- The Washington Times - Thursday, May 9, 2002

BUENOS AIRES Argentina, once one of the safest countries in Latin America, is gripped by crime, and many Argentines are responding by buying guns for self-defense.

Argentina's Federal Police say 22,000 armed robberies have been reported this year in the capital, roughly commensurate with the same period last year. But officers say juvenile crime, which often goes unreported, has skyrocketed and that criminals have established an unprecedented level of violence.

"Every criminal now has a gun," said chief police spokesman Daniel Rodriguez. "Every criminal is prepared to kill."

People blame the crime wave on a variety of reasons: economic problems, rampant drug use and corruption in the police force.

From January to March, 33 police officers died in shootouts in the capital, compared with 55 for all of 2001. Eight retired officers were killed while trying to prevent holdups or other raids.

Kidnappings previously almost unknown in Argentina have become more common, highlighted by the recent abduction of the brother of one of Argentina's most popular soccer stars. Christian Riquelme, the 17-year-old brother of Boca Juniors' star player Juan Roman Riquelme, was kidnapped April 2. He was released a day later after his family agreed to pay a $160,000 ransom.

Alarmed by such high-profile cases, most Argentines are resorting to arming themselves. While precise figures are hard to find, some gun stores report a 50 percent increase in sales since December, when Argentina's economic chaos boiled over into bloody riots that left 27 dead.

Shooting clubs, too, report a notable increase in both inquiries and the sale of weapons for personal security since December.

Many Argentines whose savings are trapped by a banking freeze are looking for cheaper, used weapons on the country's thriving black market.

"There's a growing feeling of insecurity around the country," Mr. Rodriguez said. "It's natural for people to seek to protect themselves when the state has failed to provide adequate protection."

Until the early 1990s, sales of small-caliber weapons were not registered. Officials say many illegal weapons originating from civil strife in the 1970s remain in use, along with guns stolen more recently from homes or the police.

Some military weapons are also known to be in circulation; it was revealed that many disaffected conscripts sold their weapons illegally after the Falklands war against Britain in 1982.

"Argentina is awash with guns," said Ricardo Torterolo, director of the Club de Tiro Independencia, one of Buenos Aires' most respected shooting clubs. "There are hundreds of thousands of unregistered weapons in circulation. Almost every family has access to a weapon of some kind."

Argentina's laws on gun ownership are more relaxed than elsewhere in Latin America. Permit applicants are required to pass a series of proficiency, medical and safety tests.

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