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A police officer aims his weapon, as security forces fire tear gas and rubber bullets, during clashes with people after police broke up a squatters camp and evicted people living there in Guernica, Buenos Aires province, Argentina, Thursday, on Oct. 29, 2020. © AP Photo/Natacha Pisarenko.

Argentina’s response to Covid-19 has been marred by a violent police response towards people accused of breaking the rules.  

In late March, the government imposed a nationwide lockdown requiring people to quarantine at home, closing down businesses and schools, and restricting travel and movement. Security officers were given enforcement authority, meaning that the police could stop and question virtually anyone on the streets. On November 6, the government announced the end of the lockdown in the Buenos Aires metropolitan region, one of the world’s longest, although movement restrictions continue in some provinces.

Media outlets and local human rights groups have reported dozens of alleged human rights violations by the national and provincial security forces tasked with enforcing these measures. The national Human Rights Secretary reported receiving 531 complaints of police abuse between late March and early August, including 25 involving deaths, compared with 71 from early December to late March.

The Covid-19 pandemic generates enormous uncertainty. Proportionate lockdowns can be a necessary and effective measure to protect public health, but proper oversight and accountability of their enforcement are essential. This is all the more important in a country like Argentina, where police officers have a record of abusive treatment, especially in low-income neighborhoods.

Facundo Castro, 22, was reported missing in April as he hitchhiked about 100 kilometers that separate his town from Bahia Blanca, a town in Buenos Aires province where his girlfriend lives. Police officers stopped him and asked him to sign a document indicating that he had violated travel restrictions, media reports said, publishing a photo the police had taken of Castro, handcuffed, standing next to a police car. Three witnesses said they saw him being taken away in a police car.

On September 3, after Castro’s body was found, the media reported that items which might have belonged to him were found inside of a police car. Prosecutors are investigating the case as an “enforced disappearance, followed by death.” A recent autopsy revealed that Castro had died from “drowning,” apparently without the intervention of third parties, but prosecutors continue to investigate the role of police officers in his death.

In another incident from May 15, media reports said that police officers in Tucumán shot and killed Luis Espinoza. Espinoza was returning home from his workplace with his brother after they had collected their salaries. They crossed paths with a group of police officers who were dispersing a crowd that was violating lockdown measures. Several police officers beat Espinoza and his brother, his brother told the media, and took Espinoza away. On May 22, Espinoza’s body was found next to a cliff; he had been shot in the back. On June 20, prosecutors charged nine officers and one civilian in connection with the crime.

The media have also reported the use of abusive tactics to enforce lockdown measures in low-income neighborhoods. On the night of March 30, at least 15 members of the Gendarmery—a federal security force—arrived in La Cava, a low-income neighborhood in Buenos Aires province, victims told reporters. The gendarmes beat and kicked people who were on the streets, allegedly for violating lockdown measures, and shot live ammunition to disperse the crowd, injuring a 7-year-old girl. A 15-year-boy said that officers loaded him into a van and beat him on the head, then took him to a police station where they threatened to “stick a police baton up [his] ass.”

Officers have also allegedly committed serious abuses against lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender (LGBT) people under the guise of enforcing Covid-19 lockdown measures. On April 13, in Jujuy province, police officers sexually abused and beat up Delfina Antonella Díaz, a 19-year-old trans woman, after detaining her for “violating the lockdown,” media reports said. The officers beat her on the face, took her to a vacant lot, and told her that they would “make her a man.” They forced her to strip, touched and hit her genitals, and threatened to rape her with a police baton, she was quoted as saying.

In reaction to reports of abuses, the Attorney General’s Office issued guidelines in April for enforcing the lockdown. The National Security Ministry sent the guidelines to all federal security forces. The guidelines reiterate existing rules under Argentine and international law on the use of force, which may only be employed when necessary and proportionate in response to a given threat. Additionally, under international law, firearms may only be used against a threat to life or physical integrity. But the guidelines do not appear to have curbed abuses.

President Alberto Fernández has publicly condemned police abuses and told national and local authorities to identify those responsible and hold them to account.

But laying out principles is not enough: those who violate them need to be sanctioned. Argentina’s federal and state authorities need to ensure that people’s rights are respected, including those of marginalized groups like the LGBT people.

To ensure that Argentina complies with its international human rights obligations, the national government should urgently lead efforts to end abuses by both federal and state police forces.  The Security Ministry needs to make it crystal clear that the coercive enforcement of lockdown measures should be a last resort. And all levels of government should send a clear, unambiguous message that human rights violations will not be tolerated and that all allegations of excessive use of police force will be promptly and impartially investigated and those responsible will be held to account.

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