Why is police reform in Argentina so difficult? This article examines three obstacles to police reform: 1) federal institutions that magnify the effects of disputes over the police among national, provincial, and municipal government; 2) illicit benefits for political parties from unreformed police forces; and 3) deep ideological divisions within civil society over the appropriate policy response to increasing levels of crime. Each of these obstacles has generated an important, yet distinct, paradox. Efforts to improve police institutions must be intensified, but with a more accurate and detailed understanding of the paradoxes to be overcome.
Police criminality has emerged as one of the most pressing and intractable political problems in Argentina’s post-authoritarian period. While not all Argentine police officers engage in brutality and predation, police institutions are hamstrung by significant financial and organisational weaknesses. These include low wages, an overly hierarchical command structure, and excessively militarised training. In addition to their negative impact on civil and political rights, corrupt and ineffective police institutions are also a threat to democracy because they encourage the call for military leaders to step back into the internal policing roles for which they are poorly suited.
Past reform proposals have involved: encouraging the police to defend individuals rather than governments; reducing the power of governors relative to mayors and civil society groups; and challenging the police’s role in criminal investigations. These proposals have sought to address long-standing features of Argentina’s policing structure:
- Argentina’s police force originated as a highly militarised body set up to defend the state from political threats, not to protect individual citizens.
- Municipal governments are denied formal control over the provincial police units that operate in their jurisdictions, perpetuating inter-governmental tensions.
- Provincial police chiefs oversee a unified and highly hierarchical command structure that fuses crime investigation and crime prevention; police officers can detain individuals without warrants and hold them for significant periods of time, and can also substantially control the investigation into any alleged crimes.
Three paradoxes have hindered attempts at reform, however:
- Reform efforts at one level of government in Argentina have been sabotaged by officials at other levels of government.
- Electoral pressures have both pushed police reform onto the policy agenda and obstructed reform because politicians depend on illicit party-police networks for campaign financing.
- Despite copious evidence of police involvement in criminal acts, Argentina’s crime wave has energised conservative civil society groups whose demand for a heavy-handed response to crime has derailed the most promising attempts to restructure the police force.
As demands escalate that the government ‘do something’ about crime, the incentive to reverse the demilitarisation of internal security – so recently achieved in Argentina and so hard won – is likely to grow. This is bad for the armed forces that mostly try to resist the call, bad for police forces because it reduces pressure on them to improve their performance, and bad for democracy because military intervention in internal security has traditionally resulted in authoritarianism. Therefore, while police reform is very difficult in Argentina, it must be urgently addressed – informed by detailed understanding of the obstacles to reform and the paradoxes they generate.