INJUSTICE FOR ALL Crime and Impunity in Latin America

September 25, 2007

This past April, a former police officer was convicted in Rio de Janeiro for the
1993 shooting of one of seven street children gunned down in front of the
Candeldria church. The ex-officer, Marcus Borges Emanuel, admitted that
police officers killed street kids in order to earn extra money from local shop-
keepers. The police who participated in the killings with him, he said, were especially
angry because the children had thrown stones at a police car the day before the shootings.
This outrageous story highlights several of the themes discussed in this NACLA report
on crime and impunity.
Crime is on the rise in Latin America. This surge in crime is intimately linked to the neoliberal policies
that have been implemented regionwide over the past decade. Growing poverty and inequality force many,
especially young people, to turn to crime to survive. Yet identifying the social roots of the problem does
not alleviate the anxiety it produces-not only among the well-to-do, who feel that they are the main vic-
tims of crime, but among the poor as well, who are in fact the primary victims of violent crime.
Consequently, governments that promise to "get tough" on crime are broadly popular, and official abuse
against suspected criminals is widely tolerated. In some countries, police violence goes hand-in-hand with
vigilantism, in which local groups deal with alleged criminals by taking the law into their own hands.
If neoliberalism is the underlying cause of Latin America's crime wave, then the brutal way state agents
deal with suspected criminals is rooted in the authoritarian legacy of military rule. Official violence has
continued unabated, and in many countries the same tactics used against political dissidents during the dic-
tatorship-arbitrary arrest, deadly force, torture-are used against activists as well as the more diffuse "criminal element" of society, i.e. the poor. Rarely are official acts of violence punished, enveloping police
abuse in a cloak of impunity that serves to encourage more official violence.
The region's "new" democracies have failed to maintain public order and guarantee the rule of law for
all citizens. Courts are underfinanced and understaffed, and corruption is rampant. Because cops are poorly
trained at collecting evidence-often preferring to plant evidence or torture suspects into confessing-
guilty parties go free while innocents often get tangled in bureaucracies that would astonish Kafka. The
official abuse extends to the prison system, where rehabilitation is not even a concept, and prisoners endure
inhumane conditions, extensive overcrowding and physical abuse. In order to overcome these failures of
the judicial system, Colombia and Peru have created "faceless" courts-ostensibly to prosecute cases of
narcotics and "subversion"-that have the intended effect of "chilling" social protest. To ensure high con-
viction rates, these courts stack the deck against defendants, effectively destroying due process. Throughout
the region, the rotten system is sealed with widespread impunity for official violence and white-collar
crime. As a result, ordinary people believe that the judicial system exists not to provide equality under the
law, but to protect the wealthy and powerful.
In these "democracies without citizenship," as Paulo S6rgio Pinheiro calls them, democratic institutions
must be made to function for ordinary citizens. As several authors in this issue suggest, the impetus for such
changes must come from below-from citizens' groups, NGOs and community organizations. The left must
also take this issue head on, by developing concrete proposals to deal with the growing problem of crime
in the region and the real anxiety it produces for ordinary people. Denouncing neoliberalism as the root of
crime is not enough. The left must also devise ways to make the institutions charged with law enforcement
function more effectively and more democratically. This will also go a long way in addressing the region-
wide problem of impunity. Otherwise, police forces that act like vigilantes, "faceless" courts and lynchings
will continue to assure "injustice for all."


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