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."

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.

"These two horrible guys got into my car, one with a gun, and he put the gun against my back, and the other one told this guy: Why don't we let [her] get out?" An argument ensued and in the confusion, Ibarra jumped from the car and ran. "They took my car with everything."

A year later she was robbed of her purse at gunpoint on the same corner. Four months later, she was leaving an audition when she discovered someone had broken into her car and stolen her radio.

"Our country is worse every day," said Ibarra, who like many people here says she no longer hails taxis in the street because she is afraid that the driver will be a kidnapper waiting to pounce. "The people don't have enough money and people don't think before they act. They are more desperate," she said.

"In the last two years things have changed a lot. I used to think that nothing can happen to me, but now I know that this is not true. I used to walk a lot, but now I don't anymore. Because nowadays anything can happen," Ibarra said.

Argentina was among the world's 10 richest countries at the turn of the last century. A succession of military dictatorships and corrupt civilian governments ate away at the country's productivity and development, but Argentina remained Latin America's richest country. Its standard of living rivaled that of many European nations, and it was seemingly insulated from the poverty and yawning chasm between rich and poor that characterize countries such as Brazil and Mexico.

Argentina undertook a free-market restructuring in the early and mid-1990s, but was then swept by the global financial crisis that began in East Asia in 1997. It sank into recession and has not fully recovered. Profligate public spending, financed with debt, led Argentina to default on loan repayments to international lenders and forced it to devalue its currency in 2001. Nearly one-quarter of the workforce is now unemployed.

"We've never seen the numbers of very poor people on the streets like we're seeing now," said Miguel Gil, a police officer here for 30 years and now the director of Magnum Security. "The criminals today are fearless."

Argentines have adapted accordingly.

"I am always taking precautions," said Di Dio, the retired secretary, who now works part time in sales. "I am afraid in stores, buses and subways. Also when I leave the bank. Now it is very common in a bank to see a woman put her hands in her bra and take money out. Before, this would have been really embarrassing, but it is necessary now. Ten or 15 years ago, we were never afraid to be in the streets."

The change is profound for a population known for its love of culture, theater and dance, dining out with friends and late nights on the town.

"We are becoming more isolated," said Fernando Fabregues, a psychiatrist here.

"People really feel insecure outside their homes and so they are going out less and less, and Argentines are by nature very outgoing, affectionate people. We have all of these lovely houses now covered up with iron bars on their windows," Fabregues said. "We never had that before in Argentina. We were very open. These are really very sad times we're living in."

Special correspondent Brian Byrnes contributed to this report.