Latin America Advisor

A Daily Publication of The Dialogue

Will Police Forces Undergo Reforms in Latin America?

Following the killing of George Floyd last month in the United States, protesters have taken to the streets in recent weeks in Latin America to demand police reforms. // File Photo: pxfuel. Following the killing of George Floyd last month in the United States, protesters have taken to the streets in recent weeks in Latin America to demand police reforms. // File Photo: pxfuel.

The killing of George Floyd, the black man who died May 25 in Minneapolis after a white police officer knelt on his neck for nearly nine minutes, has triggered protests in the United States and around the world against police brutality, racism and impunity. In Latin America, demonstrators have converged in locations including the Brazilian cities of Rio de Janeiro and Curitiba to protest crimes that police have committed against black people. In Mexico, protests erupted in Guadalajara, where protesters accused police of fatally beating a construction worker. What changes will result from the outrage in Latin America? Will police reforms occur in the region, and if so, what will they consist of? Where have police reforms succeeded, and how can they serve as a model for Latin American countries?

Gladys Mitchell-Walthour, co-coordinator of the U.S. Network for Democracy in Brazil and associate professor of public policy and political economy in the Department of African and African Diaspora Studies at the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee: “Black movement activists in Brazil and throughout Latin America have fought against police execution of blacks since the early 20th century. Brazilian activists often refer to police violence against blacks as black genocide because the country kills such a high number of Afro-descendants. Groups such as Mothers of May (formed in São Paulo in 2006) and React or Be Killed (formed in Salvador in 2005) began before the U.S.-based Black Lives Matter, which began in 2013. Afro-Brazilians are three times more likely than whites to be killed by police, and more than 15 times the number of Afro-Brazilians are killed by police in Brazil than black Americans are killed by police officers in the United States. Black Brazilians live in a genocidal country. Black Brazilian activists consider the myriad ways the state kills black people through low quality health care and little to no job prospects so that people are forced to engage in the informal economy. Police reform will not solve the problem of high unemployment and poverty in the Americas. Yet, addressing police violence is extremely important as police officers disproportionately kill Afro-descendants. It is not clear to me that protests in Brazil under an extreme right government will lead to police reform. Marielle Franco, a black activist and politician in Rio de Janeiro who was assassinated in 2018, advocated for a demilitarization of the police. Police officers and secret squads should not have access to military-style weapons and vehicles. Lastly, as Franco advocated, economic and educational opportunities must be afforded to favela residents.”

Yanilda María González, assistant professor in the School of Social Service Administration at the University of Chicago: “Latin Americans have taken to the streets to protest ongoing deadly police violence, evoking historic protests taking place throughout the United States. But it’s far from clear whether Latin American police will face the types of reforms that have been enacted or announced by U.S. officials. My research on policing in Argentina, Brazil and Colombia shows how citizen demand-making and political competition often drive police reform outcomes. I find that when politicians do not perceive a broadly shared societal demand for reform nor face an electoral threat, they are reluctant to enact profound police reforms, which risk alienating a powerful bureaucracy whose cooperation they need. My work demonstrates that comprehensive police reforms are more likely when demands for police reform are shared by broad sectors of society—cutting across usual cleavages of race, class and geography—and when executives face a robust political opposition. These conditions led to the adoption of ambitious and far-reaching police reforms in Colombia and Argentina’s Buenos Aires province in the 1990s. In the absence of a shared societal consensus in favor of police reform and an electoral threat, politicians are unlikely to confront their police forces with challenging reforms, preferring instead to undertake symbolic measures such as firing a high-ranking official while leaving police autonomy and structures intact. Latin America’s police forces are in dire need of an overhaul, but such comprehensive reforms remain fragile even after they are enacted, often succumbing to police resistance and societal divisions. The pendulum has swung toward reform in the United States, but it remains to be seen whether societal and political conditions in Latin American countries today will generate a similar reckoning.”

Lucia Dammert, professor of international relations at the University of Santiago in Chile: “Police reform has been elusive in Latin America. Although being implemented for almost three decades, most initiatives have failed to increase accountability, transparency and civil control over police institutions. This is mostly due to lack of sustainable political will to implement structural reforms, punitive populism that fuels debate strengthening police forces and even the discretionary use of violence, and strong political power of police institutions that thwart any reform process. In the post-Covid-19 era, police reforms will be harder to implement as governments need a strong force on the streets to ensure social distancing and other health-related measures in addition to crime control. Crime will increase due to economic crises, and police forces will continue to be the backbone of even weaker democracies.”

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