Peru: Are Safety Concerns in Lima Justified or Overblown?

[Links are to Spanish-language pages except where otherwise indicated.]

In recent weeks, an increase in criminal activity in Lima and throughout the country in general has reignited the debate over public safety.

Two cases in particular, however, have captured media attention. The first was the armed robbery of a notary's office as a financial transaction was taking place; it left one man dead and another shot and wounded and resulted in the theft of 160,000 soles (about 62,000 U.S. dollars). Then there was the murder of a journalist [en] in the doorway of his house, in circumstances that remain unclear.

Initial anger was directed at the government for its apparent complacency and inaction in dealing with crime, an accusation Peru's Minister of the Interior denied [en] during the inaugural ceremony of 100 new patrol cars, where he “dismissed the notion that criminal activities were putting the country at risk.” At the same time, the Minister of Justice announced that life imprisonment for offenders was under consideration.

Foto de fokus Lima en Flickr, bajo licencia Creative Commons  (CC BY-NC-ND 2.0)

Photo of fokus Lima on Flickr, licensed under Creative Commons (CC BY-NC-ND 2.0)

Not everyone is convinced, however. A columnist for the newspaper Correo comments, “It is worth noting that the government reacted just yesterday, confidently announcing new measures that we can only hope will be effective.” And while reports affirm [en] that the crime rate is rising and public safety concerns are deepening, the Prime Minister indicated he did not believe it necessary to declare a state of emergency with respect to public safety, especially so as to avoid potential corruption in the hiring of police officers.

In fact, in a recent report by Peru's National Institute for Statistics and Informatics, the figures for the second half of last year show that from 2011 to 2012, the number of Peruvians who were victims of crime fell by 6.8% (from 45.1 to 38.3%) and that burglary and attempted burglary dropped from 19.9 to 16.8% (down 3.1%). In Lima, moreover, the percentage of victims of crime went from 48.4 to 39.9; as for homicides, Lima is far from being the city with the highest murder rate.

To that end, lawyer Martín Soto Florián reviews these statistics on his blog and mentions that “the trend points not to an increase in criminal activity and delinquency […], but rather the opposite,” adding that:

hacerle el juego a la inseguridad ciudadana y meter miedo, es algo no solo peligroso sino contraproducente: podría terminar incentivando medidas populistas y poco técnicas.

Pandering to the public's fear of crime is not only dangerous but counterproductive: ultimately it can end up bringing about measures more populist than concrete.

So why do 86.7% of people surveyed say they feel unsafe [en]? It is likely due to that fact that armed robbery and assault, as in the cases cited above, have shown a slight increase. But this may also be because of exaggerated media coverage, the extent of which has prompted complaints by a group of reporters who claim that it has “turned misfortune into a daily chronicle of terror”.

A lot can be said about this tendency, but in an opinion piece on Pressenza's website, Gerardo Alcántara Salazar, a Ph.D. in social sciences, describes the relationship between criminal activity, tabloid journalism, and the vulnerability of the rule of law. He opines on a recent case that occurred in Lima:

Un canal de la televisión peruana presenta a unos veinte policías recibiendo homenaje por haber capturado a gringasho, el sicario más joven y sanguinario del Perú, […] Gringasho, el feroz asesino en serie de diecisiete años de edad, aparece feliz en medio de los agasajados, como si en realidad el agasajado fuera él, terminando por adueñarse de los espacios estelares de televisión, prensa escrita y radial. Después de todo, la noticia es el. Desde que se tuvo noticia de él, cuando se lo recluyó y luego fugó, fue recapturado, encarcelado y nuevamente recapturado, él desplazó de la escena noticiosa a muchos acontecimientos importantes, pero menos proveedores de rating,

[…] Alabado por poseer una presunta inteligencia superior, Gringasho, ahora es una celebridad y las autoridades encargadas de su custodia deben cuidar de su integridad física, guarecerlo en celda segura, separado de la masa de adolescentes marginales, practicantes de asesinatos, de hurto agravados, violadores sexuales y autores de una variada conducta disfuncional. […] Gringasho y Gringasha (NdE. Su pareja sentimental) son ahora celebridades en el Perú merced a la prensa roja. 

A Peruvian television station broadcast some 20 police officers being commended for having captured “Gringasho”, the nickname of the youngest and deadliest hitman in Peru […] Gringasho, a 17-year-old serial murderer, appears pleased to be among the honourees, as though he himself were being honoured, ultimately co-opting primetime television, radio, and print media. After all, he is the headline. Ever since media attention focused on him, his capture, his escape, and subsequent recapture and incarceration, he has displaced many stories that were just as newsworthy but less likely to garner ratings.

[…] Praised for his alleged superior intelligence, Gringasho is now a celebrity, and the authorities responsible for him must also ensure his safekeeping while in custody, which means a special cell, separate from the horde of marginalized adolescents who commit murder, assault, and rape and exhibit all sorts of dysfunctional behaviour. […] Gringasho and Gringashaa (his girlfriend, Ed.) are now celebrities in Peru thanks to the tabloid press.

But this is only one facet of the complex problem of public safety; another is the consequence of privatizing police forces in Peru. This should not to be seen as a broadening of public safety services through the private sector; rather it is the private sector that demands exclusive service from the police.

Underreported but telling examples of this are the Sheraton hotel, which coordinated with police to provide private protection for its guests to and from the airport; the congressman who was detained and handcuffed by a police officer on a “private” beach south of Lima supposedly for taking photographs; and in the city of Chiclayo, the policeman working security detail at a brothel, who shot and killed a fellow officer after he showed up inebriated.

Journalist Juan Carlos Luján shares these news items on Facebook and comments:

Si quieres sentirte seguro y disuadir a los delincuentes, policías debes “alquilar”. El sistema los obliga a trabajar así en sus dias de franco. Por eso tenemos una policía reactiva, no es preventiva (ni en temas de tránsito) y para ellos la investigación dependerá de la buena voluntad o de algún incentivo para hacerlo.

If you want to feel safe and deter criminals, you should “hire” the police. As it is, the system forces them to work on their days off. This is why we have a reactionary police force, not a preventative one (not even in terms of traffic control), and for them any investigation depends on either goodwill or some form of incentive.

Meanwhile Omar Guerrero, commenting on one these stories, adds:

aqui se esta privatizando la seguridad, al estilo peruano, por motivaciones distintas que en usa. mientras los americanos contratan (aparte de hacer guerra con ejercitos privados) seguridad privada por la sofisticacion e impacto del crimen organizado ademas de que practicamente todos portan armas, aqui en peru es porque la policia no puede o no quiere ser mantenida eficientemente por el estado. el resultado es un salvese quien pueda o tenga dinero para hacerlo.

here we are privatizing public safety, Peruvian-style, for reasons different from the U.S. While Americans hire private security (besides waging war with private armies) because of the sophistication and impact of organized crime, in addition to which almost everyone carries a weapon, here in Peru it is because the police cannot or do not want to be managed efficiently by the state. The result is to save your own skin or pay someone to do it for you.

Fears about public safety, whether justified or not, are of concern to more than just Peruvians. A few weeks ago, the American embassy in Peru warned [en] its citizens of the potential threat of kidnapping in the Cusco area. Similarly, CNN broadcast a video of thieves robbing cars stopped in traffic in downtown Lima. For their part, a group of citizens is organizing a March for a safe Peru (@marchaseguridad), which is slated to take place on March 21.

Post originally published on the blog Globalizado.

1 comment

  • Coming to Lima you have most probably heard or read good meant warnings about your safety. Once here even locals might warn you about dangers waiting for you at every corner. Actually most (not all) of these warnings are exaggerated and still reflect the conditions during the times of terror and lawlessness years ago. In the last decade the safety and security in Lima has improved immensely.

    Today the general situation in Lima shouldn’t be considered worse than in any other big city around the world, where rich and poor live closely together. If you take a little bit more precaution than at home and know which situation to avoid, you should be fine.

    There is a great site with general recommendations and an analysis on the situation in Lima:

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