From issue: Coping with (In)Security (Fall 2007)
The Mugging of Latin America
Surveys demonstrate citizens feel threatened by crime as never before. But when it happens to you, the statistics become personal. Are politicians paying heed?
"Hey tío, do you have any change for some food?” The two teenagers—they couldn’t have been more than 15 or 16 years old—seemed polite as they stopped me one evening, two blocks from my São Paulo apartment, on my way to the neighborhood supermarket. Before I could respond, they flashed a weapon and ordered me into a nearby car. Stunned and scared, I followed without another word. All they wanted, they told me calmly, was my money. A few moments later, we pulled up in front of a nearby bank. At their bidding, I withdrew the 500-real limit on my ATM card, and handed it to the boys. They left me standing on the street as they sped away.
I was lucky. As a public opinion researcher, I’ve worked intensively on the subject of crime and violence, polling on all the topics related to the issue. However, all this experience was in the abstract. Now I had become yet another statistic. My street encounter left me both humbled and shaken—with a new appreciation for the human toll represented by those reams of data.
The entire incident was over in 10 minutes, but the rush of fear—who would take care of my family if I was hurt?—and the shock of being mugged in a familiar middle-class neighborhood lingered for days. As the shock wore off, my emotions turned to anger. I became infuriated and frustrated with a government that collects my taxes but fails to police my street.
And then my anger turned to despair: who would care about yet another victim of street crime in São Paulo? Indeed, an IPSOS-Instituto Futuro Brasil (IFB) survey shows that a full 66 percent of São Paulo inhabit ants are victims of some form of street crime in a given year—in real terms, 6.6 million in a city of approximately 10 million inhabitants.
And there was another surprise waiting for me. When I told my story to friends and colleagues, it elicited an emotional outpouring of similar incidents that they had experienced, some much worse than mine: assaults, robberies, kidnappings. It was hardly a comfort to know that I was not alone. Latin America now has the highest violent crime rate in the world. What is striking is not only the level of violence, but the fact that crime has become intertwined with the daily routine of most Latin Americans, what sociologists call social proximity...