A debate dominates the end of my dinners at my parents’ house: how to get home? I live a mere seven blocks away, a brief walk across a park. Though I’m an independent urban type, in the labyrinth of subjective insecurity that is Buenos Aires these days, the answer is not as obvious as it seems.
When I walk to my bus stop in Buenos Aires, I zip my purse shut and clutch it tight to my body, like a football player running toward the end zone. When I play Candy Crush on the subway, I hold my phone in a two-handed death grip, lest it be snatched away. After a girls’ night out, I ask my friend to text me when she’s safely home. On warm spring days, my car windows remain shut because robberies have been known to happen at red lights.
And those deeper down the rabbit hole consider me foolhardily naïve in my lack of precaution. I know people who drive from their guarded apartment building garage to their office parking lot, and who avoid setting foot on the street even in broad daylight. Iron bars cover many ground floor windows on Buenos Aires streets, and increasingly the next floor up, too. Barbed wire wraps around some houses’ entrances like ivy. And then there are those who move to gated communities, where they can finally leave these quotidian safety measures behind—but instead end up living in a sort of custom-designed Truman Show of safety from “others.”
But the higher the walls, the more upper-middle-class porteños seem to be afraid. How necessary are these measures, and the correlated paranoia that seems to seep into every step we take?
Latin America may include some of the most violent places in the world, but that’s hardly a homogeneous statistic that blankets the entire region. Indeed, a recently released United Nations Development Program (UNDP) report on citizen security in Latin America found that Argentina and its Southern Cone neighbors have low rates of homicide.
Argentina’s is slightly below six murders per 100,000 inhabitants—far below the epidemic rates found elsewhere in the region. Robbery rates are fairly high, though the specific statistics vary, and crime increased steadily over the past 20 years—a trendline that influences perceptions more than absolute numbers do.
According to the same report, nearly 18 percent of the Argentine population has been a victim of this type of crime, compared to 25 percent in Ecuador and nearly 11 percent in Chile. Apparently I might be robbed, but probably not killed.
It’s hard to measure personal risk in any situation, and to establish the proper equilibrium between one’s behavior and actual threats. Moreover, people’s risk tolerance, even when actual risk can be assessed, will vary from individual to individual and from society to society, taking into account such things as expectations and the surrounding context.
According to the UNDP report, Honduras has the highest murder rate in the world at 86.5 per 100,000 inhabitants, yet eight out of 10 Honduran citizens feel safe in their neighborhoods. In contrast, in Chile, which has the lowest murder rate in the region (two per 100,000 inhabitants), only seven out of 10 citizens feel safe in their neighborhood. People in Iraq apparently feel slightly safer walking home at night than people in Argentina.
The report’s authors distinguish between the objective dimension of security, related to actual crime and violence, and the subjective dimension, involving feelings of fear and vulnerability. Fear doesn’t only stem from actual crime, but also from the tenor of media coverage about it, the lack of social cohesion in some areas, and a lack of faith in the public institutions charged with ensuring personal safety.
Crime is a very real and pressing problem in Latin America, but an irrational, oversized fear of it is an equally corrosive issue. Robert Muggah, the research director of the Brazilian Igarapé Institute and a consultant for the UNDP report, told me that the mismatch between perceptions of insecurity and actual crime rates can sometimes be explained by the relative increase of crime in some countries, while areas with high murder rates can develop a sort of social tolerance for the phenomenon. The population that is most vulnerable to violent crime—poor , young men—is also the group that is least likely to report fear.
Anecdotes of fear, like a grim card collection, are traded at social gatherings nowadays: friends whose parents’ house was broken into; the friend of a friend who had a gun pointed at his mother in a restaurant; friends who were held hostage at a birthday party while their hosts were robbed; the new vogue of “entraderas,” where thieves seize the moment you open your front door to rob you. And that’s just a recent sampling.
It’s offensive to be skeptical in the face of these stories, but it’s also hard to extrapolate a broader meaning from them. Statistics are powerless in the face of the intense subjectivity of the issue of perception. Rational conversation becomes impossible amid the never-ending litany of fear.
Gabriel Kessler, who wrote a book about the feeling of insecurity in Argentina, noted that there are nearly 10 times more deaths due to improper use of medication than as a byproduct of robbery. Not to mention road accidents.
Some deaths are scarier than others, he posits, and considered less socially acceptable. For example, a recent story about the guy who lived with his mother’s cadaver tied to his kitchen table for 10 years hasn’t inspired anything other than morbid curiosity. It’s not something that the average person can identify with and fear. Rather than a concrete fear of losing material objects or being harmed, it is crime’s sheer randomness that people find so frightening, according to Kessler’s research.
Preying on fear of crime is a political opportunity as well. Opposition politicians campaign on vague “tough on crime” promises. There is perennial national debate over trying minors as adults and the right draconian sentences to deter disadvantaged youth from petty theft. The national government, for its part, has recently proposed a revised and progressive penal code that introduces social considerations into criminal law. But it’s not clear if any crime-oriented measures could ever put a dent in the perceived problem of crime.
Porteños are not alone in their feeling of insecurity: less than 44 percent of Latin Americans feel comfortable walking home at night. We remain a region obsessed with seguridad, or—to be more precise—inseguridad. Harvard Latin America scholar Jorge Domínguez has said the media’s treatment of crime and violence in the region makes it seem as if insecurity is announced on loudspeakers on every street corner. The UNDP report makes special note of the role of the media in fomenting fear, and suggests more care could be taken to avoid fanning the flames.
The Argentine media, with a strong political agenda of its own, does not lag behind its counterparts in sounding the alarm on insecurity. Crime has moved from tabloids to the covers of establishment newspapers. Television crews are stationed at crime sites and endlessly interview victims, their families, and neighbors. The evening news reports are a sickening endless loop of interviews of victims and their families. When nothing new happens, victims of previous crimes are revisited. Crime is something you are presented with all day, every day. It’s hard not to feel as if it’s just a matter of time before you yourself are the victim.
I plead personal confusion, even after reading what the experts have to say. They tell me that the hysterical narrative I’m hearing is typical of my middle-class environment, and that my rejection of the phenomenon is typical of bleeding-heart progressives.
Yet this psychological academic assessment doesn’t really clarify how scared we should be—what I should tell tourists from other cities when they ask me about staying safe in Buenos Aires, or whether I can walk home at night alone, which I stubbornly do, even when I promise my mother I’ll take a cab. And so I am stuck, with little to help me unravel whether my uneventful walk home last night was a reasonable or foolish decision to make.