Forty years after the end of authoritarianism, many Latin American democracies exhibit high levels of state violence, primarily attributable to the agency most directly responsible for preserving the state’s monopoly of legitimate coercion: the police. Just last week, military police officers killed at least 18 people in a raid on a favela (shantytown) in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil, an all too frequent occurrence in a state that suffers hundreds of deaths from police lethality every year. By way of comparison, Rio’s police kill nearly as many as all police forces in the United States combined, despite having a fraction of the US population. The last few years witnessed mounting accounts of police violence, including in the repression of social unrest, in Colombia, Chile, Ecuador, and Venezuela.
Latin American police and security forces are also frequently involved in complicity with organized crime and criminal markets. Officers everywhere from Mexico to Argentina have been arrested for protecting drug gangs against their competitors and other law enforcement actors, enabling crimes to occur within a given territory or trading illicit goods themselves.
These vignettes could suggest an unruly police beyond the grasp of governing politicians. While police forces have recurrently confronted incumbents to maintain their prerogatives, threatened by multiple reform attempts since re-democratization, police malfeasance often takes place with the acquiescence, or even assistance, of elected and appointed officials.
Lethal violence by police often has the tacit or explicit approval of governing officials. Incumbents who do not want to appear soft on crime cater to – and reinforce – electorates’ fear and anger in response to the real and subjective insecurities they face each day. Politicians who do not install safeguards against police brutality, such as reframing police functions or developing better training, monitoring, and accountability mechanisms, publicly dismiss acts of police violence as necessary requirements of the job or callously disassociate themselves from such events. Alternatively, they may proclaim the need for “profound reforms” that turn out as merely cosmetic patches that will only keep a lid on social pressure until the next crisis erupts.
Politicians are frequently aware of police corruption but choose to ignore or downplay it. Others go further and attempt to subdue the police to profit from such illicit rents. Street-level police officers are often the lowest rung of a corruption ladder that rises several stories above them. The former Presidents of Honduras and Paraguay, for example, are targeted by law enforcement agencies in the United States’ for their involvement in organized crime.
An unintended, and unfortunate, consequence of reform has been expanding the instances by which governing officials can exercise control over the police for their own benefit. Governing officials’ responsibility for designing police budgets and approving police promotions – or, conversely, decreeing police expulsions – grants them a fundamental advantage over the force and enables them to get a cut of police rents from various illicit activities. One should clarify that governing officials are not the only enablers of police corruption and violence, as this can also involve other criminal justice officials, such as judges and prosecutors, as well as powerful economic actors who benefit from the privatization of law enforcement.
These complex entanglements belie the notion that police are uniformly autonomous from governments across Latin America – or in other developing regions. This crude scenario of state corruption and violence prevails largely thanks to the perverse incentives generated by the war on illicit drugs and other illegalized products, which are sanctioned by elected officials. While this prohibitionist regime is commonplace throughout the region, different national and subnational governments have devised alternative ways of controlling their police forces. In some cases, governments have professionalized police in approximation with the rule of law. More frequently, however, they have sought to subordinate them to exploit them for venal partisan or personal interests. Reduced police autonomy does not equate democratic reform.
The politics of policing in Latin America
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