Institutional Violence in the Time of Coronavirus: Argentina and its Democratic Deficit

Photography: Police officers and a youth during the lockdown in the city of Banfield, Province of Buenos Aires (Argentina), © Germán Romeo Pena

However, at the same time, this state of lockdown has led to institutional violence of alarming magnitude since it came into force on 20 March 2020. The country has been experiencing various forms of violations of fundamental rights caused by the actions of the security and police forces in the context of restriction of movement. The abuses which were registered were namely: intimidation, threats, arbitrary arrests, ill-treatment, beatings, torture, and even murder. In short, we are faced with practices of using excessive force that violate democracy in the country. This issue in particular is not new in Argentina, although it takes on different nuances in the current state of emergency. Moreover, the Decree started the deployment of the logic of securitization around COVID-19, i.e. the conversion of the pandemic into a security concern. This article will address all these topics.

This situation of extreme restrictions in Argentina came to be mentioned in national newspapers, institutional reports, and public statements. The issue has become so central that the President himself took a public stand, and even the opposition politicians from the centre-right and neoliberal Republican Proposal (Propuesta Republicana, PRO) political party expressed their views. There were also intense criticisms of the measures from civil society. In the following pages, a description of some of the acts of institutional violence during the lockdown, and the public debate generated by them, are depicted. At the same time, the conflicts and contradictions that have been observed around the construction of this problem and the agenda of intervention are identified within the present context of the COVID-19 pandemic. The current scenario exemplifies how authoritarianism is deeply rooted within the structures of the security and police forces in Argentina, and how lockdown becomes an opportunity for its intense deployment upon vulnerable populations.

Data Gives Cause for Alarm

On 5 April 2020, Amnesty International Argentina issued an alert about the actions of the security forces during the coronavirus lockdown, and expressed its concern about cases of excessive force. The institution presented requests for public information, on the one hand requesting details on the cases and the statistics produced on institutional violence, and on the other hand measures taken against those who abuse their office as well as victimize the public. Amnesty also sent a letter to the Minister of Defence, Sabina Frederic, regarding this issue. In the communiqué on these actions, Mariela Belski, the Executive Director of the institution, stated that: “the execution of the powers granted to the security forces must always be within the framework of absolute respect for the human rights of all people”.

In early April 2020, the death of Florencia Magalí Morales, who had been arrested for allegedly violating her solitary confinement, was announced. Shortly after her arrest on 6 April, Florencia was found hanged in her cell in a police station in the province of San Luis. Although an attempt was made to simulate a suicide, there are reasons to believe that she was in fact killed in detention. This is not an isolated death, the Coordinating Committee Against Police and Institutional Repression (Coordinadora contra la Represión Policial e Institucional, CORREPI) also denounced: “the forced disappearance followed by the death of Luis Armando Espinoza in Tucumán; the trigger-happy shootings of Alan Maidana in Berazategui and Lucas Barrios in Isla Maciel (18 shots at an unarmed boy!)”.

It is worth noting that Espinoza, a rural worker, was fatally shot in the back on 15 May 2020 by police personnel using their authorised weapons, and was then deprived of medical assistance and his body abandoned in another province, at the base of a cliff in Catamarca. The Prosecutor’s Office of the Monteros Judicial Centre in Tucumán requested the preventive detention of nine people accused of the crime, all police officers, for the crime of illegitimate deprivation of freedom followed by death. As a result of this event, the governor of the province of Tucumán, Juan Manzur, had to face the beginning of a purge of the provincial police.

The report on Criminal Assistance and Institutional Violence, produced by the Directorate of Assistance to Persons Deprived of their Liberty of the Public Defence Prosecutor of the Autonomous City of Buenos Aires, shows the irregularities and abuses committed by the local police at the beginning of the lockdown in that city. The conclusion of the study affirmed that, until 17 April 2020, there had been one case of institutional violence per day during the lockdown in the City of Buenos Aires. These results set off alarms for this public prosecutor. In response, the institution launched a public campaign denouncing the police violence during lockdown, and enabled communication channels that would improve the campaign’s implementation.

The aforementioned report states that between 20 March and 31 March 2020 the police attended 133 incidents in that jurisdiction, with more than half of those involved being detained under the figure provided for in the presidential decree of “resistance to authority” (article 239 of the Criminal Code). It is a noted pattern that the city police acted in these cases without legal justification to request the cessation of traffic on the public highway. The document concludes that the “lack of training by the city’s police personnel and the rest of the security forces to deal with the cases contemplated in Decree No. 297/2020 is notorious, and this is a reflection of the cases reported in which police action has been irregular, to say the least” (2020, p. 5).

The Public Defence Prosecutor produced a second report that revealed the same situation between 3 April and 12 May 2020. In a period of 50 days, 28 complaints of institutional violence were issued in the jurisdiction. In addition, cases of abuse against women were recorded. For example, a woman was arrested when she left her home to file a complaint of gender violence with the Office of Domestic Violence of the Supreme Court of Justice.

The media reported that in late April 2020 there were deep concerns in the national government about the increase in cases of abuse and institutional violence by the police in the Autonomous City of Buenos Aires and in the provinces of Buenos Aires, Jujuy, Mendoza, San Luis, and Tucumán. In fact, 13 cases of federal police officers committing acts of institutional violence were found. In addition, two officers were brought to justice and 31 are under investigation for events that took place while on duty, which resulted in their being dismissed from their positions.

Since 20 March 2020, CORREPI has been publishing regular reports on the application of the exceptional regulations for the containment of the pandemic, denouncing what it views as repression. They come from different cardinal points of the country and coincide in pointing out, on the part of the security and police forces, the actions of intimidation and beatings, the use of rubber and lead bullets, as well as the increase in arbitrary detentions and deaths. The main targets of these actions are the residents of poorer districts and especially their youth. On 3 June 2020, this organization published its report No. 47, which alarmingly states that more than ten million peoplenearly a quarter of the population of Argentinawere identified by the federal security forces as having violated the mandatory lockdown regulations, and according to official figures 93,177 people were detained. These numbers apply to the 75-day period after the lockdown came into force.

The Rhetoric Against Institutional Violence

The institutional violence that arose in Argentina during its lockdown gave rise to a public debate in the political sphere, in which the positions of the country’s highest authorities and the opposition are both expressed. On 2 June 2020, the President of the Nation, lawyer Alberto Fernández, spoke on Twitter about institutional violence in the province of Chaco against a Qom family. The president condemned police violence in his ‘@Alferdez‘ account, saying that these images were unacceptable. Although Fernández welcomed the governor’s measure to terminate the police officers involved, he also stated that “we must work more deeply on the problem that is the deficit of democracy”. Thus, the country’s highest political authority strongly criticizes the authoritarianism of the security forces, although its transformation requires a public policy programme of democratic security that is not yet being implemented.

The effects of these declarations were not delayed and the following day, on 3 June 2020, both the Minister of Security, anthropologist Sabina Frederic, and the National Secretariat of Human Rights, as well as the main opposition party PRO, publicly denounced institutional violence. The Minister published a total of three tweets on her Twitter account ‘@SabinaFrederic’ throughout the day, affirming the government’s principle of zero tolerance for institutional violence. Furthermore, Frederic affirmed the condemnation of abuse since her administration began, stressing that they would “not allow the use of security forces to commit crimes”. Also, the Minister affirmed that they “came to professionalize the forces”. Frederic clarified that the Ministry of Security “has no interference in the provincial forces”, and therefore “we demand that all jurisdictions exercise strict control over the actions of local forces”.

In the same train of thought, these words from Frederic emphasize both the illegality of these practices and the punishment they deserve, in the reforms planned for her mandate. However, the reproach does not necessarily take shape in the provinces where, in theory, the state lacks the power to implement legal sanctions. Many government initiatives have been implemented in response to these facts, among them the authorization of the telephone line 134 for reports of institutional violence. In addition, the Office of the Special Prosecutor for Institutional Violence (known as PROCUVIN), prepared a disclosure document detailing the powers of the security and police forces and what they are not allowed to do, including the mention of the rights of individuals facing punishment for violating lockdown.

In a communiqué issued on 3 June 2020, the National Secretariat for Human Rights reported on the monitoring of institutional violence, the implementation of institutional measures, and the accompaniment of victims who have been placed in quarantine, including the treatment of some of the most prominent cases. In the same statement, the Secretariat stated its positionand highlighted that it is a “hard and constant task carried out by the National Directorate of Policies against Institutional Violence”, with achievements resulting from the commitment of workers in the area, despite their having suffered budget cuts and job losses during the former administration. Thus, the Secretariat show a contrast between the human rights policy from the previous management of PRO with that of the Alliance “Let’s Change” (Cambiemos).

On the other hand, the PRO in its communiqué of 3 June 2020 which was disseminated on social networks, entitled “We say no to institutional violence”, maintained that it expressed its “condemnation of the serious acts of institutional violence”. In their statement they recall the cases of Morales, Maranguello, Espinoza, and the Qom family, for which they “demand the most rigorous investigation to identify those responsible and bring them to justice so that they can be held accountable for their actions”. The text goes on to state that in relation to the victims who suffered attacks in provinces governed by the Justicialist Party (the foremost Peronist party): “Provincial governments are responsible, they must express themselves and act in consequence”. For all these reasons, they conclude that:

The PRO demands full respect for constitutional guarantees and asks the National Government not to be indifferent because silence is the accomplice. Argentines want to live in peace and security. We want to feel cared for.

This communiqué is highly controversial due to the “heavy-handed” political line that this party held while it was at the head of the National Executive (2015–19). Moreover, this discursive position around human rights shows the cynicism of this political sector. Taking into account that during the PRO national administration, which ended barely six months ago, serious incidents of institutional violence took place against demonstrators in social protests, including the disappearance and death of Santiago Maldonado, which has become emblematic of the struggle against state and institutional violence.

This rhetoric against institutional violence has become a point of contention between opposing political forces. At the same time, these speeches are in tension with  the multiple acts of abuse from the security and police forces that have taken place throughout the country during the period of lockdown. This type of situation is very sensitive for Argentine society because of the immediate association with the massive human rights violations during the last military dictatorship (197683), and the continuity of the repressive apparatus during democracy. Hence the President himself speaks of a “deficit of democracy”, thus exposing the failure of security and police forces in the country by carrying out practices that violate fundamental rights.

Conclusions: The Urgent Need for Change

Beyond the condemnation of institutional violence which is coming from the highest political echelons of the country, the urgent need for change in security policies in Argentina is evident. The pandemic came to forcefully expose the serious deficiencies in terms of internal security when, even with partial statistics, the numbers are so alarming. Furthermore, it is possible to understand how dealing with this issue has triggered a securitization process. The above accounts show, time and again, the absolute difficulty that democratic institutional mechanisms have in channelling the real and concrete management of the security and police forces, in accordance with international human rights standards, in the midst of the crisis unleashed by COVID-19.

At the same time, they point towards the tensions between the responsibilities and competencies of the national and provincial levels in the face of these serious human rights violations, which must be prevented, investigated, and punished. The current facts are made possible by the authoritarian structure that thrives to this day in the security forces, and which is a legacy of both the dictatorship and democratic governments, as evidenced by the management of PRO and Cambiemos with their authoritarian practices in internal security.

The facts show that the violations of rights are mainly carried out against socially disadvantaged groups, such as the populations of humble neighbourhoods and native peoples, as well as women and informal workers. This situation is also not new and highlights practices previously established by these forces who seek control over territories and populations, where the use of force is correlated with structural social inequalities. The type of repressive practices that took place as a result of lockdown also show the greater violation of populations deprived of resources and with a more restricted access to their rights.

This abusive action by the security and police forces is reminiscent of moments in the country’s past and is intolerable for the vast majority of people living in Argentina. At the same time, they highlight the weaknesses of democracy almost 37 years after its reinstatement in the country. It should be borne in mind that, as the Inter-American Court of Human Rights has affirmed, any violation of human rights during a health emergency has serious implications in terms of disregarding the international human rights treaties they have signed up to. Without a doubt, the pandemic has shown that institutional violence in Argentina has not received sufficient attention during the period of democracy. That is why some kind of effective response from the state is greatly needed. Will this time of crisis that is the coronavirus pandemic finally promote democratic reforms to the state security policies, that guarantee respect for human rights?

[1]  I am especially grateful to Ailynn Torres Santana, Börries Nehe, and Mariano Féliz in the framework of our dialogues at IRGAC for their thoughtful readings and constructive suggestions on the first draft of this article. I would also like to acknowledge the generous support provided by Germán Romeo Pena, Laura Mercado, Cecilia Milesi, and Claudia Massot.