Latin America’s recent political upheavals could be a sign that populations are holding their governments accountable to the law. Still, there is a long way to go in terms of implementing effective policing and criminal justice reforms. World Policy Journal speaks with Mark Ungar, a professor of political science at Brooklyn College and an advisor to the United Nations, about community policing, environmental protection, and the rule of law across Latin America.
WORLD POLICY JOURNAL: One subject you focus on is community-oriented policing in the context of Latin America. Can you tell us a bit about what this entails?
MARK UNGAR: Community-oriented policing, or community policing, is the larger paradigm that some countries are trying to adopt, particularly after the failure of the mano dura, or the iron fist. The reactive, physical, largely militarized police response to crime hasn’t had much of an impact. More demands by communities to deal with the causes of insecurity rather than just responding to crime itself has led to most countries in the region adopting some form of community-oriented policing. Basically, the idea is citizens have some role in determining policy and evaluating it. This can be a very intensive and comprehensive role, such as in the province of Buenos Aires in the 90s where the whole police force was decentralized so that all the police would be local. Citizens had a role in forming policy, even in evaluating individual police officers. And then at the other end of the spectrum could be very basic programs like community meetings or groups working on neighborhood security, or groups working on issues of vulnerability, such as for youth or women. It’s the idea that citizens are engaged directly in policing and that there’s some sort of prevention and restructuring of the police so that they have to engage with citizens.
WPJ: Where has this reform been successful or unsuccessful, and why?
MU: It’s usually been unsuccessful, largely because police don’t want it. The police see community-oriented policing as a form of diminishing their power, their role, and their professionalism by giving citizens the power to form or evaluate policy. Because the police are also very powerful politically, this is seen as an affront and they’re able to resist it using political power. Often these programs that come with foreign aid money have trainings for police, but in many countries they’ll only send a couple of officers. Community policing is often successfully sidelined or placed at the margins of policing, and it gets a reputation as a sort of social work. Some police denigrate it as a form of nursing, and usually women who face sexism already are relegated to that role.
The police and the politicians, especially as crime rises, resist this reform, but that’s slowly changing because there’s more pressure by society and people are more organized. From Brazil to Honduras to Guatemala, there have been protests against government, so there’s more suspicion of government-led policies, more decentralization, and more ability to identify the sources of the problems. For instance, a lot of countries have adopted violence observatories in which citizens are more able to report crime and identify causes of crime. Those bottom-up pressures have led to countries taking it much more seriously. Perhaps the best example is the government of Honduras, where I was a part of the creation of a new police academy in which the full curriculum is based on community-oriented policing. It was a very future-oriented restructuring of the entire police based on community-oriented policing. Also, all the serving officers who haven’t graduated from the academy are being re-trained in community-oriented policing. If there’s some political will behind it, and if the old model has run its course, I think its open up space for this approach.
WPJ: What mechanisms need to be in place to prevent a rise in vigilantism, if there is such a threat?
MU: Vigilantism can be very broadly stated. In the work I’ve been doing on organized crime, one can think of a whole range of killings and armed violence by non-state groups. You have transnational narco-trafficking cartels, and all sorts of illegal networks for trafficking in persons, forestry, and pharmaceuticals, as well as money laundering. You have rural militias and police squads that are working for other actors, and you have a massive private security sector. These are legal businesses that are armed, but are often fronts for criminal activity. And at the lower level then you have gangs, neighborhood groups, the maras in Central America. All these groups are involved in vigilantism, if vigilantism is defined as taking the law into their own hands to the point of killing and armed violence. To prevent it, a whole range of issues need to be strengthened in terms of better policing. One of the fundamental tasks that Latin America has to undertake is criminal justice investigation procedures. The police aren’t trained, there aren’t enough prosecutors, there aren’t enough judges, there’s competition, there’s a lack of laboratories. On all fronts, criminal justice is poorly done, which allows vigilantism to flourish.
WPJ: What causes the lack of accountability in security forces, and what are some steps that can be taken to fix it?
MU: The lack of accountability is deeply rooted in history in terms of the political power of the police. They have a lot of sway over governments. If you think about Latin America just in the last year, Brazil, Guatemala, Venezuela, Ecuador, and Bolivia have all had huge protests. So the police have a large role in terms of keeping civil order and stopping threats against the government, and that gives them a lot of political power. This power was rooted in the authoritarian period in the last century, in which the police were very powerful under military governments. When democratization occurred, the police were never fully reformed because these governments had so many other issues to deal with and they didn’t want to poke the hornets’ nest and make an enemy out of a central state institution.
Police reform has been very slow, very gradual. Part of that has to do with the fact that the police don’t want to be held accountable. Throughout the region there can be external accountability, such as an ombudsman, or an internal accountability mechanism within the police. These bodies are in place in practically every country, but when there’s a serious charge against them, often those internal affairs offices don’t have much independence. They’re often threatened and lack political power. The lack of accountability is heavily rooted in all of these things. To improve it you need a change in political power. If these internal affairs agencies are given some political support by legislatures or reformist governments, then they can institutionalize their accountability function. To make reform happen, you often have to have emblematic cases, such as those of police killing—just today, there are reports about the government in Mexico undermining the investigation of students who were killed. A case in which the public is pressuring the government to hold the police accountable can finally give these institutions the ability to act.
WPJ: Are there any additional challenges to reforming police systems in countries with high levels of violence?
MU: In terms of policy coherence, a big issue is that governments change every couple of years. When governments are in power they often change the police chief and the minister in charge of policing. So many countries lack the political consistency to follow through with a community-policing plan. In terms of police accountability, even mediocre reforms often get derailed. There needs to be some sort of de-politicization, or at least some political consistency. If you look at Colombia, police reforms have been successful in the cities of Bogotá, Cali, and Medellín because the mayors served for many years and gained enough political support to see these reforms through. But in other countries, such as Mexico, the average police chief lasts a year or two, which is not enough time.
A second challenge really dedicating funding and ensuring transparency. Often the congresses in these countries don’t question the executive, so there’s not a lot of evaluation of policing. In that case what tends to happen is that when crime doesn’t go down, the executive doubles down and funds more police. All over Latin America you see this proliferation of agencies. In Central America, countries have a dozen agencies working on gangs. In Mexico, every six years the government completely reengineers the system and creates new forces, so there’s this a police-industrial complex, if you will, in terms of an overbearing police structure. The more it grows, the less accountable it becomes, and evaluating it becomes even more difficult.
WPJ: In your book Elusive Reform: Democracy and the Rule of Law in Latin America you also explore what you say is one of the region’s biggest challenges, which is establishing a rule of law. What has changed since you published the book in 2001?
MU: I would say that the recent political instability is actually a sign of the rule of law, in the sense of holding political actors accountable in the face of corruption scandals, questions about electoral integrity, questions of budget transparency, and nepotism. It may look like rule of law is becoming weaker in the region, but when judges and populations hold the elected officials more accountable, that means the rule of law is stronger. Also, the daily rule of law—such as police accountability and quicker judicial procedures—is gradually improving, but it’s very slow. An example is prison reform, where you see one of the biggest violations of rule of law. So many people are detained and held in prison without trial or before trial, and in inhumane and overcrowded conditions. Because there’s not a lot of political support for reform, change is very slow. However, there’s more attention paid to this issue, and more recognition of the fact that a lot of criminal activity starts in prisons, so prisons become incubators and networks of crime. That’s led to some reform. In terms of the rule of law broadly and holding officials accountable, it has gotten better. In terms of the logistics and mechanisms of the rule of law, improvements have been gradual.
WPJ: One of your recent projects has been about the enforcement of environmental regulations in the Amazon. What is the role of local law enforcement in implementing environmental regulations, and what are some of the greatest impediments to implementation?
MU: This connects to earlier questions about the rule of law—the Amazon, which is central to the world’s climate, is a huge issue, and there’s a lack of rule of law in terms of mass deforestation, pollution, and all sorts of disruption of the rainforest. In the past five years, the nine countries that share the Amazon region have created environmental police forces, environmental prosecutors, and environmental courts. In Brazil, which covers 60 percent of the Amazon, they backed that up with a lot of political support. The federal police wield strong technology, such as satellite images used to crack down on deforestation and pollution. Locally—and again this goes back to community policing—the state is using people on the ground to help. There are incentives not to cut down the rainforest, such as helping people involved in ecotourism. In Manaus, which is a free trade zone in Brazil, there is a lot of manufacturing and that gives people jobs in the city, so they don’t go out and cut down trees to earn a living. In the areas providing incentives, empowering people to report crimes—such as the burning of forests, illegal cattle ranching, killing of environmentalists, and making threats against environmentalists—goes a long way. That strategy is still in incipient stages, as the organized criminal networks committing these atrocities have the upper hand, but gradually governments are improving because they realize the importance of the rainforest.
This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.
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[Interview conducted by Greg Stryker]
[Photo courtesy of Mark Ungar]