The most pressing threat to the rule of law in Latin America used to be political violence. Today it is law enforcement-or the lack thereof-in countries plagued by violent crime. The need for more effective policing is a top public concern in much of the region. And with good reason. People have a right, well-established in international human rights law, to be protected from violent crime, as well as a right to justice when they are its victims. Yet in many countries, law enforcement agencies find themselves outgunned, literally and figuratively, by criminal organizations that are powerful, well-funded and extremely violent. Politicians routinely respond to the legitimate demand for better policing by promising to "get tough" on crime. But it's one thing to be tough, and quite another to be effective.
Too often, getting tough means condoning abusive police practices that not only undermine the rule of law by violating basic rights, but also fail to curb crime. Take for example the use of torture by the police in Mexico. Despite countless reports from national and international human rights monitors documenting the problem over the years, many Mexican police continue to torture for a simple reason: they find it easier to beat confessions out of people than to conduct the serious investigations that could solve crimes. Mexican judges routinely accept the coerced confessions as proof of guilt, even when the victims retract them later at trial. The outcome is disastrous for both human rights and public security: innocent people are convicted of crimes they didn't commit, while the criminals remain at large.
Another example: the use of lethal force by police in Brazil. The Rio de Janeiro and São Paulo state pólice forces have killed more than 11,000 people in the past six years. The Rio police alone have killed, on average, more than 1,000 people a year, three times the number killed annually by police in the entire United States. In recent years, the São Paulo police have killed fewer people than their Rio counterparts, butmore than the police in all of South Africa, a country with a much higher homicide rate than São Paulo. The Rio and São Paulo police claim that nearly all these killings have been the result of shootouts initiated by criminal suspects. Given that both states are plagued by heavily armed and extremely violent gangs, this probably explains some cases. Yet many of these alleged shootouts are in fact extrajudicial executions.
While it's impossible to know the exact proportion, official government statistics in both states3 suggest that the level of false reporting by police is high. For example, an elite unit of the São Paulo police killed 305 people and wounded 20 while suffering only one death in their ranks in alleged shootouts over a five year period. This seems a highly dubious outcome if indeed these
were shootouts and the police were using lethal force in a legitimate and proportional manner. Similarly, in Rio, police in 10 military policing zones were responsible
for 825 "shootout" killings in 2008, while suffering a total of 12 police fatalities.
Perhaps the most revealing statistic is the ratio of killings by the police to arrests. The Rio police arrested only 23 people for every person they killed in shootouts in 2008, and São Paulo police arrested 348. In contrast, police in the United States arrested more than 37,000 suspects for every person they killed in alleged confrontations the same year. The ratio suggests that, rather than curbing violence, local police may be contributing to it through their own use of lethal force. The use of torture and excessive force is hardly unique to Mexico and Brazil. Police and security forces in other Latin American countries where there is strong public demand to contain violent crime, such as Colombia,
Guatemala, Peru, and Venezuela, regularly commit serious abuses. Similarly, law enforcement abuses are common in countries such as Colombia, Guatemala, Peru, and Venezuela, where the illegal drug trade finances a wide range of criminal actors, from cartels to transnational gangs and street-level dealers. A major reason these abuses are so widespread is that law enforcement agents who commit them are rarely brought to justice. In some countries, such as Brazil, this is because the justice system relies on the police to investigate themselves, an arrangement that virtually guarantees that abuse allegations will be ignored. While many countries, including Brazil and Mexico, have established ombudsman's offices and other mechanisms to receive civilian complaints, these have proven no substitute for the criminal investigations and prosecutions that are necessary to curb abusive practices. Another crucial factor is the misperception-prevalent in much of the region-that there is a conflict between protecting human rights and promoting public security. Many believe that holding police accountable for their abuses would weaken the hand of law enforcement and thereby strengthen the violent mafias and gangs they must confront.
But the opposite is true. Fuller accountability, through the criminal prosecution of abusive practices, would force police and prosecutors to do their jobs more effectively. That would mean fewer abuses and more genuine criminals behind bars.
For source citations see: www.americasquarterly.org/wilkinson