Child Shooting Reflects Paraguay’s Authoritarian Past

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The scandal unleashed when Interpol agents in Paraguay shot dead a 4-year-old while working for a local drug trafficker will hit public confidence in law enforcement agencies, which are still struggling to escape the legacy of authoritarian rule.

Late Sunday night, a group of Paraguayan agents for international police agency Interpol opened fire on a civilian vehicle in Ciudad Este, killing a 4-year-old passenger. Although the victim is the son of two government employees, the agents said the killing was an error: they thought they were firing at a target selected by a local drug lord, who’d hired them as hitmen.

According to national newspaper ABC, earlier that night the four agents arrested a Brazilian national and forced him to hand over $25,000. This was only their first abuse of power: Interpol officers do not have the right to make arrests; only to issue warrants and aid local law enforcement.

According to testimony by the agents, they divided up the money then began driving around Ciudad Este in two separate vehicles, still holding the Brazilian hostage. One officer said they were following a car thought to belong to an enemy of Tomas Rojas, one of Ciudad Este’s more powerful drug traffickers. The agents had orders to follow and kill Rojas’ rival, but they panicked and opened fire when another car approached them, reportedly driving in a “zig zag” pattern which alarmed them. The child died in the resulting shoot-out.

The corruption and incompetence of these Interpol agents is added to doubts about Paraguay’s local law enforcement bodies. One spokesperson recently said that less than a third of the Paraguayan National Police (PNP) actually conduct street patrols, with the majority of the 24,000-plus employees responsible for bureaucratic tasks. Rogue elements of the police are known to collude with drug gangs, especially in contraband hotspots like the “Tri-Border” region, where Ciudad Este is based.

Besides pervasive corruption, incidents of police brutality have done much to undermine public trust in Paraguay’s law enforcement. One recent case involves the killing of a young street musician in late August, shot in the back during what should have been a routine search. The incident prompted widespread protests. Police commander Idalino Bianconi did not help matters when he commented that the death was a “normal accident which happens and will continue to happen.”

Following the Interpol scandal, the interior minister made the expected pronouncements that the state will take new steps against police misconduct. But discussing the many actions needed to build a more efficient police force — including the sanctioning of corrupt officers, who typically remain on the job even while being investigated — obscures the most basic task facing the government. It’s not just that police need better training and oversight: Paraguay’s police still need to learn how to act as an investigative body, not just a repressive one.

Ongoing police abuse and corruption in Paraguay is a lingering symptom of the country’s authoritarian government under General Alfredo Stroessner, who ruled for 55 years before being ousted in 1989. The main role of the police during these years was to back the regime. In some ways, the killing of the young street musician, alongside many other incidents of police brutality, is a product of what the police were trained to do during the Stroessner years: shoot to kill.

Paraguay officially adopted a reformed set of criminal laws in 1997 and 1998, intended to restructure the police as a more investigative force, among other things. Other security initiatives have been passed since then, but it’s clear that, over a decade later, the police are still in serious need of professionalization. Conducting a thorough investigation of the Interpol killing is one small step that the PNP can take towards rebuilding their reputation.

In many ways, the government is still facing the delicate work of transitioning into a healthy democracy. By taking the appropriate moves to punish corrupt officers and stop the excessive use of force, Paraguay may begin to leave its authoritarian legacy behind.

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