(This article and its content were first published on thebubble.com, October 14, 2015).
As The Bubble reported soon after the news broke across social media, a video emerged last month of police in Tucumán mercilessly beating up a teenager inside his cell while other officers looked on, completely complicit. As he throws punches into the defenseless minor’s face and torso, the officer can be heard bawling:
“WHY DON’T YOU RESPECT ME KID? WHY DO YOU KEEP MESSING WITH ME ON MY SHIFT? WHY DON’T YOU LISTEN TO ME?”
The fact that the video caused such outrage after it surfaced was the positive to take away from what happened. Among the mountain of negatives was the sad truth that despite the condemnation, the images surprised few people here in Argentina, where stories of police brutality seem to emerge with almost clockwork regularity, 30 years since the fall of the last military dictatorship.
The event reminded us all that cruelty, corruption and violence at the hands of the police in Argentina has been a recognized norm here for decades.
This makes the institutional and illegal violence latent within the police — metropolitan, federal, gendarmerie… they’re all tarnished — all the more dangerous because it becomes normalized and almost accepted as an unchangeable constant that the government is seemingly at pains to do as little as possible about.
But is stoicism towards the corruption, the racism, the normalization of human rights abuses the best response, especially when the violence is so persistent? It has certainly not helped stem the tide.
According to Gerardo Netche, lawyer and researcher for the anti-police corruption organization Correpi “there is almost one case of police violence every day,” in Argentina. Yet it’s impossible to know with any precision how many abuses have been buried entirely by the police themselves on top of a chilling estimate like this.
CATALOGUE OF VIOLENCE
We can only judge the situation from the cases we know about, and these happen all too often. The video of the teenager brutalized at the hands of police came just days after federal police forces had repressed a non-violent demonstration in Tucumán, with a liberal spraying of rubber bullets and healthy doses of tear gas, after proved instances of electoral corruption in the province had prompted the protests.
And just weeks before that, it was the gendarmerie, beating up and shooting striking Linea 60 bus drivers with another rubber bullets and tear gas combo on the Panamericana highway just outside of the capital.
This time on Homeland Security Secretary Sergio Berni’s orders, the border guards wounded over 30 workers in the process, two of whom ended up in intensive care, before the Labor Ministry and corporate owners of the bus route eventually backed down and conceded to the workers’ demands anyway.
Berni showed no contrition whatsoever and in fact blamed the protesters themselves for getting shot, the latest offering from the expanding catalog of his “tough on crime” bullshit sound bites.
In both cases, the action of all those police officers involved in the use of rubber bullets to repress a democratic protest was illegal according to prominent human rights group the Center for Legal and Social Studies (CELS), which cited a resolution tied to Berni’s own Security Ministry forbidding such suppressive acts.
These cases of government-sponsored repression at the hands of the police were rightly condemned by main opposition candidate Mauricio Macri of the Cambiemos center-right coalition.
But Macri and his political allies failed to recognize the extreme levels of hypocrisy berthed from slamming the federal government and police for unwarranted violence and force during a peaceful demonstration. After all, perhaps the most notorious and shocking instance of mass police violence in the last few years was dealt by the hands and truncheons of the metropolitan police in Buenos Aires City, of which Macri has been mayor for the last eight years.
In 2013 the metropolitan police stormed a workshop therapy wing of the Borda psychiatric hospital in the City scheduled for renovation, after patients and doctors refused to leave and suspend their work. Over 36 people including patients, doctors and journalists were injured by police officers as a result.
Then there are the ongoing, clandestine and extremely concerning reports of forced disappearances of those living in the impoverished villa neighbourhoods on the edges of the City, as detailed in recent documentary Nunca Digas Nunca (“Never Say Never”).
Why are brutality and human rights abuses so persistent within the various police forces?
At the crux of the issue in Argentina is the weight of a dark past. Unlike most other state institutions — such as the executive, for example, who is now a president people elect instead of a psychopathic general and his thugs imposing “order” — the police have not undergone any serious reforms since the fall of the dictatorship.
As Editor-in-Chief of the Buenos Aires Herald and longstanding human rights advocate Sebastian Lacunza told me last year, this is a root cause of ongoing malpractice within the police forces in Argentina:
“The main problem, once again, is the Argentine police; supposed to catch criminals and gather evidence against them. In more than 30 years of democracy, no government has led a much-needed reform of security forces which had been deeply involved in illegal repression during the dictatorship.”
“Hundreds of police officers took part in killings, tortures and snatching babies. Even though many of them were judged and Argentine society lives under the rule of law, forces still work with unacceptable practices from a human rights perspective,” he said.
In reference to the new Criminal Procedural Code which placed extra unaccountable powers in the hands of the police, he added:
“SO IT’S NO TIME TO REPLACE THE PROCEDURAL SAFEGUARDS INCLUDED IN THE JUDICIAL SYSTEM BY A TOUGH-ON-CRIME APPROACH.”
As an organization, therefore, the police maintain, to a lesser or greater extent, many of the traits institutionalized during the dictatorship that now run through their ranks like seams of coal through a mountain. They do not by any means touch every part or person across the forces but are clearly present throughout.
The racism, authoritarianism and willful neglect of human rights espoused by the Generals are all engendered as a result, as Amnesty International detailed in a recent report on human rights in Argentina.
Police violence is also linked intrinsically to a decaying and often inhumane prison system. Amnesty also reported that many prisons here are woefully overcrowded, that torture of inmates inside whether by guards or other prisoners is endemic and that despite the overcrowding, many inmates are forced into solitary confinement for over 20 hours each day.
The scarcity of denunciations of such abuse from within the police itself is a key reason so few cases are met with justice. Lack of accountability is at the heart of the problem. It alludes to the endemic nature of mistreatment espoused by the police.
If superiors are willing to turn a blind eye to the crimes and misdemeanors of their junior officers, or even be actively complicit in the abuse they deal out, hope for an improvement of police behavior coming from within the organization looks wistful at best.
Of those cases of police violence that did result in punitive measures against the cops involved, justice was invariably served in spite of the police authority’s best efforts to avoid any punitive measures against officers within their own ranks. The recent charges brought against the Chief of Federal Police in Tucmán, José Dante Bustamante, who was indicted by a government-sponsored judicial investigation following the Tucumán debacle earlier in the year, illustrated this.
Expecting self-regulation from the same police forces that were willfully complicit in the crimes of the last dictatorship and have undergone no significant reforms since then is probably wishful thinking. The impetus for change must come from outside, and those with the most obvious power to affect a change are our elected representatives.
So it is a bitter irony that one of the most striking aspects of the current state of the Argentine police and its many discontents is the way the subject unites the main political parties and coalitions in Argentina behind the current status quo.
All three front-runners for the presidency in Daniel Scioli (Victory Front), Mauricio Macri (Cambiemos) and Sergio Massa (A New Alternative) have attacked the others when instances of brutality at the hands of the police have surfaced. Yet none have made any significant foray into territory which suggests they might embark on a widespread, progressive shake up of the police forces that could help clamp down on the corruption and recurring brutality, both of which are documented extensively by human rights groups.
On the contrary, all three, and particularly the two Peronist candidates in Scioli and Massa, have prioritized a massive expansion of police power if they triumph at the pivotal general election two weeks from now.
Scioli’s campaign videos play up his massive expansion of the police in Buenos Aires Province as governor, and show him addressing rallies of rank upon rank of drilled police recruits in matching uniforms. His insistence that this “new” police force embodies authority but not authoritarianism was unconvincing amid so much evidence to the contrary.
Meanwhile, having ditched the use of crying babies for electioneering purposes, Massa’s latest video is perhaps even more sinister still. It seems to amalgamate the police with the military completely. “We declare war on drug trafficking!” he proclaims as narco-trafficking cops and, bizarrely, fighter jets charge towards the northern border regions.
NB: (No one has told Massa that he’s missed the War on Drugs boat, which left harbor over 40 years ago and shows every sign of sinking without trace but for the tragic escalation of violence and death it has fueled, needlessly, in this part of the world in particular).
What is to be done? Clearly, the police force must be strong when accountable force is necessary in order to deal with some of the most pressing criminal problems continuing to plague Argentina, not least of which are the shameful and ongoing cases of human trafficking, which continue despite swelling police numbers.
Nevertheless, the failure to address the institutionalized violence that national and international rights groups all say continues to exist within the Argentine police forces is a political failure that needs addressing if we are to avoid more incidents like Tucumán’s and Borda’s or villa disappearances in the future. Discussing the need for reform from a human rights perspective would be a start. The longer this is avoided, the longer ordinary citizens will continue to pay the price for their own government’s inaction. At present, the biggest political forces in Argentina keep their heads buried in the sand.