How the US Can Aid Police Reform in Latin America

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A Center for Strategic and International Studies report looks at how US can help police reform in Latin America, but its analysis of where the needs are greatest may overlook some countries further from the US border.

Police Reform in Latin America: Implications for US Policy,” published by the Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS), approaches the issue of police reform from an outside donor perspective. Noting the inconsistency of US-led initiatives historically, and the need to re-address the issue, the report leads with two questions: “Why spend (US) tax dollars on this?” and “Where are the needs greatest?”

The report cites figures suggesting more than a quarter of Latin Americans have “no confidence” in the police, while 44 percent believe their police force to be involved in crime. Some 31 percent of citizens believe corruption to be the primary problem in the police, while over 22 percent seeing it as being under-staffing.

Despite this prevalence of public mistrust toward police in Latin America, the report notes that no single solution can be proposed for the region. It cites differences relating to countries’ societies and institutional capacities, who has control over the police force, and past failings by the US in aiding reform.

The CSIS suggests centralizing US-aided efforts through a single agency to avoid inefficient and “piecemeal implementation.” It also says there is a need for international coordination, thanks to the growing number of multilateral agencies involved in the reform agenda.

Among other recommendations propounded by the authors are:

Anticipate that citizen security will continue to surpass traditional defense threats in many Latin American countries, making the need to address societal issues (education, poverty, underemployment) of pressing concern if a fertile environment for police reform measures is to be built.

Prioritize US aid for police reform for countries that demonstrate commitment to the agenda; those with low political will for reform, such as Guatemala, need more diplomatic pressure.

Make Mexico the first investment priority and its Central American neighbors a secondary target.

The CSIS also notes “future challenges” that could arise in Bolivia, Venezuela and Cuba, but says that the political situations in these countries mean US assistance is less practical.

Though the report’s recommendations are a useful addition to the debate, the categorizations of countries into those of greater and lesser need, and the resulting framework for prioritization, risk misrepresenting the situation.

For example, Brazil and Colombia are categorized as countries “Where needs are less.” On Brazil, the report says the overriding concern is the need to “better train and equip” the police force to face the threat from drug lords and criminal gangs in the country’s favelas. While this is valid, it ignores the well documented problem of police-run militias, which have a presence in 11 of Brazil’s 27 states, providing bootleg public services and forming death squads.

Brazil has undertaken an ambitious reform program on its own, and is far wealthier than many other countries in the region. It is therefore less in need to US assistance. However, by not mentioning the unique dynamic of police corruption in the country, the report risks misrepresenting the issue. In Colombia, likewise, the CSIS points to an expansion in police numbers as a wholly positive development, without exploring the level of corruption

The categorization of countries “Where needs are greater” for US-aided reform follows the path north toward the US border. Thanks to its proximity to the US, and notoriety internationally as the center of the drug war, Mexico gets special attention. The report gives damning statistics on the number of crimes investigated and sent to court in Mexico, and notes that police receive low wages and can often earn more by collaborating with drug gangs.

While this is valid, the case of Honduras, where the level and nature of corruption is more severe, receives comparatively scant attention.

As InSight Crime has noted, Honduras presents an extreme example of police corruption. Some Honduran officials have not only been corrupted but are themselves instigators of the violence consuming the country. Examples include cases ranging from alleged police involvement in the murder of two university students last year, to prison officials collaborating with inmates, allegedly releasing them on a weekly basis to traffic drugs. Impunity rates are in the 90 percent bracket, according to some reports, not unlike Mexico, yet this receives little mention by the CSIS. A staggering 72 percent of the Honduran public don’t feel safe with their police force.

The report does highlight the criminal infiltration of the Honduran police, pointing to reports of officers working as “air traffic controllers” for drug flights. In Honduras, the CSIS rightly says that reform of police and justice institutions should be prioritized over the need to train and equip.

The report concludes that the US should make Mexico the first investment priority for police and justice reform. Honduras and the rest of Central America come second, and Haiti third. South American countries presumably come a distant fourth, suggesting a shift in US security priorities as they apply to the region.

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