Crime breeds mob 'justice' in Argentina

2014-04-09 13:25
Riot police guard a supermarket attacked by looters in San Fernando, Buenos Aires province, Argentina. (Juan Mabromata, AFP)

Riot police guard a supermarket attacked by looters in San Fernando, Buenos Aires province, Argentina. (Juan Mabromata, AFP)

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Buenos Aires - Argentina has been shaken by a recent wave of incidents of mob "justice," underscoring public frustration with rising crime and ineffectual police work.

In the past 10 days, there have been 12 reports of attempted lynchings, where angry members of the public have taken it upon themselves to punish suspected criminals.

"They kill, they rape, they rob. What do you expect?" 64-year-old Jose Villalba, the superintendant of a building in downtown Buenos Aires told AFP, expressing sympathy with the vigilantes. "I don't think I would go to such an extreme, but you'd have to see the circumstances," he said.

So far, only one person has died in the mob attacks, an 18-year-old who was beaten to death after a purse snatching in a poor part of the city of Rosario, 300km north of Buenos Aires. His family insists he was innocent.

But reports of mob justice have surged in the past two weeks in places like Buenos Aires's upscale Palermo neighbourhood and five provinces.

Argentines have mixed opinions about the trend.

"To lynch is to return to barbarism," said Ariel Billordo, a 29 year-old systems analyst.

A survey by pollster Aragon y Asociados published on Monday, however, found that nearly 30% of the population of Buenos Aires are in favour of violence against law-breakers.

Politicians React

The country's political leaders are taking note.

The governor of Buenos Aires province, Daniel Scioli, has declared a state of emergency in his jurisdiction, where 16 million of Argentina's 40 million people live.

Scioli, an ally of President Cristina Kirchner and a favourite to run as president in 2015, announced plans to buy patrol cars and rehire 5 000 retired police officers to beef up a force that already numbers 72 000.

Sergio Massa, an opposition deputy who also is likely to run for president, said the public's taking matters into its own hands was justified in light of "the absence of the state" in fighting crime.

"Each one tries to capitalise on the problem. But insecurity has taken a more complex turn with the lynchings," said Mariel Fornoni, an analyst with Management and Fit (M&F) consulting.

M&F says that 84% of the population believes insecurity has increased, which makes it the opposition's most exploitable issue in next year's elections.

Sociologist Guillermo Perez Sosto agrees: "Part of the population lost faith in the state".

"There is a feeling that they've been abandoned," says Perez Sosto, who heads the Instituto Torcuato Di Tella think tank.

Argentina has not published crime statistics since 2009, when the country had the highest rate of robberies in Latin America - 974 per 100 000 inhabitants - despite a low murder rate.

Drugs and police corruption

"Drugs is what has to be stopped," said Jaime Meza, a 58-year-old messenger. But what to do about it poses a dilemma, he added.

"To lynch is to become a murderer. You can't have confidence in the police because there is a lot of corruption."

Meza's dim view of law enforcement is shared by many Argentines.

The Aragon y Asociados survey found that 73.8% of those polled believe there is a relationship between politics and drug trafficking, while 78.7% believe some police are involved with drug traffickers.

Carried out earlier this month in the Buenos Aires metropolitan area, the poll also found that 38.4% feel that people have the right to organise and arm themselves in self-defence if the government is unable to control crime; 54.7% were opposed.

Juan Carlos Molina, a Catholic priest in charge of the federal anti-drug agency, criticised the governor's plans for fighting crime.

"Buy a lot of vests and bullets, but let's also triple the number of sports, cultural and therapeutic scholarships,' he said on his Twitter account.
Read more on:    cristina kirchner  |  argentina
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