A few years ago, as I was delivering a slide lecture on Buenos Aires in Southern California, someone brought up the issue of personal safety in the question-and-answer period. My impulsive response, which brought a nervous laugh from the audience, was that “there are no drive-by shootings in Buenos Aires” - which there are in Los Angeles.
It’s true that, before Americans go overseas, one of the first things they think about is crime and insecurity, even if their own country can be as dangerous, or more so, than many foreign destinations. Colombia, to cite one example, has a terrible reputation that lingers from sensational - and sensationalist - stories of its drug wars and guerrilla insurgencies. Mexico, especially the cities along the US border, has seen some horrendous crimes and smuggling of drugs and people to the north is notorious.
Yet both those countries are generally safe, sometimes extremely safe, as I pointed out in writing about Colombia last year. In that context, it’s always surprised me that so many residents of Chile, Argentina, and Uruguay think that their countries are dangerous - as José Miguel Insulza, Secretary General of the Organization of American States (OAS) pointed out in a recent interview, “In spite of the social perception and public opinion alarm, countries to the south of the continent have lower rates of insecurity compared to other countries of the region.”
That’s not to say crime does not exist but, as Insulza notes, “All over the continent news begins with crimes.” A sensationalist emphasis on crime stories, which increase TV ratings and sell newspapers, does a disservice to countries and cities that don't really deserve it. To my mind, for instance, it’s a testament to urban security when park playgrounds near my Buenos Aires apartment in Palermo are full of families with kids well after dark and often until midnight or later in summer. Likewise, I’ve spent extended periods in Santiago and other Chilean cities, without excessive concern for my personal safety.
Chile, for its part, has Latin America’s most highly respected police force in its Carabineros. Argentina can’t match that, unfortunately - provincial police in Buenos Aires are notoriously corrupt and highway checkpoints are often opportunities for them to shake down motorists for minor equipment violations - but that rarely affects foreign visitors. Uruguay falls somewhere in between, but closer to Chile - its police are generally trustworthy. With all of them, though, investigative professionalism lags behind.
Buenos Aires, meanwhile, is creating a new municipal police force to take over many of the functions of the Policía Federal (pictured here), which until now has handled police matters in the city. The feds are arguably more competent than provincial forces but it remains to be seen whether the new force, whose officers are mostly ex-feds, will be any improvement.