Argentina shows that for the first time in two decades,
crime has risen to the top of the public agenda.
Interestingly, the importance of the crime issue in
Argentina first gained traction after the economic collapse in 2001. Yet, the significant economic growth
of the last few years does not appear to have made
Argentines feel safer. Crime continues to rise on the list
of public anxieties, while concerns about unemployment have declined.
In Argentina and Venezuela, crime is the number-one priority in popular opinion for different reasons.
Both countries have experienced their own unique
national traumas: one economic, the other radical
changes in macroeconomic policy. Meanwhile, in Mexico, fighting crime now nearly ties with job-creation in
the list of public priorities.
In other countries it varies as well. Indeed, in three
Central American countries where drug trafficking
and general banditry have been endemic (Guatemala,
Honduras and Panama), the crime issue is paramount.
Colombia emerges as a unique case: the ongoing conflict involving drug traffickers, paramilitaries and guerrillas has blurred the line separating national security
problems and law and order.
On average, the higher the crime rate, the more
important the crime issue. (See Figure 2, next page)
graphics by jared schneidman design
For instance, Venezuela, Colombia, and Brazil—all
high-crime countries—also list crime as a high-prior-ity problem. Conversely, in the low-crime countries of
Peru and Uruguay, crime, not surprisingly, is low on
the list of public concerns. There are, however, two
notable exceptions: Chile and Argentina. Both countries register low murder rates, yet skew higher than
expected on the crime issue.
These survey results raise three important points.
First, the salience of crime does depend at least in
part on the absolute crime levels. This suggests that
without a medium to long-term reduction in the crime
rates, the issue is here to stay. Second, the examples
of Chile and Argentina suggest that voters are able to
take a more nuanced approach by comparing changing
crime patterns over a period of years. Chile and Argentina show that relative increases in crime rates may be
more important than absolute levels. Indeed, a slight
slippage in the crime rates in these countries seems to
have had a major impact on voters perceiving crime
as a key issue. Third, especially in the case of Chile,
sustained economic growth and stability may make
crime a larger focus of public attention. As voters feel
able to feed and clothe their families and live normal
lives without worrying about future political instability,
crime could become a rising preoccupation.