Breaking a bad bank habit

Security, or the lack of it, has been hitting headlines recently following a spate of vicious hit-and-run thefts on customers leaving banks. The trigger, which shocked Argentina, was the case of a heavily pregnant woman who was set up, robbed of her US$20,000 house deposit then shot in the face outside her home in La Plata on July 30.

Although Palermo, Flores, Recoleta, Belgrano and San Nicolás are the most targeted neighbourhoods in the capital, an average of 21 motochorro crimes — in which a tag-team on a motorbike either target passers-by for their handbags and potential valuables or use inside information to rob a client leaving a bank with a wedge of cash — occurred every day in Buenos Aires city last year.

Horacio Rodríguez Larreta, the city’s Cabinet chief, made these figures public at the start of July and a total of 7,659 motochorro robberies or attempted robberies took place in 2009.

And last week, the Lower House’s Finance Committee approved a unanimous ruling which supports a project to heighten security measures in banks.

The projects, which were presented by lawmakers Gerardo Milman and Jorge Alvarez, have now merged to form a single initiative and will undergo discussion at the Lower House’s Domestic Security Committee.

Aiming to establish “minimum bank security measures”, the bill would ensure greater privacy when customers undertake an operation at the cash desk, and “visual barriers” would be placed in bank queues.

Alvarez said: “Compared with other countries, there isn’t any doubt that many transactions are undertaken in cash in Argentina. It’s a habit… maybe people just don’t have much faith in electronic transfers.”

The president of the committee, Deputy Alfonso Prat Gay (CC), invited Central Bank officials responsible for security issues to the meeting, but they called off at the last minute.

And Buenos Aires Mayor Mauricio Macri is also looking to reduce the number of “motochorro” robberies by banning more than one person from riding a motorbike in the capital.

Recent economic history dictates that Argentines prefer to pay by cash. When Argentina’s economy collapsed in 2001, so did people’s faith in banks.

In December of that year, the nation defaulted on its external debt, and the peso’s devaluation followed swiftly a few weeks later. Those two blows, combined with a freeze on cash machine withdrawals, then converged to make pension funds and savings practically worthless overnight, and the old adage of keeping cash in a suitcase hidden under your bed suddenly became the best investment an Argentine could have made.

That, along with tax evasion, according to a recent Reuters report, means that money, in its hard cash format, keeps proving it can talk.

So it’s little wonder that Argentina has low bank use compared with other countries in the region, giventhat a hard-earned salary isn’t even safe in the safest place for it.

With regards to electronic transfers, banks don’t actually need to enter the equation as bureaux de change will undertake such transfers for a low percentage of the total, reducing the need to roll up to a notary’s office with socks, bras or knee-high boots stuffed with purple bills.

Despite the fact that electronic transfers exist in Argentina, the questions beg: why aren’t people using them and why do they insist on walking the streets with so much cash on their person? From a deposit for a house purchase to a foreign language student paying six months’ rent upfront, the danger should outweigh a lack of trust in using the wire, a money transfer method as common as internet banking in the US and Europe.

In March this year, a woman was shot in the head after leaving a bank with a large sum of cash to pay her factory employees. Laura Mandarini survived the robbery in Lomas del Mirador in Buenos Aires province although the two motochorros escaped with $25,000.

Another woman was recently robbed after leaving a branch of Santander Río. She had withdrawn $22,000, left the bank in her car, and was attacked when she stopped off to make a purchase.

But the most devastating attack was on pregnant Carolina Piparo in La Plata in July. She went to her branch of Santander Río to withdraw US$20,000 to put a deposit on a house, but the clerk told her the bank had insufficient cash and that she should return the following day. Accompanied by her mother 24 hours later, the women were followed home by motochorros who demanded the money. Even though Píparo, just days away from giving birth, handed over her money, she was shot anyway. Her baby son, born by Caesarian section, later died in hospital.

First published in the Buenos Aires Herald on August 21, 2010.

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