Leaders in Colombia and Buenos Aires Province, Argentina, overhauled their police institutions in 1993 and 1998, respectively. These reforms were a response to rising crime rates, as well as pervasive police violence, corruption and ineffectiveness in fighting crime.
Comprehensive police reform laws were crafted through broad political consensus. Lawmakers in the Colombian congress and the Buenos Aires provincial legislature enacted sweeping legislation to demilitarize, decentralize and professionalize Colombia’s National Police and the Police of Buenos Aires Province. The reforms also improved recruitment standards and training, strengthened oversight agencies and created formal spaces for community participation.
Former Colombian President Ernesto Samper during a nationally televised speech in 1995. Reuters/Jose Gomez
Only one year after reforms were passed, however, Ernesto Samper was elected president of Colombia. He vowed to undermine his predecessor’s dramatic overhaul of the National Police, saying his government would “let the police regulate itself.”
Similarly in Buenos Aires Province, Carlos Ruckauf was elected governor in 1999. He left his predecessor’s police reform legislation intact. However, he made his preferred approach to crime-fighting clear: “we have to hit the criminals with bullets.”
Both politicians used citizens’ concerns over rising crime to lead calls for greater police autonomy, in order to be “tougher” on crime. Under their administrations, hard-fought police reform gave way to periods of “counter-reform.” These were characterized by increased police autonomy, weakened accountability, militarization, unchecked corruption and extrajudicial killings.
Other research on policing in Latin America has provided compelling evidence of the impact of such political rhetoric. When politicians promoting “tougher” police strategies are elected, police killings and repression of citizens increase.
These examples reveal how the long-term aims of police reforms can be difficult to reconcile with the short-term goals of politicians. Read more
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