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OP-ED | 16-03-2024 06:41

Belling terror

The solution to drug crime bloodshed in Rosario is far from being as brutally simple as the problem, as some would seem to think.

The problem of narco-terrorism surging in Rosario this month is very much more beyond dispute than the solution. At first sight four murders in a week in Argentina’s crime capital might seem nothing new as tragically all too common currency in the past decade – one might even suspect the government of jumping on any issue as a distraction from the trickiest stages of its economic transformation when even modest progress against inflation (February’s 13.2 percent undershooting expectations) can only come at the price of steep recession, especially if this distraction also presents Security Minister Patricia Bullrich with a golden opportunity to strut her tough stuff. Yet it is the nature rather than the number of the slayings which should convince everybody that this country faces an all too real challenge beyond any political speculation – Rosario’s murder rate was actually halved in the first two months of this year (as boasted by President Javier Milei in his state-of-the-nation address at the start of this month) but only because the drug clans previously bumping each other off had sealed a truce to declare war on society at large as pushback against crackdown with these latest four killings (two taxi-drivers, a bus-driver and a service station attendant) all innocent victims.

Yet the solution is far from being as brutally simple as the problem, as some (including Bullrich and Milei) would seem to think. The key is finding a way out of security and human rights being constantly presented as an either/or proposition. An absolute respect for the human rights of criminals risks being at the expense of everybody else – if the prison sentences included in legal systems worldwide imply that criminals have forfeited their right to liberty, why not other rights as well, such as the right to a mobile telephone in prison so that they can conclude drug deals and send out hitmen on lethal missions? That oxymoron of unarmed Armed Forces, the Alberto Fernández Presidency’s solution for Rosario’s existential anguish last March, is also worse than useless – numerous policemen had to be pulled off the beat to protect the unarmed military engineers. Not that the new national government has done much until now to relieve Rosario’s plight – curbing downtown pickets (with a protocol containing some dangerous erosions of human rights) was made the priority ahead of people being killed outright in Rosario, renewed symptoms of an overcentralised country.

But the answer to extreme aberrations of human rights doctrine is not to throw the baby out with the bathwater. Law and order fundamentalism has been given a new lease of life by El Salvador’s Nayib Bukele, whose uncompromising methods against crime were endorsed last month by five out of every six voters in his nation – something of a fad here, his approach has been echoed in word by Bullrich and in deed by Santa Fe Governor Maximiliano Pullaro with his optics of prisoner humiliation. Yet what better judge of the applicability of these methods to the Argentine context than Bukele himself? The latter reminded Bullrich that while pre-Bukele El Salvador had the highest murder rate in Latin America, Argentina has almost the lowest, thus making his approach overkill. Even within El Salvador the success is dubious – the Bukele technique (basically denying the benefit of the doubt to anybody with a criminal record or even gangster tattoos and herding them into mass prisons) had some immediate results but does nothing to eradicate organised crime at root with fresh recruits among a dead-end youth always around the corner, there and here.

Over and above more specific debates over crime-fighting methods, there is a crying need to escape the mentality that security and human rights can only be protected at the expense of each other because otherwise the pendulum swings between the two extremes jeopardising both, as at the present moment. Human rights cannot be an abstract cause for trendy progressives if lives are at risk and nor is anybody really safe when the protection comes at the expense of rights. If the Kirchner presidencies have given human rights a bad name undeservedly for now, President Milei needs to resolve his own contradictions when he follows his anarcho-capitalist definition of the state as a “criminal organisation” with a mobilisation of that state to fight criminal organisations.

Nobody today would deny the urgency of Rosario’s plight but there is no answer to the problem until consensus can be reached over the solution, which must include finding a future for the nation’s youth.

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