Since taking office on 10th December, crime and security has been at the forefront of President Mauricio Macri’s presidency.
Barely two months into his term, Macri has already decreed a national public security emergency and authorised the transfer of thousands of Federal Police officers under the orbit of the Buenos Aires government’s Metropolitan Police force.
The measures fit with Macri’s ‘tough on crime’ campaign promises, but have drawn criticism from those concerned about handing more power to security forces tainted by a history of brutality and repression.
It is not hard to find examples of what some see as a culture of police violence that continues to plague Argentina. Instances over the past six months include mounted police using brutal force against unarmed protestors in San Miguel de Tucumán (August), police firing rubber bullets against dismissed workers protesting in La
Plata (January), and just last week, gendarmerie officers shooting at children in a murga dance group in Buenos Aires. Meanwhile, in November, a Metropolitan police officer in La Boca shot an unarmed 20-year old man, Lucas Cabello, in the throat, abdomen, and testicles after a verbal confrontation.
Each time an episode of police violence occurs there is a public outcry, justification from some quarters, and then the media moves on and nothing is done to change the system of abuse.
“There is a historical tradition of confrontation and violence between civil society and the police,” explains Dr. Maria Victoria Pita, anthropology professor at the University of Buenos Aires and expert on police violence and human rights. “It is a very complicated issue because it has to deal with the basis of cultural development and political conditions.”
One of the most difficult factors in confronting police violence and highlighting state security abuses is a general lack of documentation available to the public.
Manuel Tufró, coordinator of the democratic security and institutional violence team at the Centre for Legal and Social Studies (CELS), says that there is “no official data” from the Argentine government about human rights abuses such as police violence and deaths.
The international organisation, Human Rights Watch, also noted in their 2015 world report that Argentina does not have a national law ensuring public access to information held by government bodies, and that “high fines and criminal prosecution in specific cases have undermined the right to freely publish information of public interest.”
Two human rights groups in Argentina, CELS and CORREPI, have stepped in to fill the void and document human rights abuses. Groups such as these have been fundamental in shedding light on state security malpractices after the last dictatorship, and particularly from the late 1980’s to the present.
These human rights groups, and others like them, forced government action by consolidating methods to highlight institutional abuse. Cumulatively, they have helped push human rights issues into the political agenda and called on the government to address them.
“From the end of the 1980s to the present day a lot changed in the perception of police violence,” says Pita. “There is a greater visibility of police violence as a problem.”
Data provided by CELS, which is widely accepted as the perennial source for police violence and human rights statistics, indicated that police violence seems to follow general economic trends.
A graph provided by CELS highlighting the number of civilian deaths in Buenos Aires caused by state security forces showed that deaths peaked in 2001/2002 during the economic crisis, before dropping greatly in the general calm between 2004 and 2007. Deaths again rose during the 2009 global crisis and again in 2014, the last year data is available for.
When looked at from a greater historical perspective, then, police violence in Argentina is at a generally low point in a complicated narrative of state repression. In the span of 30 odd years, Argentina transitioned from a brutal military dictatorship to a functioning and relatively free democracy.
The culture of police violence, however, lives on and serves as a constant reminder of the countries past and where it needs to go in the future.
Although greater focus on state security forces have contributed to lower instances of violence, police repression and human rights abuses continue to be an enormous issue in Argentina.
The Human Rights Watch report on Argentina for 2015 concluded that “police abuse remains a serious problem” in the country, while Gerardo Netche, Argentine lawyer and researcher for CORREPI, claims that “there is almost one case of police violence every day” in Argentina.
Luis Tibiletti, former interior minister and an advisor to the defense ministry for over 20 years, explained that the last dictatorship created a mindset among security forces that they could do just about anything they wanted. This mentality continues among police officers, he says, and is extremely hard to break.
“It is very hard to disarm institutional practices that have been consolidated over such a long time,” adds Pita.
Reform is a very general term and is hard to apply to such a broad and complex thing such as policing. Factor in compounded issues with the judiciary system, political oversight, and the multifaceted levels of Argentine security forces, and the entire notion becomes very daunting.
“Of course there needs to be reform,” said Tibiletti. “The whole institution needs to think in ways of reform.”
The clearest examples of recent attempts to change the security apparatus came in the Kirchnerist years, especially under ex-president Néstor Kirchner.
Pushed by human rights activist groups and increased social violence after the 2001/2002 crash – especially the police killing of Dario Santillán and Maximiliano Kosteki in June 2002 – Kirchner instituted major reforms to the security system, including a new law that prohibited security forces from policing protests or manifestations with guns and live ammunition.
“During the Kirchner administration the government took on human rights abuse as a problem, and viewed police brutality as a violation of these human rights and as an issue that needed to be resolved,” explained Pita. “They decided that institutional violence could not be accepted as a necessity for public security.”
While Kirchner’s efforts did lead to a decrease in deaths and instances of police violence in the short term, the larger problem of institutional violence proved harder to solve, and death tolls again rose after the 2009 global crash.
Furthermore, reducing violent police action at mass protests did not address other types of abuse, such as involvement in organised crime or cases of gatillo facil (trigger happy killings). This latter example is typical in marginalised neighbourhoods, where police can usually bank on limited supervision and social prejudices to ensure impunity.
The officer who shot Cabello in La Boca claimed self defense against an armed suspect, while Buenos Aires province governor Maria Eugenia Vidal (then deputy mayor of the city of Buenos Aires) said he was responding to a report of gender violence. But eye-witnesses testimonies and material evidence contradicted the officer’s account, and he was eventually charged with attempted murder, aggravated due to his role as a police officer.
Experts in the field of security and police repression have mixed ideas on tackling the tough challenge of reforming the policing system. Many argue that police forces need to re-evaluate long held notions of security.
Pita breaks it down in to two distinct notions of “security”: public versus individual. “The notion of public security assumes that the state’s purpose is to limit the source of conflict in society,” she explains. “Citizen security, on the other hand, imagines security based on human rights and seeks to guarantee a way of living with as little violence as possible.”
Pita argues that both ideologies are in play in Argentina, and that police address security in drastically different ways based on the area and socioeconomic considerations. This often leads towards prejudices against impoverished areas and directly correlates to higher instances of police violence.
Manuel Tufró, coordinator of the democratic security and institutional violence team at CELS, mirrored calls for a shift in police officer mentality. He argued that officers should view themselves as workers within general society, instead of forming part of the military apparatus, removed from the public.
Tufró cited CELS data demonstrating that 66% percent of civilian deaths in Buenos Aires in 2015 due to encounters with the police involved off-duty officers. Tufró argued that police officers see themselves as separate from the rest of society, even when they are not working. They therefore conduct themselves as police officers 24 hours a day, often inserting themselves in situations they shouldn’t be involved in, with sometimes drastic results.
Pita, Tufró, and Tibiletti all called for greater democratisation in the police system. In many regards, police forces function with autonomy and have little political or judicial oversight. They all agree that police forces need to be reigned in with greater political control that rests outside of the security hierarchy.
Within this framework, Tibiletti argues that Argentina needs a concrete set of police officer rights that dictates what security forces can and cannot do. This would set explicit boundaries for police officers, and give the government power to directly enforce these mandates.
Though it is still early days for Macri’s presidency, his initial measures and track record as head of the Buenos Aires city government for eight years do not bode well for police reform.
While serving as mayor, Macri facilitated the formation of the Metropolitan Police force in 2009. While he promised that the new security force would lead to an evolved and modern style of policing – and during the recent campaign promised to spread this around the country as president – the Metropolitan police have followed a similar course of violence and corruption as other forces.
Pita comments that the Metropolitan Police has a “history that has a lot to be improved upon,” and that in its short lifespan “has demonstrated definite patterns of high violence in their past performance.” Some of the major examples include actions at the Parque Indoamericano (in conjuction with Federal Police) in 2010, the Sala Alberdi cultural centre, and the Borda mental health hospital (both in 2013).
The new mayor of Buenos Aires, PRO member Horacio Rodríguez Larreta, is already acting to increase the size of the Metropolitan Police force and realise Macri’s vision of more ‘boots on the ground’.
Earlier this month, Macri and Rodríguez Larretta announced the transfer of thousands of federal police officers under the orbit of the Metropolitan force. “We have to put more officers on the street. The fusion of the two forces is the first step to improve security,” Rodríguez Larreta told Clarín in an interview.
The Public Security Emergency announced earlier in January also allows for the reincorporation of retired police officers, provided they have not been charged with any crime. And the government has pledged to reform police forces around the country.
“The Ministry of Security will seek police models that are increasingly compatible with absolute respect to federalism,” Security Minister Patricia Bullrich said during meetings to discuss the new emergency decree. She also stressed the “need for crime statistics and models to help properly educate police forces and public safety programmes.”
However, the public security emergency decree has been criticised by the Acuerdo de Seguridad Democrática (ASD), a group of academics, politicians, and security and human rights experts. In a recent statement, the ASD said that in the face of legitimate social demands the decree was “sensationalist but ineffective… putting into motion measures that exacerbate the worst tendencies of security policy.”
“The emergency does not acknowledge the main deficiencies of the security system, such as a lack of professionalism and a reform of police forces so that they stop forming a key part of illegal markets… Instead it provides a number of exception procedures to increase police numbers and provide them with greater firepower. These police bodies, which maintain problems of violence and corruption, are then sent to impoverished neighbourhoods, adding another problem to the daily violence seen in some of those places.”
Improving security is a legitimate demand for all of Argentine society. But this must also include protection against police brutality for all citizens, as well as stamping out corruption and severing links between police and organised crime gangs. With its lofty goals and explicit focus on crime, all eyes will be on Macri’s administration and the way it controls the behavior of security forces in the coming months and years.