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Argentina’s Presidential Candidates Promise Hardline Responses to Rising Insecurity

Argentines will vote for their next president on October 22. Despite coming from distinct ideological camps, the leading candidates all have staunch, tough-on-crime stances.

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Argentines will vote for their next president on October 22. Despite coming from distinct ideological camps, the leading candidates all have staunch, tough-on-crime stances focusing on more prisons, beefing up security forces, and harsher criminal prosecution.

Though five candidates remain in the race following August’s primary, three stand out: Javier Milei of the Libertarian Party (Partido Libertario – PL), Patricia Bullrich of Republican Proposal (Propuesta Republicana – PRO), and Sergio Massa of Renewal Front (Frente Renovador – FR). Insecurity has been a main theme of each of their campaigns.

Though Argentina has one of the lowest homicide rates in the region at 4.2 per 100,000, other crimes are rising quickly. For example, violent robberies jumped by more than a third between 2020 and 2022.

Outside of crime hotspots like the city of Rosario, where the murder rate was four times the national average last year, Argentina has few potent organized crime groups. However, there are several important criminal economies in the country.

Argentina’s ports are a launchpad for cocaine to Europe, local drug consumption has been ticking upwards, and criminal groups traffic contraband and marijuana across its porous northern borders. Argentina’s long-standing incapacity to counter money laundering facilitates these illicit economies.

Here, InSight Crime explains how Argentina’s leading presidential candidates promise to address the country’s complex and changing criminal landscape.

The Firebrand

Javier Milei is a brash, self-proclaimed libertarian representing Argentina’s hard right. He only entered politics in 2019, but he has used his relatively short political career to his advantage, positioning himself as an outsider to the system he claims has destroyed Argentina over the past few decades. He leads most polls ahead of Sunday’s election.

Milei has pledged to reform the security services, the intelligence services, and the penitentiary system. Yet the exact details of these reforms, beyond financing security forces and delivering them new equipment, have so far been omitted.

In response to a malfunctioning justice system that he believes “considers criminals to be victims and the victims to be victimizers,” he has invoked the language of strong-arm security policies seen in El Salvador and Honduras, saying that those who carry out crime must be held responsible.

“This isn’t a question of an iron fist. It’s a just fist,” he said in a television debate.

“His idea is to raise the cost of criminality so that the increased costs create deterrence, and with it, less crime,” Diego Gorgal, a security analyst and political scientist, told InSight Crime.

Increased deterrence could help in Argentina, but its impact on serious organized crime will likely be limited, according to Gorgal. “They [members of organized crime groups] know they will receive a swifter and infinitely more severe punishment if they betray the group and cooperate with the state than if they keep breaking the law,” he said.

Milei has floated the idea of semi-privatizing prisons and forcing prisoners to work for their stay to avoid further state expenditure. But he has said little of the country’s prison overcrowding and the abuse of pretrial detention. Government figures published in July 2022 showed that at that point 48% of the 11,295 prisoners in Argentina had not yet been convicted of an offense. And there has been little sign of improvement since. Both overcrowding and abuse of pretrial detention have been repeatedly shown to be ineffective at reducing crime, often fostering criminality instead.

The Prison Dilemma in the Americas

The country’s prison problems, Gorgal said, result from an ineffective security system. “We do not fill the prisons with the most prolific, harmful offenders, but rather with those the malfunctioning system is capable of arresting, judging, and convicting,” he said, arguing Argentina should instead pursue strategies like prevention and reintegration.

The Security Professional

Patricia Bullrich has leveraged her experience as the former security minister under ex-President Mauricio Macri to build a political platform centered around a punitive approach to national security.

Many of Bullrich’s security proposals are eye-catching. Among them is lowering the age of criminal responsibility to 14, and building a maximum security prison named after current vice president and former president, Cristina Fernández de Kirchner, who is currently facing investigation into money laundering. The new prison, Bullrich said, would act as the “final destination for drug dealers, the corrupt, and killers that today enjoy impunity and protection from Kirchnerists.” It will be a “zero tolerance” prison, she promised, staffed by “incorruptible” prison guards.

But experts are skeptical. Like Milei, Bullrich’s ideas on prisons fail to offer a clear argument on how crime should be prevented, according to Jorge Jofré, a criminologist and a judicial officer with the Province of Córdoba Attorney General’s Office.

“Candidates are talking about prisons, and of organized crime. But, fundamentally, there is no clear definition of how they would establish strategies to fight against organized crime,” he told InSight Crime.

The former security minister also promised action in Rosario, where the battle between family clans like the Monos and the Alvarado Clan over drug dealing and other illicit economies has driven up violence. She has said she would send 5,000 military-supported police to Rosario on her first day in office.

Ariel Máximo Cantero, alias ‘Guille’

“We are going to take all necessary measures to put an end to this scourge for good,” Bullrich wrote on X, formerly known as Twitter.

But such militarized strategies have previously failed, and Bullrich has given little indication on how she would address underlying socioeconomic factors that lead to crime and violence or abuse by security forces.

“These types of policies not only violate human rights, they are also not efficient or effective in reducing conflict. If we really want to reduce the levels of violence, we have to think about controlling the police, the security forces, and the prison guards, and not only think about greater punitiveness,” said Eugenia Cozzi, a criminologist at the National University of Rosario.

To combat money laundering, Bullrich said she would set up a specialized prosecutor’s office. She has previous success to build on as she led major anti-money laundering operations as security minister. Other units set up to counteract specific crimes have achieved results in the past, including Argentina’s Specialized Kidnapping and Extortion Unit, which was created to reduce kidnapping for ransom.

The Economist

Sergio Massa, the current minister of economy, has attempted to find a middle ground between progressive policing and punishing crime. By rebuilding the foundations of community policing, he hopes to recreate the low crime rates that characterized his two terms as mayor of Tigre, a small town on the outskirts of Buenos Aires.

His flagship security policy, the so-called Tigre Model, seeks to sharpen police efficiency through technology, such as video surveillance, and training by the US Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI). He also wants to expand community police services to all parts of the country, with police living in the communities they patrol.

Experts say this plan could help reduce crime, but it comes up short in long-term solutions.

“It does not solve the factors that generate the conditions that make [crime] possible,” said Cozzi. “It seems to me that in some cases it may be effective or it may be interesting, but of course [the Tigre Model] alone is not enough.”

Massa’s plan is more a campaign promise than a detailed security program, according to Gorgal. “The question is, though the evidence shows it has been a very successful social prevention model at the local level, can it scale nationally?” he said.

Massa has also sought to appear tough on crime. He said he would tackle Rosario’s issues with an additional 500 police officers and an operations center in the city, as well create a superintendent position to investigate the local drug trade. He would lengthen prison sentences for drug traffickers and increase punishment for corruption.

Though Rosario is a popular talking point for candidates, years of public policies — most of which resemble those proposed by the candidates — have failed to bring peace.

“The candidates’ campaigns, hunting for votes, do not understand the situation, and so in general, they propose solutions that I think would make the situation even worse,” said Cozzi. “You have to improve investigations into homicides. [We also need] to talk about the prohibitionist model for drugs, gun control, and community strategies for violence prevention with young people linked to criminal contexts.”

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