Argentines Turn to Vigilantism to Beat Back Organized Crime

Small Businesses, Individuals in Poor Zones Pay Highest Price of Lawlessness

Argentines turn to vigilantism to beat back organized crime. Insecurity has become an issue of increasing concern for Argentines.

Insecurity has become an issue of increasing concern for Argentines. (Andrés Sebastián Díaz)

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Key Findings:

  • According to a 29-country study by polling firm Ipsos, 64 percent of Argentines perceive crime and violence to have increased in their neighborhoods in the last year. Argentina—behind only Chile—was the country with the second highest perceived insecurity increase.
  • Although provinces such as Tierra del Fuego and Córdoba remain relatively safe, Santa Fe and the Buenos Aires Metropolitan Area (BAMA) have markedly higher homicide rates than neighboring Chile and Uruguay. In these metro areas, citizens have started to take justice into their own hands by killing or assaulting criminals.
  • The insecurity crisis is starting to affect small, local businesses since criminals are extorting them in exchange for fees that vary according to the business size and the criminals’ will.
  • Insecurity has become the second-largest concern for Argentines, only behind the economic crisis. All presidential candidates—including Peronista Sergio Massa—have taken a firm-hand approach against criminals on the campaign trail.


On August 28, 2023, a man in Ituzaingó—a municipality in the Buenos Aires Metropolitan Area (BAMA)—chased an alleged robber running in the street and shot him in the head. According to local news channel La Nación, the shooter accused the alleged robber, now dead, of stealing from his wife. In retaliation, the man shot the alleged robber in the street, adjacent to a kid’s birthday party.

This is only one of a string of cases in Argentina where citizens are protecting themselves from criminals and chasing them in the pursuit of justice. In March, to fight the insecurity crisis, President Alberto Fernández announced the deployment of 1,400 law-enforcement agents to Rosario, the purchase of 600 facial recognition cameras, and “severe action against prisoners in the city”—presumably because he believes organized criminals are running operations from prisons. Despite his announcements, Rosario’s inhabitants remain concerned about violence in the city, and “more security” was the rallying cry at recent public demonstrations.

On April 13, federal-government spokesman Gabriela Cerruti said that “the main cause of insecurity is inequality.” She blamed the media for criticizing the government’s actions that promote equality, “the only way a society can enjoy safety.”

Argentina’s reported homicide rate is lower than Latin America’s average, but that does not apply to some of the provinces. The patchiness of crime, compounded by countless gated communities, makes interpreting the national rate difficult. According to official Argentine government data, the country’s homicide rate in 2022 was 4.2 per 100,000 inhabitants. This is lower than neighboring Chile, whose rate was 6.7, and Brazil, whose rate was 23.3.

However, Santa Fe province reported 11.3 in 2022, the highest rate in the country. In contrast, other provinces such as Córdoba, with 2.8, had half the national rate.

This investigation assesses why Argentines are taking justice into their own hands by attacking criminals. This has been a noticeable but largely anecdotal trend, since there is not robust data to draw on. Our investigation also explores the impact of rampant insecurity on politics, business, and society.

The Impunity Observer interviewed:

Citizens Speak Out against Criminality

Insecurity has become an issue of increasing concern for Argentines. Although the economic crisis is still at the forefront, an April poll by Opinaia reported that concern about insecurity has grown exponentially since early 2023, surpassing corruption. A growing number of citizens have also publicly expressed their discontent.

According to a 2023 study conducted by international pollster Ipsos in 29 countries, 64 percent of Argentines believe crime and violence have increased in their neighborhood. According to the report, which assesses other Latin American nations such as Colombia and Peru, only Chileans had a higher perception of rising violence in their country.

The Ipsos study also shows that 57 percent of Argentines do not believe law-enforcement agents can stop crimes and violence from happening in their neighborhoods. This is higher than the 29-country average, which is 44 percent, and even higher than the likes of Colombia. There 53 percent of citizens do not trust law-enforcement agents.

For Morales, the cost of committing crimes for Argentines is “low or even nonexistent.” This is particularly true for those living in poverty, who account for 40.1 percent of the population, according to the National Statistics Institute. Morales explains that, since many murders occur after or during a robbery, a common phrase in Argentine society is: “A life is worth the same as a cell phone.”

According to the World Population Review, an independent for-profit organization focused on demographic data across the world, Argentina in 2022 is the top quartile in South America for its reported crime rate: 63.8 out of a 90-point index. Only Venezuela, Brazil, and Peru exceed Argentina, with 83.8, 67.5, and 66.7 points, respectively. However, a reader must take reported crime rates with a grain of salt, since so many victims do not bother to report crimes, given little to no confidence in law enforcement.

For Morales, whether you are in a rich area or a slum in Rosario—which has the highest homicide rate in the country—“there are no safe zones in the city.” Morales herself last suffered a robbery “right next to a five-star hotel, in a really rich zone.”

She contends that the situation in Rosario—and other zones of the country where insecurity is common such as BAMA—is frustrating because “one feels that he could have done nothing to avoid getting robbed because the robber threatens to kill you with a knife or a gun.”

On the other hand, she believes murders and violent confrontations between gangs tend to happen in slums: “These [violent attacks] can happen in rich areas, but they are mostly common in slums such as southern Rosario.”

Crime rates vary widely among different Argentine provinces. For example, in Tierra del Fuego, the southernmost province, the latest official data available reports three murders took place in 2021. Meanwhile, in the Santa Fe province, 336 murders took place in the same year.

Morales herself has perceived the difference in criminality and interpersonal trust in several provinces: “There are still oases in Argentina where insecurity is not even an issue.”

The Toll on Local Businesses

All three interviewees agree that the crime rate’s spike is mostly affecting individuals. However, extortion of private residences and small businesses is becoming a more common practice across the country, especially in the most dangerous zones and cities such as Rosario or BAMA. If individuals or businesses refuse to pay the fees that criminals request, the latter will shoot the residences or businesses.

One of the earliest prominent extortion cases in Argentina dates back to 2021. Back then criminal Gastón Galante pretended to be a member of the Monkeys (Monos) gang and a relative of the gang’s leader Ariel Cantero in Rosario. Galante asked business owners for a recurring fee of 10,000 Argentine pesos (currently US$30 but at the time around US$100). In exchange, Galante promised to “protect” the businesses.

Perhaps the notoriety did not help, though, because extortion cases have proliferated.

In January, Rosario’s local media outlet A24 revealed a video from a grocery store’s surveillance camera. After buying a cigarette, a man delivered a message, allegedly from a local gang: “They [the gang members] are charging grocery stores in this zone 3,000 pesos per day.… I have to bring them the money. It is for your own good.”

Also in January, after multiple extortion cases on local businesses were reported in the city, Rosario Mayor Pablo Javkin said in a press conference: “We [citizens] are prisoners of the extortion industry.” Javkin added that “95 percent of the extortion crimes came from phone calls in regional prisons.”

This is consistent with Javier Beltramone’s experience prosecuting criminals. He told the Impunity Observer that many crimes came from prison calls, which is “a consequence of allowing criminals to use cell phones in prisons.”

During the COVID-19 pandemic, the Buenos Aires Justice Tribunal approved the prisoners’ use of cell phones as an extraordinary measure that allowed them to share more time with their loved ones. While this started as a measure restricted to prisons in Buenos Aires, other provinces replicated the measure, and it soon became a common practice across prisons nationwide. For Javier, cell phones are “almost as powerful tools as computers,” when used in prisons, because they can easily send a message or make a call to their operators to commit any crime against specific individuals or businesses.

What Political Rhetoric Cannot Ignore

Both Facundo and Javier Beltramone agree with the Opinaia poll results regarding Argentines’ concern about insecurity. For them, the economic crisis is by far the main concern for Argentines, but insecurity is quickly rising in second place.

Facundo told the Impunity Observer that the three candidates that are leading the presidential race for October—Javier Milei, Patricia Bullrich, and Sergio Massa—are on the campaign trail positioning themselves as firm hands against criminals.

Four days before the primary election, the insecurity crisis became more visible after two thieves hit an 11-year-old child in the back of the head to rob her cell phone and killed her in Lanús, in BAMA. Presidential candidates denounced this crime, and Patricia Bullrich even canceled her agenda in Lanús for the next few days. The child’s family members and neighbors went out to the streets demanding justice.

Milei—alongside his vice presidential candidate Victoria Villarruel—has stated on multiple occasions that he plans to permit legal gun carry: “This measure will raise the costs for anyone who even thinks about committing a crime.” For him, criminals have an advantage over honest citizens because the latter are the only ones who do not carry guns.

Further, Milei’s government plan has 16 strategies to combat rising insecurity. These include militarization of prisons, forbidding entry for foreigners with criminal records, and deployment of military resources where most needed across the country.

In September, Bullrich—who was security minister during the Mauricio Macri administration (2015–2019)—visited the most dangerous zones in Rosario and BAMA. During her visit, Bullrich revealed one of her proposals to improve the country’s insecurity situation. She wishes to build a maximum-security prison where prisoners do not have any communication with the outside world: “I will move imprisoned gang leaders and narcotraffickers to this new prison.”

On September 23, during the inauguration of a police operation command center in Rosario, Peronista candidate Massa—the incumbent economy minister under the Alberto Fernández administration—said security would be a priority if he wins in October. In the 2015 presidential election Massa ran with his own Peronista-allied party Renovation Front, and he vowed to militarize slums in BAMA to tackle the presence of narcos.

Whoever wins the presidential election in Argentina will face, apart from the ever-present economic crisis, the insecurity crisis. The latter has become an issue that concerns citizens even more than corruption, according to the latest polls, and their lack of faith has spilled over with high-profile attacks on and deaths of alleged criminals. Further, rising insecurity has severely undermine small, local businesses because gangs and narcos are extorting them, particularly in Santa Fe province and BAMA.

Mauro Echeverría

Mauro Echeverría is Econ Americas’ deputy editor. He holds a BA in international relations with minors in political science and anthropology from the San Francisco University of Quito. Mauro leads the research on local economic development at the Ecuadorian think tank Libre Razón.

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