Tanks patrolling the streets; helicopters firing on civilians; drive-by shootings with impunity: these acts of violence across Latin America have been committed by governments. In some cases, governments have given police increased technological powers or enforcement purview. Other times, governments have given a country’s military authorization to override the police. Both actions are characteristic of a global phenomenon of police hyper-militarization, a concept originating in the US to describe law enforcement’s incursions on individual rights.
Clearly visible in Chile, Brazil, and El Salvador, police hyper-militarization is a short-term strategy for international signaling that has long-term costs for domestic civil society and the strength of a country’s democracy. Its long-term corrosive effects coupled with its immediate and visceral brutality make police hyper-militarization a pressing issue for all policymakers and citizens across the Americas.
Signs of a Problem
In November 2019, Chilean protests erupted over increased metro fares and an uneven social safety net that ignored vulnerable citizens. Protestors were met with civilian police and the Chilean military. These forces were accused of blinding or severely injuring protestors with rubber bullets, raping protestors, and hitting them with vehicles in the streets. In Brazil, the years since 2016 saw a staggering rise in police-driven homicides. In preparation for the Rio Olympics, military forces “pacified” local favelas, or informal communities often housing low-income racial minorities, through nearly indiscriminate violence against drug dealers and residents alike. The current governor of Rio de Janeiro even encouraged law enforcement to shoot suspected criminals from helicopters. In El Salvador, the 2019 election of a young, charismatic, but authoritarian-leaning president also gave implicit free reign to police to reduce drug and gang violence at any cost.
Roots of the Problem
Latin America has faced a two-front security battle for much of recent decades. On one front, countries combat domestic instability by gangs or by citizens fueled by a lack of employment or educational advancement. On the other front, Latin American countries grapple with international and regional migration patterns, which provide new recruits for gangs and recycle deportees back into gang structures. The porous nature of migration, drugs, and arms flow meant a comprehensive government response in all locations and sectors of society was needed. This logic of vigilance and deterrence against crime fed the push for hyper-militarization. At the same time, hyper-militarization counters international pressure that a country “is not doing enough” on violent crime. However, the success of such international “signaling” is limited because of a global preference against perceived authoritarian regimes. Nonetheless, it highlights how domestic security issues are playing out against the backdrop of larger international considerations.
Damage Done by Hyper-Militarized Policing
The resulting problems of police hyper-militarization are multi-fold. First and foremost is its damage to citizens’ quality of life. Citizens exposed to heightened violence have reduced life expectancies, reduced education attainment, and irregular access to day-to-day basic goods and services. Money spent on combat-grade police gear often means reduced government budgets for social services, which again places the most vulnerable at risk. Nor is it only vulnerable citizens who may be killed. In Brazil, the 2018 assassination of Rio councilwoman Marielle Franco by suspected ex-police officers rocked the country. The case reinforced how hyper-militarization and corruption created rogue, highly armed police units who killed for private gain.
Secondly, police hyper-militarization harms citizens’ emotional welfare and political beliefs. In the short-term, it can create a powerful backlash against the government and a recruiting tool for anti-police organizations. In the long-term, hyper-militarization deepens psychological scars by invoking many Latin American countries’ bitter histories of military dictatorships and associated violence. The fear that hyper-militarization is the first step to authoritarianism is not entirely unfounded. Hyper-militarization of police often goes hand-in-hand with authoritarian-trending presidents because: (1) such presidents push for hyper-militarization, and (2) the climate of danger produced by previous iterations of violent policing is what elects violent presidents into office. This is particularly illustrated by Brazil in 2018 and El Salvador in 2019.
Looking Ahead: Domestic and International Policy Solutions
Without specific policies to prevent the crises that hyper-militarized policing is attempting to stop, this ongoing trend is here to stay in the short run. State forces have an incentive not to demilitarize because it would be interpreted as “conceding to” criminal behavior. As mentioned above, the policy language of many Latin American countries’ international allies, particularly the U.S., has been that of “tough on crime”. This forces regional governments to choose between demilitarizing the police or potentially reduced economic assistance. Despite strident advocacy, this broken-windows approach to policing does not enter into the second-layer analysis of the lack of economic and social opportunity that has fueled the people experiencing government crackdowns. To reach the original objectives of hyper-militarized policing while reducing the physical and psychological harm on communities, countries can consider two sets of solutions. In the short-term, governments can:
- Wield increased budget oversight for police. Ideally, police should not be empowered to buy combat-grade weapons without scrutiny.
- Encourage citizens to report police abuses to an anonymous and impartial watchdog hotline connected to a country’s equivalent of the Attorney General’s office, a Ministry of Justice official, or a Human Rights Prosecutor (if present).
- Construct a centralized database of officers, whether civilian police or military, who have received complaints regarding their behavior. Once a pre-determined number of complaints have been lodged, those individuals should be fired and not reassigned to another district.
- Construct a centralized database of police-distributed weapons, including the objects’ serial numbers, to prevent resale and thus address the spillover issue of rogue police militias.
The international community can also consider the following short-term actions:
- Refrain from tying international aid to explicit or implicit demands for hyper-militarized policing, arrest statistics, or similar incentives.
- Establish bilateral member-country-to-member-country task forces to assist regional governments with corruption oversight, since corruption is often tied to unaccountability for police violence. This could be coordinated by the OAS’s Inter-American Commission for Human Rights.
In the long-term, Latin American countries affected by hyper-militarized policing should realign national budgets to fund high-quality education, vocational training programs, and small business loans, as well as well-equipped mental health and medical facilities in low-resource areas. This should also be accompanied by financial oversight to make sure the funds do not get funneled to private militias or non-intended purposes. Furthermore, regional governments could draft and enforce an amnesty policy replete with personal protection and investment in former gang members who wish to leave their former lifestyle. Additional actions include funding and publicizing civil society initiatives for after-school programming, food distribution, and related gang-deterrent activities. Finally, governments should promote international civil-society partnerships to invest in core issues that drive civil unrest: employment, education, and access to basic goods and resources. The Catholic Church often provides social services to vulnerable populations in Brazil, while the International Work Group for Indigenous Affairs already has region-wide communication between different local civil society organizations.
Taken together, the short-term and long-term contributions of Latin American countries and international partners will be an important salve for the ills of hyper-militarized policing. With any or all of these initiatives, countries can illustrate to their citizenry that they are committed to not answering inequality with inequality or suppression with suppression.