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Police Protests: Exposing the Debts of Democracy

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In Argentina we have come to expect that, as the temperature raises, the social mood gets tense. With the memory of December 2001 fresh in our minds, as well as the more recent incidents at the Parque Indoamericano in 2010, some kind of social disorder always seems to be just around the corner in the run up to Christmas.

The incidents that gripped the country over the last couple of weeks, however, were of a different nature. They shone the light on a variety of pressing issues, all of which were reflected in the police strikes and the subsequent looting sprees that spread around the country.

The Narco-Police

The first protest to break out was in Córdoba, where around 3,000 police officers went on strike on Tuesday 3rd December, as governor José Manuel de la Sota was on a trip overseas. They demanded a 100% increase in their basic wage, claiming that a low income forced them to work overtime and shifts of up to 16 hours.

As the provincial Security Minister Alejandra Monteoliva (who was later removed from her post) was unable to control the situation and failed to request support from the federal government immediately, De la Sota was forced to return from his trip that same evening. At first, he expressed an uncompromising position and rejected the policemen’s demands, only to perform a U-turn within a few hours and give them all they were asking for, including a promise not to punish the striking officers.

While this was happening, groups of people on motorbikes took to the streets and looted several shops. In response, many residents in the affected areas set up barricades and attacked, sometimes indiscriminately, potential looters. One person died – the first of ten victims in the chaos that spread over the following days.

Governor José Manuel de la Sota renews cabinet and police authorities after the strikes (photo: Carlos Cermele/Télam/lz)

Governor José Manuel de la Sota renews cabinet and police authorities after the strikes (photo: Carlos Cermele/Télam/lz)

The way the provincial government handled the crisis has been strongly criticised. Unable to contain the lootings and to negotiate effectively with the police -other than simply giving in to their demands- seemed to cause a domino effect across the country, with police forces in as many as 15 provinces refusing to work until their wage demands were met.

The case of Córdoba, however, was different from other provinces (perhaps the closest comparison can be drawn with Santa Fé). The police force there was in turmoil before the protest, a fact that cannot be overlooked when analysing the situation.

The protest came less than three months after a journalistic investigation revealed extensive links between the police and drug trafficking operations in the province. The story became such a scandal that the journalist who ran it, Tomás Méndez, received death treats and the head of the police and the security minister were forced to resign. Many have speculated that there was a direct connection between the narco-scandal and the strikes and looting, either by claiming that the police needed to replace the potential revenue lost in the drug trade through a wage increase, or that they decided to pressure the government in order to halt the investigations.

The Córdoba police had also recently been the target of a 15,000-strong protest in the capital city, in which it was demanded that the provincial law against misdemeanours (law 8431) be overturned. This 1994 law, which allows the police to arrest and sentence people to fines or imprisonment for up to 180 days without trial -on grounds as feeble as “loitering” (defined as the display of a “suspicious attitude” near a building or vehicle)- has  allowed police to target and harass specific groups of people, most notably youngsters from poor areas. Tens of thousands of arrests have been made in the last few years under this law, and there have been numerous reports of mistreatment and even torture against prisoners.

A Political Issue

The case of Córdoba has received most of the attention in the last couple of weeks, due to the events surrounding the strike and the fact that it was the spark for nationwide turmoil.

However, it would be naïve to think that other cases are very different. As an institution, the police force in many provinces has proven to be one of the most perverse and corrupt. Left to its own devices and without a clear political authority, it has often done more to contribute to the spread of crime than to combat it.

Protesting police celebrate the agreement reached with the government in Córdoba (photo: Irma Montiel/Télam/ddc)

Protesting police celebrate the agreement reached with the government in Córdoba (photo: Irma Montiel/Télam/ddc)

Many saw evidence of this during the lootings in several provinces, where police were accused of being directly involved in the riots. In Entre Ríos, goods stolen during the strike were found in a police officer’s house, and Cabinet Chief Jorge Capitanich informed that similar cases were being investigated throughout the country. Residents of the worst affected areas who witnessed the lootings coincided in pointing out that they appeared to have been organised beforehand and were not spontaneous.

An overhaul of the police system is one of democracy’s major debts. Some attempts at reform have been made in the last few years, most notably in the province of Buenos Aires, whose infamous police force – ‘la maldita policía‘ –  has been the poster child for police corruption for decades, and within the Federal Police. However, those processes were either reversed or fell short of achieving the deep change that is needed.

So what should a police reform entail? In a recent interview with Página 12, León Arslanian, security minister of Buenos Aires province between 2004 and 2007, talked about “decentralisation” and “democratisation.” One key reform must consist of putting the police under the control of civilian authorities, replacing the current model of self-governance. In Arslanian’s opinion, the provincial governments have delegated the management of public security to the police forces, and “in exchange for governability, [the police] arrange with politicians the conditions to be able to freely manage and regulate crime.”

Other measures mentioned by Arslanian include removing internal affairs and the handling of police information from the direct control of the police, in order to be able to detect irregularities. It has been proposed that decentralisation could be achieved by creating smaller police forces dependent upon municipalities -rather than provinces- to deal with everyday crime.

A Police Union

Another issue that was placed under the spotlight during the police strikes, and which many consider should be part of the police reform agenda, is whether police should be able to form their own workers’ union.

Buenos Aires police officers protest in La Plata on 9th December (photo: Carlos Cermele/Télam/lz)

Buenos Aires police officers protest in La Plata on 9th December (photo: Carlos Cermele/Télam/lz)

Currently, policemen are not allowed to form unions or exercise other labour rights, such as the right to strike. There are two main reasons for this. The first  is the rigid, vertical hierarchy by which security forces are organised – union activity would break the strict discipline that is expected of the police. Secondly, as the recent strikes proved, a lack of police on the streets can have serious consequences for people’s lives and property.

But one thing the strikes also proved is the need for an institutional mechanism to channel police demands. The basic wages for police personnel before the strike were as low as $531 (in the province of Santa Fe), though they were complemented by ‘extras’ such as overtime and special payments for professional risk. Any other professional in that situation would have been expected to negotiate better salaries, and in the case of the police, a bargaining tool could be a way to avoid potentially dangerous situations such as strikes.

Those who agree with the need to set up police unions suggest it should come with a limit to the labour rights of police: namely, that they should still not be allowed to strike, as the safety of the community comes before their internal demands. Still, experts put forward the need for genuine representation, and bodies that can be party to negotiations regarding wages and working conditions, thus defending their rights as workers.

Conceding the police the right to unionise would also be a step forward towards the professionalisation of the force, another important element of the much needed police reform. This would also involve securing fair wages, reasonable shifts and working conditions, and strengthening education programmes with a focus on human rights.

Failed Coexistence

A police reform (or 25, if we include all provinces, the City of Buenos Aires, and the Federal Police) is a mammoth task, but one that must be done. It is an issue that has been identified and studied, and at the moment the hardest part seems to be finding the political will to counter the resistance that the entrenched powers are expected to put up.

On the other hand, the lootings have been much harder to process. Whilst some of them are known to have been organised by criminal gangs -sometimes in connivance with the striking police- others were not, causing shock and disbelief among the population. The terrified, and at times violent, reaction of the residents in the affected areas also exposed an ugly side to relations within communities.

A looted shop in the city of Córdoba (photo: Irma Montiel/Télam/ddc)

A looted shop in the city of Córdoba (photo: Irma Montiel/Télam/ddc)

An interesting reflection by political scientist María Esperanza Casullo points at a certain degree of disintegration of the fabric of society due to the disappearance of common, physical areas in which people from different classes and backgrounds coexist. The decline in public institutions such as the school or the hospital, and the confinement in closed communities by those who can afford it, are the result of a model of exclusion and consumerism which started being implemented as far back as 1976. Without these shared spaces and institutions, Casullo argues, there can be no political community, and the ‘other’ is always seen a threatening entity.

This was most evident in Córdoba, which again seems to be the case that best exemplifies the complexity of the issues revealed by the crisis. As anthropologist Pablo Semán explains, Córdoba has been torn apart by the property boom -itself brought on by the soy boom- which resulted in masses of people being pushed towards the edges of cities -and of society. They are segregated in poor neighbourhoods and constantly watched by police, there to contain the threat they supposedly pose against those who benefitted from the process. Semán’s analysis indicates that this gap between the rich and the poor goes beyond a socio-economic issue, and it is deeply rooted in an enduring racism.

This idea helps explain the extensive use (and misuse) of the provincial law against misdemeanours, the massive increase in police presence in the province (a 66% increase in the number of officers between 2001 and 2012, making it one of the provinces with the highest rates of police officers per capita), and the terror felt by those who suddenly felt unprotected by their ever-present guardians, left to fend for themselves against the ‘hordes’ that descended from the periphery.

As the country rightfully celebrated 30 years of uninterrupted democracy, reality took centre stage. The last three decades have brought about many positive changes, but have also deepened some long-standing social wounds. The events of the last couple of weeks appeared as a reminder that there is much work yet to be done.

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- who has written 424 posts on The Argentina Independent.


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One Response to “Police Protests: Exposing the Debts of Democracy”

  1. Werner Almesberger says:

    It seems to me that one of the key elements of police problems are the extremely low wages. Already the protests of 2012 revealed the absurdly low compensations police officers receive, and the shady “extras” that somewhat prop them up will create further problems in the longer run. In 2012 the government largely chose to let the protests burn themselves out and make only minor concessions. I guess there was a good amount of retaliatory spirit in what happened in 2013.

    Now, how would low wages affect a) what people chose a career in the police force, and b) how they behave there ? For someone to choose this line of work, they must either be independently wealthy, expect to be able to make extra money, or be unusually interested in specifically this kind of job.

    There’s a good chance that such strong interest contains the possibility to exercise power over others. That’s how you get police brutality. With brutality implying cowardice, it’s also quite logical that it would be directed at those who can’t fight back.

    For the corruption, well that’s easy: each time they catch someone there’s the opportunity of negotiating an early release against a little monetary consideration. This is probably made worse by the justice as being perceived as being far too lax on criminals. So if the criminal would be let go with a mere slap on the wrist anyway, what could be wrong with taking a little shortcut ?

    And there are of course countless ways to extend such a corruption business.

    Considering that the salaries are clearly inadequate one has to consider the respective government to be complicit in police corruption. I.e., they know they can get away with paying almost nothing because their police officers are expected to take care of their needs in one way or another.

    Let such things go on for long enough and you’ll get a whole self-affirming culture of corruption and rather flexible interpretations of police duties. Disrupting this will be hard.

    It seems that the metropolitan police of the Buenos Aires is a success story so far. They have the benefit of being a very young force (so its members don’t have a long history of corruption), they seem to receive adequate compensation, and their role is generally less violent than that of the other police forces.

    Unfortunately, just creating a new “clean” force may not be possible everywhere. Worse, if such a “clean” force were to be created by picking the “good apples” from a “dirty” force, the latter will only get worse. I wonder if anyone has a workable plan for solving this puzzle.

    - Werner

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