Transforming Attitudes Towards the Tools of Violence: The arms exchange program in Mendoza, Argentina

Tasneem Jamal

Author
William Godnick

Working Paper 01-5

This paper was prepared for the International Workshop on Demand Reduction held in Toronto, 14-17 March, 2001. The workshop was sponsored by Project Ploughshares and funded by the Department of Foreign Affairs and International Trade.

Summary

In late December 2000 the Ministry of Justice and Security of the Argentine province of Mendoza completed the first phase of the program Canje de Armas por Mejores Condiciones de Vida, hereafter referred to as the Arms Exchange program, as part of a multi-faceted long-term approach to transform the public security climate. Two hundred ninety pistols, revolvers, and shotguns were voluntarily turned in by citizens for destruction in exchange for vouchers for foodstuffs and tickets to soccer games with values ranging from US $50 to $100. Participants were able to make contact with the program organisers through a toll-free telephone line. Prior to the firearm turn-in, a public education effort was coordinated in the school system that culminated in a violent toy turn-in and destruction program that brought in thousands of toy guns and video games for public destruction and incorporation into displays of art. The second phase of this program was scheduled to begin in March 2001.

Background to the Arms Exchange program

In Argentina there are 1,938,462 firearms on file with the National Arms Register (RENAR), while rough estimates put the number of illegally held weapons close to 1 million (Revista Nueva 2001). The provincial register held by the Ministry of Justice and Security (MJS) in Mendoza has 80,000 registered firearms and officials estimate the number of illegally owned guns in the province to be near 15,000 (Zentil 2000). Seventy- five percent of the weapons registered in the country and province are pistols and revolvers with 60 percent belonging to private citizens, 25 percent to public security authorities, and the rest categorized as collectibles (Appiolaza 2000). Mendoza accounts for approximately four percent of Argentina’s total population but only 1.4 percent of all registered firearms.

Argentine law permits civilian possession of revolvers up to .32 calibre, pistols up to
6.25 mm and carbines up to .22. Special permits are required for .38 calibre revolvers and
9 mm pistols. The table below illustrates certain pricing aspects of the Argentine market for firearms, all values in US dollars:

Table 1: Pricing characteristics of the Argentine firearms market

Calibre Private Dealer Black Market In Brazil
22 200-900 70-300 30
38 250-900 80-300 40
9 mm 500 -1,000 150-400 90

Source: Ministerio de Justicia y Seguridad, Gobierno de Mendoza, November 2000

Mendoza, Argentina is not a hotbed of firearm violence in comparison with other South American cities such as Rio de Janeiro, Brazil or Bogotá, Colombia. The use of assault rifles, grenades, and other military weapons in crime is not common as is the case in Central America and other parts of South America. However, Argentina in general has experienced an exponential increase in the magnitude of armed violence during the latter half of the 1990s.1 The context of Mendoza, and Argentina in general for that matter, is not that of post-conflict countries but is more like the situation of the industrialised nations’ focus on crime prevention and community security enhancement. The typical profile of a victim of gun violence is a young male between the ages of 15 and 30. However, there is no profile for the typical person who is intimidated or threatened by firearms, but not physically harmed. Tracking statistics for firearm-related crime between 1998-2000 shows contradictory trends: on the one hand, a decrease in firearm homicides and, on the other, an increase in armed robberies as illustrated in the table below:

Table 2: Firearm-related crime in Mendoza, Argentina (1998-2000)

Year 1998 1999 2000(a)
Homicides 168 115 76
Armed robberies 2,474 3,538 3,458

Source: Ministerio de Justicia y Seguridad, Gobierno de Mendoza, November 2000
(a) Figures for 2000 only include January through September.

As is often the case criminal statistics differ from public health records because of approaches to data collection and are not directly comparable. According to the Ministry of Health and Social Development, between 1997 and 1998 the total number of victims of gun violence including suicides treated in Mendoza’s hospitals increased from 145 to 206, although the numbers of deaths decreased (Appiolaza 2000). Conversely, firearm deaths where the victim did not make it to the hospital for treatment rose from 66 to 117 between 1998 and 1999. These figures have increased for both men and women although female victimisation levels are significantly lower. The following two tables detail the circumstances of death, with more specific information collected in 1999. At face value the more detailed 1999 data that also includes suicide data would indicate that more violent deaths are attributable to rifles or shotguns than pistols and revolvers, although the even greater numbers of deaths where the type of firearm was not identified make it irresponsible to draw such a conclusion. The data also indicates a marked increase in firearm deaths including suicide from one year to the next, directly contradicting the information presented by police sources in Table 2 above.

Table 3: Firearm deaths in Mendoza, Argentina (1998)

Type of weapon Men Women Total
Pistol or revolver 12 2 14
Rifle or shotgun 6 1 7
Unidentified 39 6 45
Total 57 9 66

Source: Ministerio de Desarrollo Social y Salud, Gobierno de Mendoza, November 2000.

 
Table 4: Firearm deaths in Mendoza, Argentina (1999)

Weapon/Situation Men Women Total
Suicide with pistol or revolver 5 1 6
Suicide with rifle or shotgun 17 3 20
Suicide with unidentified weapon 25 1 26
Homicide with pistol or revolver 1 0 1
Homicide with rifle or shotgun 6 1 7
Homicide with unidentified weapon 50 7 57
Total 104 13 117

Source: Ministerio de Desarrollo Social y Salud, Gobierno de Mendoza, November 2000.

Even in the rich, industrialised countries such data held by different government agencies with different mandates and agendas can be confusing and demonstrate conflicting trends. In Mendoza in general it appears that the feeling of insecurity is on the rise while confidence and trust of local authorities are improving slightly. Recently, 46 percent of Mendoza’s population gave a positive evaluation when surveyed on the local government’s performance in public security (Zentil 2000). This survey does show that the majority still disapproves of their work, but the evaluation is likely more positive than the attitudes toward the now defunct police forces of prior decades that were inspired by a national security doctrine that focussed on the repression of subversive political activities rather than crime prevention.

Beginning in 1998 the provincial government of Mendoza and the distinct political parties with representation in the provincial parliament initiated the reform of the police, including the creation of a multidisciplinary public security training academy and university institute that also introduced many of the more modern and socially oriented law enforcement techniques such as community-oriented policing (COP) (Appiolaza 2000). Two hundred corrupt police officers were removed from the force at the beginning of this process (Revista Nueva 2001). Now, in order to rise to important positions in the police ranks an officer has to attend university and complete five courses in law (Revista Nueva 2001). Decentralisation also took place within this framework; each of the province’s four zones has its own autonomous police force, instead of one for the province. Additionally there is a traffic unit and an investigations unit, for a total of six police institutions in the province.

As in almost all contexts of security sector reform the degree of institutional sincerity to carry forward these changes in orientation and practice is debatable and we will not discuss that aspect here. The judiciary has also undergone similar processes, although Mendoza continues to lag behind the other regions of Argentina in relation to the crimes committed and sentences carried out, as the table below demonstrates:

Table 5: National comparison of crimes and sentences (1999)

Place Crimes Sentences Percentage
Province of Santa Fe 73,968 1,684 2.28
City of Buenos Aires 191,755 2,513 1.31
Province of Córdoba 104,362 1,207 1.16
Province of Buenos Aires 293,802 3,408 1.16
Province of Mendoza 89,930 694 0.77

Source: Ministerio de Justicia de Argentina, November 2000.

The situation in Mendoza thus far described demonstrates that firearms are present in this society and, according to public security and public health statistics, do have measurable negative effects. While policing techniques may be improving it is evident that the judiciary must become more efficient in prosecuting all crimes including those relating to firearms and violence. All of the discussion so far has very much focussed on statistical evidence provided by the national and provincial governments. We must take this information for what it is worth, a reference point from which to begin to analyse the problem. While no one is so naive as to believe that government figures completely reflect reality, the mere categorisation and stratification of data collected by government agencies tell us quite a bit.

If we were only able to look at the situation in Mendoza through the lens of the information provided above it would be difficult to gauge the severity or nature of the problem. In comparison with the nation’s capital, the crime rate appears to be less significant, with 6 of every 100 Mendozans surveyed claiming to have been victims of crime in comparison to 15 in 100 in Buenos Aires (Revista Nueva 2001). For that reason it would now be appropriate to look at the human side of firearm violence in Mendoza through several anecdotal examples provided below.

The following select cases that took place in different districts and municipalities within the province of Mendoza during 2000 help illustrate the nature of the problem (Revista Nueva 2001):

  • On 19 March Mr. Francisco Gabriel Agostino was shot and killed in his own house, apparently by his son in either a domestic argument or accident.
  • On 3 April Ms. Scarlett Muñoz was shot and injured while pushing her hot dog vending cart down the street. She was caught in the crossfire from two rival youth gangs.
  • On 12 September a toddler, Diego Matías López, lost his eye when he pulled the trigger of a gun he found on the bed in a relative’s house where he was visiting.
  • On 13 September twelve-year-old Marisol Rosales was shot and killed when a stray bullet penetrated her heart while she was sitting in her house.
  • On 19 September fifteen-year-old Cintia Rodríguez was shot in the leg while visiting her neighbour when yet another stray bullet from a gang fight came through the window.

Poaching and illegal hunting have also been uncovered as sources of the misuse and negative effects of firearms on the environment. These incidents are associated with higher-powered weaponry than those related to traditional domestic or street crime. In the first month of 2001 the regional delegation of the forest service responsible for the region of Mendoza recovered 16 firearms, including eight .22 calibre carbines, one Mauser carbine 7.62 mm, two shotguns of 12.7 and 16 calibres respectively, and three revolvers of calibres .22, .32, and.38 (Castón 2001).

In short there is concrete evidence that Mendoza’s crime rate, public health, and environment are negatively affected by the presence and misuse of firearms. With this much established it is now appropriate to discuss the details of the Ministry of Justice and Security’s Arms Exchange program.

The Arms Exchange program for better living conditions

Origins, political support, and planning

The idea of exchanging weapons for some in-kind benefit was not original to Mendoza. Such programs have been implemented in the United States for several decades and in the contexts of crime prevention and post-conflict peacebuilding for much of the 1990s. Indeed the Arms Exchange program in Mendoza was inspired by a study of programs in El Salvador, Panama, Rio de Janeiro, Albania, and Cambodia, among others. In fact the program organisers chose a strikingly similar name to that used by the municipal government of San Miguelito, Panama in 1998.

A weapons exchange or amnesty program was formally presented to the provincial legislature in Mendoza in February 2000. The first reactions of hysterical laughter were followed by a heated debate on whether or not such a scheme would disarm criminals. Supporters from all three major parties, Alianza, Justicialista, and Demócrata, were more realistic and proposed that such an effort would focus more on changing the culture and local attitudes in relation to the tools of violence. As usual the debate included the view that voluntary weapons collection would leave the honest citizens defenceless against well-armed criminals. However, unlike debates in many other societies, the debate in Mendoza on the role of guns in society did not follow strictly party lines; the ruling Alianza and Justicialista parties were unanimously for collecting weapons voluntarily while the Demócratas were divided evenly.

Even with broad political support in the province and the moral support of Argentine president Fernando De La Rua and the provincial leaders of Santa Fe and Córdoba, who were looking to see if this program would be suitable for their regions, it took until 9 August 2000 to draft and approve the Provincial Law on Disarmament #6809 (Appiolaza 2000). This law did the following:

  • Made it possible to turn in legal and illegal weapons, explosives, and ammunition to be destroyed, in exchange for an in-kind benefit for a period of 180 days, with the possibility of continuing the process for an additional 180 days.
  • Created two toll-free telephone lines: one run by the MJS’s sub-secretariat for community relations to provide information regarding the weapons turn-in program, and the other used by the investigations police to determine the presence and location of illegal weaponry.
  • Established the framework to develop mechanisms that prevent the illegal entry of firearms, explosives, and ammunition into the provincial territory.
  • Promoted the development of a strategy to better implement and control the regional register of firearms and the commercial firearm trade.

Once this legal framework was established the task of planning and implementing the weapons collection scheme was placed in the hands of the MJS, specifically the sub-secretariat for community relations under the authority of Mr. Gabriel Conte. Mr. Conte then hired Martín Appiolaza, a former journalist with Mendoza’s widest circulating newspaper Diario Los Andes, to coordinate the program and educate the public about it. As a former journalist Mr. Appiolaza had the advantage of a different perspective from that held by police and politicians regarding public security and the role of firearms in society. Not only did this help him conceptualise the challenge of motivating citizens to hand in their guns from a more sociological perspective, but his contacts with the media ensured that the program in all its stages would be covered by the newspapers. Correia (2000) notes that the triangulation of support from local government, citizens, and the media is critical for the success of programs designed to enhance community security. At this point the MJS and Appiolaza’s main challenge was to convince the citizenry to embrace the program and participate.

Before proceeding further, the program organisers contacted the Help Desk for Practical Disarmament at the Bonn International Center for Conversion (BICC)2 from whom they received expert advice and with whom they were able to dialogue on different ideas and approaches. During the planning stages the Mendoza program not only benefited from other experiences in the United States and Latin America, but also from the ‘Weapons for Development’ approach pioneered by the United Nations Development Programme (UNDP) in Albania. While there may be competing opinions on the effectiveness and efficiency of the UNDP’s pilot weapons collection effort in Gramsh, Albania the concept did bring out the idea of promoting community participation in disarmament with the promise of the development of community public goods and infrastructure. As we will see, the MJS in Mendoza decided to develop a hybrid program, combining the individual material benefits of the “Goods for Guns’ approach with collective community incentives.

Public education campaign

Program organisers admitted early on that a voluntary weapons collection effort would not be likely to bring in guns from criminals and that the real goal was to influence a change in culture and attitudes towards the role of guns in society. In that context the public education campaign became as important as the proposed weapons turn-in program. In order to get the word out to the public and motivate them to participate in the Arms Exchange program a multi-media strategy was implemented by the MSJ under the guidance of Martin Appiolaza. This public education campaign included:

  • Establishment of a 1-800 toll-free number where people could get information on the Arms Exchange program
  • Constant coverage by the local newspapers
  • Creation of a website with all of the details of the program
  • Incorporation of non-governmental organisations, specifically neighbourhood groups and the Football-Soccer League of Greater Mendoza, at the community level
  • Implementation of a violent toy turn-in campaign in the local elementary schools.

The most powerful component of the MJS public education campaign was the violent toy exchange campaign. Violent toy turn-in drives are nothing new and have been tried all over the world, especially in the United States. However, what made this experience unique was how it connected directly to the upcoming weapons exchange program and how the children were not only educated on the dangers of weapons, but were also used as vehicles to influence their parents who might actually have firearms in the home.

Overall 6,000 school children turned in 6,000 violent toys and games in exchange for books, potted plants, and tree shrubs. Schools from nine departamentos (political divisions similar to counties) in Mendoza province participated. Psychologists recommended not destroying the toys turned in because that could be seen as a ‘violent act’; instead the plastics were melted down and incorporated into mosaicos or works of art to be displayed at school. In many schools dramas were acted out, choruses were sung, and balloons were launched into the sky with anti-violence messages. At one point in one particular school, all of the excitement riled up rival groups of school boys almost to the point of a shoving match because one group supported one soccer team, the Boca Juniors, while the other supported the River Plate. When the school director noticed this he made both groups stand face to face, shake hands, and then hug. This solution might sound trivial, even ridiculous, but those who know the seriousness with which Argentine fans support their football teams would see some significance in this act, however short-lived its impact may be.

In short the violent toy turn-in campaign reached a sizeable audience that included 6,000 children, their teachers, parents, and families. It may all sound like a feel-good exercise, but several participants in the actual weapons turn-in program that began a month later mentioned the influence of their children on their decision to turn in a gun.

Program implementation

Even before the program began on 23 December 2000 several dozen people had called the toll-free hotline to inquire about the weapons they wanted to hand in and the incentives available for doing so. In essence, the MJS had made arrangements to receive 35 firearms via ‘home pick-up’. The rest of the 287 firearms were turned in to pre-determined collection sites established throughout the Greater Mendoza area in community halls, MJS branch offices, and at the football league headquarters. The weapons collected included revolvers up to .32 calibre, pistols up to .25 calibre, rifles and shotguns up to .38 calibre with barrels no more than 60 cm in length. One thousand seven hundred and fifteen bullets were collected with the firearms, but were only taken as donations. This first stage of the program only included weapons permitted for civilian use. The MJS and both chambers of the legislature are working on a temporary law that will permit the turn-in of all types of illegal weapons in future rounds of collection.

The actual collection effort lasted four days, 23-27 December 2000, and the firearms were surrendered for destruction in exchange for tickets to sporting events or Vale Más vouchers for values between $50 and $100. Vale Más are government subsidies similar to food stamps. They are redeemable in ‘mom and pop’ small businesses, but not in the large chain supermarkets. This way the provincial government helps promote the small businesses that are a dying breed with the global expansion of large international supermarket chains. In future rounds of collection the MJS is considering the installation of community alarms in neighbourhoods that collectively turn in significant numbers of weapons. The community alarms are electrical systems that connect houses in a given neighbourhood and allow citizens to respond collectively to problems of crime and violence. Other incentives under consideration include educational scholarships, public transportation passes, and travel vouchers.

In addition to the MJS and police, other governmental and non-governmental agencies, including the Ministry of Health and Social Development and the Provincial School Board, donated time and resources to make the Arms Exchange Program possible. At each site, including the mobile collection sites, a team received the weapons and assisted the participants in choosing the most appropriate form of compensation. A representative of the MJS sub-secretariat for community relations and social workers from the same ministry greeted program participants. A representative of the regional arms register RENAR, in civilian clothes, assisted with all of the technical considerations. The police were only directly involved in transporting in plastic bins weapons collected via house-to-house visits and guarding the collected weapons at the pre-established collection sites. Overall, the first round of the Arms Exchange program was deemed a success not only in raising public awareness, but also in exceeding expectations for weapons collected. Program organisers were not expecting to receive more than 30 weapons and in fact collected 287, with much more interest in participation expressed by groups and individuals outside the greater metropolitan area (Revista Nueva 2001).

Because exchanges were anonymous, with no questions asked, it was impossible to collect data on the individuals who surrendered weapons. However, as has been the case in other programs, ‘each weapon is a conversation’ and, in fact, many people choose to share their reasons for turning in a weapon. Provided below are several anecdotal examples provided by Martin Appiolaza:

  • In one community a woman in her forties turned in a revolver and refused any compensation. A week earlier she had tried to kill her children and commit suicide.
  • An old man called the toll-free number from a pay phone and the mobile collection unit went out to meet him in the shack he lived in on the outskirts of town. He was unemployed and said the food voucher he received for his gun would feed his wife and him for several months. Two more men came out of their houses to turn in guns wrapped in newspaper when they saw their neighbour turn his in.
  • Another woman turned in a gun that had been hidden in her house by her son who had been running around with a local gang.
  • University professor Antonio R. had threatened his wife, university professor Susana D, with a revolver on several occasions during domestic arguments. Susana insisted he turn in his gun as part of the program if he wanted to stay with her. He did.
  • The owner of a small store in the conflict-ridden Godoy Cruz neighbourhood turned in his revolver and shotgun because he did not want to worry about someone being injured by his guns. He hoped his example would motivate other people nearby to do the same.
  • A middle-aged couple turned in several guns for tickets to see their favourite football team. They had stored the guns away for many years without any intention of using them.

All of the guns turned in were crushed in a press publicly and stored in plastic tanks in the provincial police storehouse. The destroyed arms will be incorporated into one or more works of art and then turned over to the local university art department. Local artist and head of the university art department Eliana Molinelli says it is possible to create learning and beauty out of the material that was originally designed only to kill and injure (2001).


Commentary

Program organisers intended to continue the Arms Exchange program in late March or early April 2001. While the preliminary experience has brought in 287 firearms and almost two thousand bullets it has done much more than that. It has reduced the possibility of accidents and misuse in the homes of those who participated. Combined with the educational campaign in the schools it has also highlighted the relationship of guns and violence in the minds of thousands of youth and their families. Additionally, it has served as a pilot experience that has inspired local and provincial governments in Buenos Aires, Córdoba, and Santa Fe to do the same.

Of course the critics were right. The criminals did not turn in their guns. However, from the start the MJS stated that the goals of the Arms Exchange program were more cultural than anything else. After the initial six-month period that the current law allows for the program is over, the organisers will have to decide whether or not to continue collecting weapons voluntarily. Still, the Arms Exchange program has once again demonstrated that, by focussing on the tangible tools of violence. one can obtain the attention of large segments of the population. It is hoped that the MJS will seize the opportunity to strengthen links with community groups, non-governmental organisations, and the local police and develop a broader program of action that not only seeks reductions in firearm mortality and injury, but also looks to have an impact on Mendozans’ perceptions of insecurity in their daily lives.

Notes

1. Interview with Dr. Rene Dreifus, Rio de Janeiro, Brazil, 11 April 1999.
2. A wide range of resources and country/case profiles can be found on the BICC Help Desk website at http://www.bicc.de/weapons/helpdesk.

References

Appiolaza, M. 2000, Canje de Armas por Mejores Condiciones de Vida. Mendoza, Argentina, Ministerio de Justicia y Seguridad.

Castón, E. 2001, “La caza furtiva desnuda la tenencia ilegal de armas,” Diario Los Andes, Mendoza, Argentina.

Correia, M.E. 2000, Citizen Involvement: How Community Factors Affect Progressive Policing, Washington DC, Police Executive Research Forum.

Revista Nueva 2001, “Plan Canje, Armas por Comida,” VIII: 1-11.

Zentil, M. 2000, “El Plan Canje de Armas está en marcha,” Diario Los Andes, Mendoza, Argentina.

—– 2000, “Sobre seguridad hay opiniones divididas,” Diario Los Andes, Mendoza, Argentina.

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