From issue: Trafficking and Transnational Crime (Spring 2010)
The Right To Justice
Effective (and honest) policing is a human right.
The most pressing threat to the rule of law in Latin America used to be political violence. Today it is law enforcement—or the lack thereof—in countries plagued by violent crime.
The need for more effective policing is a top public concern in much of the region. And with good reason. People have a right, well-established in international human rights law,1 to be protected from violent crime, as well as a right to justice when they are its victims. Yet in many countries, law enforcement agencies find themselves outgunned, literally and figuratively, by criminal organizations that are powerful, well-funded and extremely violent. Politicians routinely respond to the legitimate demand for better policing by promising to “get tough” on crime. But it’s one thing to be tough, and quite another to be effective.
Too often, getting tough means condoning abusive police practices that not only undermine the rule of law by violating basic rights, but also fail to curb crime.
Take for example the use of torture by the police in Mexico. Despite countless reports from national and international human rights monitors2 documenting the problem over the years, many Mexican police continue to torture for a simple reason: they find it easier to beat confessions out of people than to conduct the serious investigations that could solve crimes. Mexican judges routinely accept the coerced confessions as proof of guilt, even when the victims retract them later at trial. The outcome is disastrous for both human rights and public security: innocent people are convicted of crimes they didn’t commit, while the criminals remain at large.
Another example: the use of lethal force by police in Brazil. The Rio de Janeiro and São Paulo state police forces have killed more than 11,000 people in the past six years. The Rio police alone have killed, on average, more than 1,000 people a year, three times the number killed annually by police in the entire United States. In recent years, the São Paulo police have killed fewer people than their Rio counterparts but more than the police in all of South Africa, a country with a much higher homicide rate than São Paulo.
The Rio and São Paulo police claim that nearly all these killings have been the result of shootouts initiated by criminal suspects. Given that both states are plagued by heavily armed and extremely violent gangs, this probably explains some cases. Yet many of these alleged shootouts are in fact extrajudicial executions...