January 27, 2003 6:07 AM

Don't cry for me, Argentina

As Crime Soars, Argentines Alter Outgoing Ways: Security Is Priority for Middle Class Traumatized by Wave of Abductions

When you begin to feel like life is tough, consider the alternative. You could be living in Argentina, where the country's dire economic situation has petty crime and kidnapping viable career options.

BUENOS AIRES -- What he remembers most is the gun. Not the three men who abducted him outside his apartment, not the $300 they forced him to withdraw from an ATM, not the two hours he knelt folded like an accordion on the floor of his kidnappers' car, but the gun itself. It gleamed like a toy, and when it was shoved against his face, Gustavo Bardin recalled thinking both that he was going to die and how comfortably cool the metal felt on the wet hot summer night.

"I've never been so scared in my life," said Bardin, a boyish-looking, 30-year-old medical supply salesman. "But there was this dreamlike quality to the whole thing, too. I had never seen a real gun before except on television and in the movies from America. Up until maybe two years ago we just never saw the kind of crime in Argentina that we always associated with New York or Miami or Rio, and so guns were never real to me until that moment when one was staring me right in the face."

This country of 37 million was for years one of Latin America's safest, its sturdy economy and ample middle class providing a buffer against the kind of big-city muggings, carjackings and street violence common in Brazil or Mexico. But Argentina's unmanageable debt, the collapse of its economy and the devaluation of its currency two years ago peeled from the country's once-solid midsection a desperate underclass.

Crime has soared in step with Argentina's unemployment rate, and the economic crisis -- its worst ever -- has profoundly changed this nation.

Yes, we may, relatively speaking, be in the midst of difficult economic times. Even so, Argentina provides a glimpse into how well we have it here, even when things aren't going so well. No more complaining....

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This page contains a single entry by Jack Cluth published on January 27, 2003 6:07 AM.

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