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Argentines lash out against rising crime

In Argentina, the murder of a 23-year-old kidnapping has ignited large protests by citizens  calling on the government to address rising crime and police corruption.
Tens of thousands of people gather in front of the Congress building in Buenos Aires on Thursday to demand that President Nestor Kirchner's government battle a surge in violent crime in the Argentine city.Reuters
/ Source: The Associated Press

For days, Argentines have been transfixed by news of the slaying of a 23-year-old kidnapping victim — a real-life drama that seemed all too familiar in a country gripped by spiraling crime.

The rage over the death of engineering student Axel Blumberg boiled over late Thursday as more than 100,000 people took to the streets in one of Argentina’s largest demonstrations in years.

For years, Argentines considered their capital a relative island of calm, far removed from the big-city crime plaguing other South American cities like Rio de Janeiro, Brazil and Caracas, Venezuela.

But the country’s 2001-2002 economic crisis brought on a crime wave that saw holdups, street robberies, and other crimes soar.

“The Blumberg case has inflamed Argentina,” said pollster Ricardo Rouvier. “The crime problem is so out of hand that everybody now feels they could be a victim.”

Argentine newspaper headlines on Friday captured the mood: “The people said enough is enough!” read the front-page of the country’s largest daily, Clarin.

“Argentines clamor for justice,” said the Buenos Aires Herald.

Kidnapping gone wrong
Axel’s case made headlines beginning in mid-March, when he was abducted by captors seeking a $17,550 ransom.

He became the latest in a string of kidnapping victims whose targets have included business executives, soccer stars and their relatives, and ordinary Argentines.

Government statistics show that over the last year, a kidnapping was reported every 48 hours in Argentina. Last year more than 400 kidnapping cases were reported.

Axel’s father, Juan Carlos, reportedly negotiated the amount down to about $6,000 with the help of Buenos Aires provincial police. As the captors headed to a drop-off point to receive the money, police reportedly tried to stop them. A gunbattle ensued, and the kidnappers escaped.

Axel reportedly was shot by his kidnappers hours later as he tried to escape from a suburban home where he was being held.

Father leads the charge
Since his death, the elder Blumberg — a textile businessman — has circulated petitions asking for a change in crime laws and conducted interviews from the doorsteps of his house, railing against local officials for not doing enough to rescue his son.

Soon, hundreds of people gathered outside his middle class home in a leafy northern suburb to cheer him on.

“Axel inspired me,” said Blumberg. “I realized I had to begin demanding what is on the mind of many other Argentines.”

Within days, Axel became a symbol of public exasperation over the police and justice system, which many complain is rife with corruption.

By sundown Thursday, some 130,000 demonstrators had clogged the plaza outside Congress, lighting thousands of candles and shouting “Justice!”

It was one of the largest demonstrations in years, recalling street protests by Argentina’s middle class in 2001, when the economy tumbled out of control.

President Nestor Kirchner has shaken up the police force that controls Buenos Aires province, home to a quarter of Argentina’s 36 million people. He says he’ll soon take new steps to combat rising lawlessness, particularly in the crime-ridden suburbs of the capital.

Argentines warn they want action fast to make the streets safe.

“It’s a shame that someone has to get killed and 100,000 people have to march before the government begins to notice,” said newspaper vendor Pedro Macote, 46.