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Argentina Struggles to Rein in Police Corruption

The arrest of four police accused of murdering a homeless man in order to boost their image illustrates that although Argentina is one of the safest countries in the hemisphere, police corruption and misconduct remain a serious problem.

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On February 10, a Buenos Aires judge ordered the arrest of four policemen for allegedly staging the January 2011 murder of Andres Lezcano, who had been working as a paid informant for police on the outskirts of the capital city. Prosecutors allege that the officers, in an attempt to regain status after losing some of their equipment, shot Lezcano and made it look as if he had been attempting an armed robbery. Lezcano, a lower-class drug addict, was apparently targeted because the officers thought no one would miss him after his death. According to leading Argentine daily Clarin, the case is an example of the “well-oiled mechanism of corruption” within the police force.

This case is not an isolated incident of misconduct. In January, a former intelligence analyst was accused of running a prostitution ring which stretched from Buenos Aires to Cancun, Mexico, which he allegedly protected by paying off 21 federal police. Also last month, six Buenos Aires police were arrested for torturing a motorcyclist who failed to stop at a police checkpoint, while 10 police in the southern province of Chubut were arrested for allegedly raping a 16-year-old girl in a police station.

Criminal activity and corruption amongst police has been a recurrent problem for Argentina over the past 30 years. After the country’s return to democracy in the 1980s, civilian governments found it difficult to rein in both the armed forces and police due to a lack of political sway. This changed in 2003, when Nestor Kirchner was elected. In his first year in office, Kirchner made a name for himself as a deft politician and a firm defender of accountability and human rights, vowing to comply with "the political and moral obligation to purify all the country's police forces.'' In response to reports of police collusion with kidnapping schemes in the capital, Kirchner ordered a thorough review of the Buenos Aires provincial force as a part of a broader national crackdown on impunity for officers.

Kirchner was succeeded in 2007 by his wife, Cristina Fernandez de Kirchner, who swore to continue his attack on corruption. Still, the country’s police continued to be plagued by misconduct, especially in Buenos Aires province. According to the US State Department’s 2010 Human Rights Report for Argentina, authorities investigated 13,619 provincial police in Buenos Aires in 2008-09 for "acts of corruption, violence, or irregularities in job performance."

This figure represents one quarter of the provincial police force and amounts to a 75 percent increase in investigations from 2006-07. The State Department also claims that since 2008, 1,172 provincial police officers have been fired and 1,779 reassigned to other positions. In an attempt to address the problem, Fernandez de Kirchner created a new security ministry in late 2010, appointing Nilda Garre as its head. During her time in office, the minister has called for a sweeping reform of the country’s federal police force, replacing the majority of its leadership, and has overseen record drug seizures.

Still, she has called police reform the “most complex and grave challenge” to accountability in the country, and kicked off this month with a vow to purge Argentina's police of corrupt elements. Given the historically entrenched level of corruption in the country, however, this could be a tall order.

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