HRW Rails Against LatAm’s Justice Failings in New Report

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Abusive security forces, weak and corrupt justice systems and inhuman prison conditions are impacting human rights in Latin America and the Caribbean, Human Rights Watch (HRW) said in its World Report 2015. Below InSight Crime examines some of the most flagrant cases from the region, as these issues complicate the struggle against organized crime.

Abusive Security Forces

While abuse by security forces was noted in all of the 13 Latin American and Caribbean nations surveyed, Mexico’s heavy use of military forces in fighting drug cartels received special mention. Started in 2007 under then-President Felipe Calderon, the strategy has resulted in “an epidemic of summary executions, enforced disappearances, and torture by the military and police,” HRW said. Current President Enrique Peña Nieto has offered new rhetoric but failed to address the corruption and impunity that allow human rights violations by security forces to flourish. While the situation remains ongoing, significant aid continues to flow from the US, which avoids calling out Mexico’s abusive security forces for fear of political repercussions, the report added.

Brazil is in a similar situation, with more than 2,200 people killed during police operations in 2013. Police routinely blame these deaths on shoot-outs with criminals, although HRW and others have documented cases to the contrary. Despite efforts to prevent cover-ups of unlawful police killings, scant resources are being allocated to investigating these cases, the report said.

Weak and Corrupt Justice Systems

Failing justice systems were particularly noted in the Central American nations of Guatemala and Honduras. Corrupt and ineffective courts have hindered the prosecution of powerful criminal organizations within both countries. In Honduras, corrupt courts are presided over by judges subject to intimidation and political interference, with reform efforts making little progress. A similar situation in Guatemala has resulted in high levels of impunity, allowing organized crime to engage in “widespread acts of violence and extortion,” HRW said.

However the report did note some progress in Guatemala. In February nine members of the Zetas cartel were convicted for the massacre of 27 farmers in 2011 in the northern Peten region.

Inhumane Prisons

The prison systems of Brazil and Venezuela received HRW’s harshest reviews. Between 2006 and 2013, Brazil’s incarceration rate rose 45 percent, resulting in an adult prison population of over half a million and a prison system 37 percent over capacity. Brazil’s sluggish justice system compounded overcrowding, with over 230,000 individuals being held in pretrial detention. Rampant violence resulted in 60 inmates killed during 2013. In a particularly horrific incident, footage was released showing the decapitated corpses of three inmates killed by fellow prisoners at a prison complex in Maranhão state in December 2013. Police and prison staff are also perpetrators of violence. Between January 2012 and June 2014, 84 percent of torture complaints received by Brazil’s human rights ombudsman referred to incidents occurring in police stations and detention centers, HRW said.

Violence in Venezuelan prisons is even worse, with at least 150 inmates killed in 2014, according to unofficial statistics. As of August, Venezuelan prisons held approximately 55,000 inmates — most in pretrial detention — in a prison system with a 19,000 inmate capacity, HRW said, citing the Venezuelan Prisons Observatory.

Prison violence and overcrowding were also observed in the rest of the 13 Latin American and Caribbean nations HRW examined. Moreover, criminal gangs were noted to be exerting control or influence among the majority of prison populations, usually as a result of prison system corruption.

Human Rights and Organized Crime

During times of crisis, governments are often quick to put public security concerns above human rights, said HRW Executive Director Kenneth Roth in the report’s keynote. The approach is shortsighted and counterproductive. “Human rights violations played a major role in spawning or aggravating most of today’s crises,” Roth said.

In Latin America and the Caribbean, human rights violations have hurt the legitimacy of security forces and courts, making their fight against organized crime even harder. In extreme cases citizens have resorted to self-defense groups and vigilantism, adding more capacity for violence to already volatile scenarios. 

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