The crime and police force in Argentina can be viewed in many different lights. The varying opinions of the Argentines can create quite a mixed view for the curious tourist that asks or is lectured on either. For legal reasons the police officer asked that we keep both his name and badge number anonymous. This interview was conducted in Spanish in Buenos Aires and has been translated to English by the LPBA staff.
What beat do you walk and what shift do you usually work?
I walk the Balvanera beat (near the Congress building) and on occasions work in some sections of Constitutión. The Constitutión shifts can get pretty ugly because the zone is run down. There are a lot of prostitutes, tranny prostitutes and struggling families that live there. Here (Congreso) is much calmer, everyone here is relaxed compared to that neighborhood.
What sort of crime do you see around this neighborhood?
This neighborhood is generally peaceful. You will see the occasional pickpocket running amuck, but rarely anything violent happens here on my shifts. I’ve been here for three years and nothing really that bad has happened in this section of town.
Who is typically targeted here in Congreso?
In reality anyone can be targeted for a quick robbery. The tourists, if they have their cameras out, they are taking pictures of the buildings in this zone and they are not paying attention then, yes, they become targets and their cameras are stolen. Regular neighborhood residents get robbed too. No one in particular is marked. It’s whoever is not paying attention at the wrong time.
How are these crimes performed typically?
Usually it’s someone who is wearing a backpack and not paying attention. They are walking along and someone behind them just carefully opens their bag and takes stuff out while they are walking. Many times when people are flashing their phones or gadgets someone on foot or on a motorcycle will come by and grab it and just take off!
Any interesting techniques you’ve seen or heard about?
There is a three-man operation that is performed on cars pulling up to stop lights here. One guy will throw a rock at a car as it approaches a stop light from the backside. Typically it’s a woman that is positioned near the stop light that gestures to the driver that something is wrong and gets them to talk to her. She tells the driver that the tail light has been broken or that something is wrong with the car. The driver gets out to inspect the damage and the third person runs up and grabs their wallet or bag out of the car and takes off running.
I’ve heard that the Argentine street criminals are traditionally opportunists. What can the tourists do to prevent themselves from being a victim of a robbery or crime?
Correct, the street criminals rarely have something elaborately planned for a particular target. In fact, they do not really “target” anyone. They have a rough plan and pick someone.
Simply paying attention will keep you out of a lot of trouble. For example, the Cartoneros, the people who go around and collect recyclables are not criminals, but they are not in a good situation. They have no schedules. Their families can sometimes find themselves in desperate situations, so they have nothing to lose. Flashing a fancy telephone or laptop in front of them would be a bad idea if it’s a bad day for them.
Do things normally get resolved without violence here?
Absolutely, it is rare to see things escalate to violence here. When we are called to a disturbance we separate the individuals and try and resolve the issue right then-and-there. We don’t really take people down to the station unless it is really bad. We would rather see both guys go home to their families than come to the station or jail.
There was one time that this tall Australian guy, maybe 6’6” or so, got into some trouble around the corner. It was about 9 or 10 in the morning and he was still drunk or drugged up from the night before. He was acting strange and went into a store and started hallucinating, imagining things were happening to him. He began to throw bottles of wine at the store clerk, wrecking the store. We showed up and he thought we were going to shoot him and he dropped to the floor on top of the broken glass! He couldn’t understand a word we were saying to him. We took him to the hospital and got him bandaged up and sent him on his way.
There are a lot of protests that occur in front of the Congress building. The police are often dressed in full riot gear. How often do they have to practice their riot training?
Those police are specially trained to handle those types of situations. Once again, it is rare that anything becomes violent. They spend most of their time protecting the embassies and synagogues around town as precautionary measures and the same goes for when they are present at the protests.
Any protest that got of hand that you recall in particular?
The only time things get violent are near election times when people are protesting that have nothing to lose. The only time things were consistently violent in front of the Congress building was in 2001 after the crash. That got ugly.
What are some of the perks of being a cop?
I really do enjoy my job. I like knowing everyone in my area, they all say “Hi” throughout the day and just talking to them. Even when there are problems we like to solve them peacefully and make sure everyone goes home safely.
Come on, there’s got to be something more than that.
[Laughs] I guess when I get to put my hat on some of the random girls that are walking by, it really throws them off! They don’t know what to make of it!