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As Crime Soars, Argentines Alter Outgoing Ways

Security Is Priority for Middle Class Traumatized by Wave of Abductions

By Jon Jeter
Washington Post Foreign Service
Monday, January 27, 2003; Page A11

BUENOS AIRES -- What he remembers most is the gun. Not the three men who abducted him outside his apartment, not the $300 they forced him to withdraw from an ATM, not the two hours he knelt folded like an accordion on the floor of his kidnappers' car, but the gun itself. It gleamed like a toy, and when it was shoved against his face, Gustavo Bardin recalled thinking both that he was going to die and how comfortably cool the metal felt on the wet hot summer night.

"I've never been so scared in my life," said Bardin, a boyish-looking, 30-year-old medical supply salesman. "But there was this dreamlike quality to the whole thing, too. I had never seen a real gun before except on television and in the movies from America. Up until maybe two years ago we just never saw the kind of crime in Argentina that we always associated with New York or Miami or Rio, and so guns were never real to me until that moment when one was staring me right in the face."

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This country of 37 million was for years one of Latin America's safest, its sturdy economy and ample middle class providing a buffer against the kind of big-city muggings, carjackings and street violence common in Brazil or Mexico. But Argentina's unmanageable debt, the collapse of its economy and the devaluation of its currency two years ago peeled from the country's once-solid midsection a desperate underclass.

Crime has soared in step with Argentina's unemployment rate, and the economic crisis -- its worst ever -- has profoundly changed this nation.

The murder rate here in the capital and its suburbs -- home to nearly one-third of the country's population -- last year nearly doubled from four to seven per day, according to police statistics.

The number of cars reported stolen in the city has risen to nearly 300 per day; the number was less than half that in 1999. Two banks in the city are robbed each day on average. The violent crime rate nationally has more than doubled in just six years, government statistics show.

The social extroverts who define Argentine culture have begun to retreat, turning deeply suspicious of one another, installing iron bars and building gated communities. Guns are more difficult to buy here than in the United States, but shopkeepers say that more women are buying chemical sprays and more men are enrolling in defensive driving courses to elude attackers.

Security firms have reported that they installed twice as many alarms in cars last year than they did in 2001. Young and old Argentines say they are spending evenings at home rather than risk venturing out for a night on the town; many acknowledge that they have even resorted to running stoplights to avoid the carjackings that often occur when cars are idled.

Perhaps the most popular man among Argentines now is former New York mayor Rudolph W. Giuliani, whose zero-tolerance crime policy was widely credited with turning his city around.

"I think we need strong people to lead," said Beatriz Di Dio, 62, a retired secretary, voicing a sentiment heard often here. "I know from what I read in the newspapers about the United States is that you changed the security a lot in the past few years, thanks to the strong hand of someone like Giuliani."

No crime has traumatized the nation more than kidnappings. Abductors often target the relatives of the wealthy -- the brother of a local soccer star and the father of a popular soap opera actor were kidnapped in recent months -- and demand as much as $200,000 in ransom.

But kidnappers also snatch people such as Bardin off the streets in unplanned attacks, holding them hostage for as little as an hour, and demanding maybe a few hundred dollars in exchange for their release. Here in Buenos Aires, a kidnapping is reported every 36 hours.

"I don't think there was anything premeditated about my kidnapping," Bardin said. "These guys saw me walking alone in a nice neighborhood. It was dark. They saw an opportunity and they took it."

Carolina Ibarra was nearly the victim of a kidnapping in June 2001 when the 24-year-old actress was parking her new sports car near her apartment in the trendy Palermo neighborhood in Buenos Aires.

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