at his office.
He pointed out the most recent poll from his firm, conducted in February, found 40 percent of Argentines consider crime to be the country's single greatest problem, above both unemployment, cited by 11 percent, and poverty, by 8 percent.
He added overall crime figures haven't rose significantly in the past two years, but it has become more of an issue because of crimes that captured the public's attention.
"The numbers have stayed stable for the last two years. Around 30 percent of households have a member of their home that has suffered some kind of crime in the last year. Now, there's not really a clear relationship between the crimes suffered, which are stable, and the feelings of insecurity. That sometimes depends on just a few cases with big media impact, which can change things from month-to-month, so feelings of insecurity may rise even if crime doesn't," he said.
Nowhere is the fear of violent crime stronger than in the capital's densely populated outskirts, where middle-class homes often stand back-to-back with squalid shanty towns.
Ramos Mejia lies in La Matanza, Argentina's largest electoral district and a ruling Peronist party stronghold with more than 1.3 million inhabitants. It was key to Fernandez's resounding presidential election victory in 2007.
But Fernandez suffered a stinging electoral setback against a "tough-on-crime" opponent when Francisco de Narvaez beat her late husband and former president Nestor Kirchner in mid-term legislative elections in Buenos Aires province in 2009.
While a lack of centralized data makes it hard to get exact figures on crime in Argentina, all figures say the murder rate has actually fallen. But high-profile crimes, such as the case of a pregnant woman who lost her unborn child after being shot last year outside a bank, have sparked debate about cutting the age of criminal responsibility to 14 from 16.
Robbery reports rose slightly in 2008, the justice ministry's most recent data shows.
Caterver says Argentina is still safer than other countries in the region, but it's not like it used to be.
"When you compare with other countries in the region, clearly Argentina is better, especially compared to Brazil and other Central American countries. But what affects people and weighs on their conscience is the comparison to the past. People see the problem of crime as much worse here in Argentina than it was a decade ago, or two or three decades ago."
Fernandez has rejected the change, in part because she wants to champion human rights and distance her government from the repressive dictatorship in power between 1976 and 1983.
Police have been ordered not to carry firearms during demonstrations, showing how keen Fernandez's administration is to avoid any accusation of heavy-handedness in the run-up to the October election.
But the demands of her most loyal supporters could clash with those of undecided voters who want a tougher approach. When voters feel threatened, they often move to the right, which would benefit the opposition.
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