Covid-19 will surely pass. Some of its remnants may still drag on, but at some point we will feel confident enough to try to return to our normal lives. Most likely, the new normal will no longer be the same as the old. Many things will have changed.
Socially and economically speaking, we know that very tough years lay ahead of us; a ferocious economic crisis, a battered health system, lagging education systems, high unemployment rates coupled with a shortage of jobs, and major social tensions. A monumental task of reconstruction awaits us, in the face of a crisis whose impacts have a certain similarity to the other great catastrophe of the century lived by the Argentinian people: the crisis of 2001.
The legacy of that crisis continues to affect us today, even before the arrival of the pandemic. From 2001 we inherited an entire generation of “cartoneros” (people who gather recyclable items from the trash for resale), high dropout levels in secondary schools, a phenomenal growth of informal labor, a notable deterioration in housing, low levels of internal savings, among other variables. These problems have not only not been solved in the past 18 years, they have worsened.
Will crime increase?
At first, the quarantine had a virtuous effect on insecurity. The vast majority of crimes decreased considerably. We do not yet have the data on the entire country, but according to partial information from the City of Buenos Aires and the province of Mendoza, the crime rate fell by more than 30% during the first weeks of the quarantine. This trend is very likely to be shared by the other provinces. Homicides and robberies decreased because the "opportunities" to steal or the violent conflicts that lead to deaths were reduced significantly.
There is also some evidence that illicit drug markets have contracted, both internationally and domestically. The reasons are multiple: border closures hinder the illegal transport of drugs, and the suspension of some exports of chemical precursors from China has also caused a shock in the supply of synthetic drugs. Although street drug sales are being replaced by “deliveries”, there has been a shortage in the supply of drugs and this has paradoxically caused some degree of violence.
As is known, domestic crimes have grown. The increased contact and tension in problematic domestic relationships has led to increased cases of abuse and violence. Although the information is incomplete, with the serious possibility of sub-registries, crimes due to conflicts in personal interactions intensify when interpersonal contacts at home are more frequent.
Such criminal patterns have not only been registered in our country, but are a global trend. A study in the making, in which the CELIV of the UNTREF participates, led by the prestigious Institute of Criminology of the University of Cambridge, will soon publish its finding indicating that in the first two months of quarantine, the overwhelming majority of cities in the world had significant reductions in homicides and robberies (between 15% and 60%).
In short, "staying home" momentarily modified the criminal equation. The vast majority of crime has decreased as opportunities for crime and the demand for stolen goods have also fallen. In Argentina, these so-called "crimes of opportunity", that is, crimes committed primarily for financial gain, are the predominant ones, and therefore the impact on the temporary reduction of crime is significant.
Any forecast concerning the effect of Covid-19 on insecurity will be nothing more than a pipe dream. It is impossible to predict today how crime will behave in the future, given that crime has multiple causes, and we do not know the magnitude of factors such as unemployment, poverty, illicit markets, inequality, demographic factors, firearms and numerous other variables associated with it.
However, other severe crises we have weathered can guide us regarding the effects they had on insecurity. Of course, each social and economic crisis is different, but some shared traits can instruct us on how to imagine possible scenarios for the future. The two most severe crises since 1983 have been the 1989 transition, and the 2001 crisis. What went on with crime after those crises?
We know little about the 1989 crisis, because the data on criminal activity prior to hyperinflation and the recession of those years was simply very poor or non-existent. Not having figures on the robbery or injury rate in the 1980s, we cannot comparatively evaluate the performance of these indicators in the 1990s. On the other hand, there is some data on homicide rates, and in the AMBA region (Buenos Aires City and the first rings of Greater Buenos Aires), between 1986 and 1988, the average was 3.5 per 100,000 inhabitants. Ten years later, between 1996 and 1998, this rate had already reached an average of 5.1 homicides per 100,000 inhabitants, a growth of at least 35%. We are cautious not draw serious conclusions from a single piece of data, but it is clear that not only the feeling of insecurity grew in the 90s: hard facts suggest a reality behind that feeling.
We have learned much more from the 2001 crisis. 2002 was the year with the highest homicide and property crime rates in the recent history of our country. After a sharp rise, the rates began to decrease as from 2003. While between 1993 and 1998 the average crime rate was 2,147 per 100,000 inhabitants, ten years later, that is, between 2003 and 2008, the annual average had grown to 3,212, an increase of 49%. That is to say, although the peak in the crime curve occurred in 2002, insecurity never returned to pre-crisis levels. Performance between 2009 and 2015 is difficult to assess due to lack of statistics during those years. However, crime levels in the last 5 years have not been lower than in the previous decade, and in terms of property crimes, they appear to be even higher.
In the last 18 years, Argentina has made considerable investments to respond to the citizen's complaints about insecurity. The number of police officers has more than doubled. There was also a notable growth in the criminal justice system, as many new judges, prosecutors and experts were incorporated. Likewise, the number of people deprived of their liberty increased from 25,000 in 1996 to more than 100,000 today. Penalties have stiffened, investments have been made in technology, personnel have been recruited and trained, and despite this large investment in resources, we have not seen a significant change or a significant reduction in crime.
What can be expected?
The post pandemic will present a great challenge in terms of security. If recent lessons are indicative of anything, it is logical to expect a significant increase in criminal activity. Crises trigger mechanisms for spreading illicit behavior, which are then sustained in many areas and over time. They change the equation for committing crimes and make it more feasible.
Deep or long-term recessions upset the balance between criminal trends and the forces that seek to contain them. If in a pre-crisis moment a percentage X of young people decides to commit crimes, and during the crisis that percentage doubles, when the crisis ends there is no return to the previous status quo. Depending on the general conditions, a fraction of these "new offenders" continues to incur in robberies, drug sales, extortion, etc. Only in cases of strong labor markets and high wages is it occasionally possible to neutralize the resilience of certain young people to remain in criminal activity.
Importantly, if general economic conditions improve, but without equity in income, this can lead to even more crime, as has been seen for the past two decades across the region. Despite the good years of high prices in “commodities” and the relative reduction of poverty in Latin America between 2003 and 2014, crime nonetheless grew. This is because the aggregate demand for stolen products also increased, generating a large market for goods that originate from criminal acts. That demand, paradoxically, also fueled crime in Argentina.
Crises generally trigger rapid growth in crime that is then very difficult to reverse. If these crises are of short duration (some months), then the mechanisms of contagion and spread of criminal activity that are unleashed in the crises, fail to consolidate. Few "new offenders" engage in illegal activities. But if crises stretch out in time (over years), the proclivity towards the illicit increases, and the subsequent reversal is reduced. Likewise, if illegal activities are more profitable for many people or are practically the only possible source of income, it makes it very difficult for the authorities to contain it. Distributive public policies from the state can discourage crime, but it will be necessary to see if transfers can be economically sustainable over time, in light of the deep fiscal crisis.
The previous lessons indicate that crises are drivers of rising crime rates, and that after a spike, insecurity decreases, but no longer returns to previous levels. Crises often create new and higher crime levels. Only a long period of economic growth with equity and effective public policies can gradually reduce criminal activity. If crises are deep and prolonged, the task will certainly be more difficult. The great Argentine depression of 2001 is already almost two decades old, but in the field of insecurity its consequences persist.
We still do not know the depth and extent of the crisis that this pandemic will create. It is likely to cause severe problems. However, it is also producing levels of solidarity and compliance with norms, hitherto unknown in our society. We do not know what the real impact may be. If the lessons of previous crises can serve as guides, difficult years await us and challenge us to be creative and forge effective social institutions. It will be imperative not to repeat past mistakes so as not to raise our level of insecurity yet again.
Marcelo Bergman is Director of the Center for Latin American Studies on Insecurity and Violence at the National University of Tres de Febrero.