MEXICO CITY – Several major murders by police officers and thousands of arrests for violations of measures intended to curb the spread of the coronavirus have rocked Latin America. It’s an area familiar with police brutality, but many believe the pandemic has become a new excuse for security forces to violently crack down.
Last month, Mexican police arrested Giovanni López, a 30-year-old mason, for not wearing a face mask as passers-by pleaded for his release. His body was later discovered in hospital and an autopsy revealed that the cause of death was blunt trauma to the head.
In Argentina, police officers beat and detained Luis Espinoza, a 31-year-old laborer, during an operation in May to ensure compliance with quarantine measures. His body was found in a ditch after a week of searching. Nine cops have been arrested in connection with the ongoing investigation.
“The police believe that there is another good excuse to be reckless, to do some social control and to apply aggressively in the name of a pandemic,” said José Miguel Vivanco, executive director of the Americas division of Human Rights. Watch.
As protests spread across the United States and other major cities around the world over the murder of George Floyd by a police officer in Minneapolis, anger over cases of police brutality has reignited in Latin America.
On Thursday, a protest erupted over López’s murder in Guadalajara, Mexico’s second largest city. Police fired tear gas at protesters, who destroyed and burned vehicles outside the government building. A demonstrator poured out flammable liquid on an officer’s uniform, which caught fire.
Protesters in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil last week called for an end to police brutality after the death of 14-year-old João Pedro Matos Pinto in a police raid. Like 75% of those killed by cops in Brazil, Pinto was black. Protesters carried Black Lives Matter signs echoing events in the United States.
Police abuses have been rife in Latin America for decades, with security forces often violently suppressing political dissent and carrying out extrajudicial killings. Rather than creating a sense of trust, the cops are generally seen as the cause of problems. According to a 2010 report of police misconduct in the region, over 44% of survey respondents said their local police departments were involved in crimes.
And yet, some Latin American governments have recently made efforts to extend protection for police officers. Last month Peru passed a law eliminating the requirement that the use of force be proportionate. In Chile last year, after weeks of mass protests – in which the United Nations said the police and the army have committed human rights violations – President Sebastián Piñera has presented a bill aimed at “strengthening the protection of the security forces”.
As the coronavirus spreads rapidly in the region and governments adopt policies to try to contain it, including mandatory curfews and lockdowns, police feel their role has been enforced and legitimized, warn. experts. Among the thousands of arrests for quarantine and health violations – in Peru alone, more than 33,000 people have been detained during the first two weeks of the state of emergency declared by President Martín Vizcarra – some appear to have been unwarranted and sometimes violent.
In El Salvador, Cindy Reyes was arrested by police as she took her 4-year-old son into an outhouse. Like many of those arrested, Reyes has virtually no access to a skilled defense team. In Peru, police dragged a man into a police van after crossing the street in front of his apartment building to dispose of garbage. It was after the 8 pm national curfew.
Lopez’s case in Mexico has been widely condemned. Guillermo del Toro, an Oscar-winning director, tweeted his anger.
Some officials dismissed criticism of the abuse by police and protesters, saying they were trying to politically destabilize their cities or countries. Echoing claims by some U.S. governors that protests were led by outside agitators, Jalisco state governor Enrique Alfaro said protests had been planned from Mexico City.
“They wanted to provoke the government,” Alfaro said during a recorded message, referring to the demonstrators. But the Guadalajara police, he added, “knew how to resist”.