Human Rights Watch - CELS

Police Brutality Exacerbates Climate of Fear in Argentina

Security Forces Require Professionalization and Oversight, Say Rights Groups

(Buenos Aires, Argentina, October 21, 1998)- Two major human rights groups today
accused the Argentine police of excessive violence and corruption, and charged
that abusive police practices are exacerbating the problem of deteriorating
public safety in Argentina.

The Argentine Center for Legal and Social Studies (Centro de Estudios Legales y
Sociales, CELS) and Human Rights Watch, the largest U.S.-based human rights
organization, describe widespread police brutality, torture of suspected
criminals, corruption among high-level police officials, legislation that
violates basic rights, and insufficient control by judicial and civilian
authorities over police forces.   The report is the first of its kind, to focus
exclusively on police abuse in Argentina.

In light of the disturbing findings of the 250-page report, the groups expressed
concern over recent statements by Argentine President Carlos Saúl Menem that a
"hard line" must be taken to combat crime, and that "some human rights
organizations can protest, but I think that criminals have more protection here
than the police or the people." Escalating levels of crime have diminished
public safety and have led to a generalized feeling of insecurity among the
Argentine population.

"Given the police force's history of brutal behavior, the president's call for
more aggressive policing is troubling, indeed," said Martín Abregú, executive
director of CELS.  "His statements are counterproductive at a time when it is
critical for police forces to hold their agents accountable for abuses. 
Currently too many police agents, instead of fighting crime and apprehending
criminals, have become criminals themselves, contributing to the climate of fear
in many cities."

José Miguel Vivanco, executive director of the Americas Division of Human Rights
Watch, noted that both federal and provincial police forces must initiate
widespread reforms to ensure respect for international human rights standards.
"Police forces must be professionalized and be subject to independent, external
control to curb police brutality in Argentina," said Vivanco.  "Reform at all
levels-national, regional, and local-is necessary both to comply with
international standards and to make police forces more efficient and
productive," added Vivanco.  

The joint report by CELS and Human Rights Watch, "Exacerbating Insecurity:
Police Brutality in Argentina" is the result of more than two years of
investigation throughout Argentina.  Some of the abuses documented in the report

  *"Disappearances" in police custody;
   *Killings by police in alleged "shoot-outs," in which investigations often
demonstrated that the police shot the victims point-blank and then fabricated
evidence of a shoot-out (such as the planting of a gun on the victim's body);
  * The killing of innocent bystanders during armed confrontations between the
police and criminal suspects;
  * Deaths in police custody, frequently after torture to force confessions,
later often described as suicide;
  * "Easy trigger" cases in which police officers shot to kill rather than
seeking to detain suspects (sometimes due to minor provocations);
  * Excessive use of force in controlling demonstrations, such as an August 13,
1998 incident in which the provincial police in Jujuy province used batons, tear
gas, and rubber bullets against public employees demanding payment of back
salaries, leaving thirty wounded;
    *Harassment of or attacks on witnesses to these crimes.

The report describes structural problems that range from the practice of
requiring off-duty agents to carry firearms to legislation that permits, or even
endorses, abusive behavior.  For example, police agents have the authority to
detain an individual for unconventional reasons, including for verification of
identity and for suspected criminal background, a practice that severely
threatens the basic rights of individuals.  CELS and Human Rights Watch note
that individuals detained for these superfluous reasons are the most frequent
victims of torture or death while in police custody.
One of the most serious impediments to accountability documented in the report
is the frequent cover-up of crimes by security forces.   Official version of
events given by police forces often make it impossible to present contrary
evidence to the courts.  Furthermore, judicial authorities often do not fully
investigate crimes committed by security agents.  Because of the widespread
impunity currently enjoyed by abusive and corrupt members of police forces, any
reform to address these problems must ensure the prosecution and punishment of
past crimes and the enactment of a legal framework that adequately sanctions
grave violations of human rights.

The report recommends a number of concrete measures to professionalize the
police force and curtail abuses by police agents, including criminal and
administrative prosecution of police officers involved in human rights
violations, the protection of witnesses testifying against police agents, and
the elimination of police agents' obligation to carry firearms even when off

For more information,
  in Buenos Aires contact: Martín Abregú, José Miguel Vivanco
                          541-371-9968, 371-3790, 375-2075 
  in Washington contact: Joel Solomon, 1-202-371-6592  
  in New York contact: Carroll Bogert, 1-212-216-1244
  in Brussels contact: Jean Paul Marthoz, 322-736-7838

Human Rights in Argentina

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