Death Squad Justice in Latin America

(International Relations and Security Network, 19/09/2005)


Off-duty cops went on a killing rampage in late March this year in a Rio de Janeiro metropolitan area community, and by the time they finished, 30 people had been executed.


The cops set out to kill in response to unpopular decisions made by their commanding officer. This community of three million inhabitants, known as Baixada Fluminense, currently registers over 2,000 murders a year, or 74 deaths for every 100,000 habitants. A peak of 95.5 deaths per 100,000 habitants was registered in 1989.


The off-duty cops knew before they fired the first bullet that there would be no reprisal for their murderous activities that night.


"Violence is politics in Baixada Fluminense," Brazilian sociologist and author Jose Claudio Souza Alves wrote in an essay on the recent massacre in Rio. He adds, "The political trajectory of various members of extermination groups, who are elected [because of] their notoriety acquired while they were killers, gives us [an idea] of the dimension of the tragedy [suffered] by thousands of people whose only concept of public security was given by the action of death squads."


What's more, those who vote in Baixada Fluminense represent 25 per cent of the voting public in one of Brazil's most influential states.


In Baixada Fluminense, and other poor communities throughout the country, less than 8 per cent of all homicide cases are even tried, and in those that are brought to trial, prosecutors never find witnesses to the murder. In an interview with Amnesty International, Secretary of Security for Rio de Janeiro Marcelo Itagiba pointed out that murder cases could not be tried on forensic evidence alone. Witnesses are needed.


"And in these types of cases, witnesses are hard to come by," Amnesty International Brazil Researcher Tim Cahill told ISN Security Watch. "[These types of cases] take ten to 15 years to come to court, and by then it's very hard to prosecute," he said.


"It was disappointing to see how the federal authorities didn't make much more of [the massacre]," Cahill commented, adding, "The relative lack of federal attention [to this massacre] reflects a policy of avoiding any issue related to public security problems in the country."


Yet death squads are difficult to detect, track, and capture because of their random nature of organization. "So-called 'death squads' disperse with the same speed at which they come together," Brazilian National Secretary of Public Security Luiz Fernando Correa told ISN Security Watch.


In areas like Baixada Fluminense, there is no police presence, and those that come to do business are only respected if they play by the local rules, where killers are respected and those who want to play fair just end up dead.


This microcosm of Brazil, where life is cheap and the force of a speeding bullet drives politics, is representative of thousands of communities throughout the Americas where there is a strong motivation to deliver hard and fast justice that will never come through legal routes.


Operation Tentaculos


The Brazilian Federal Police concluded Operation Tentaculos on 16 July, working together with the Secretary of Security of the state of Parana to capture over 20 men who were suspected of forming extermination groups that carried out some 30 extrajudicial killings in the area.


The Brazilian police organized the operation to capture former members of the Military Police of Parana, who executed their boss, Major Pedro Plocharski, in January. The police planned to kill their boss when they learned that he intended to suspend them from duty for the extrajudicial killing of two drug dealers.


Death squads and the criminal acts that follow are symptoms of a larger problem within Brazil, and other Latin American countries, where a long-overdue need for security sector reform manifests itself in police impunity, extrajudicial killings, and criminal activity.


The time and political capital required to theorize, legally frame, and successfully implement security sector reform is staggering, so the task is shelved and left for future generations.


Death squads are perhaps the most visible symptom of this enormous policy challenge, and they are not only a Brazilian problem. They proliferate in at least two other Latin American countries, El Salvador and Colombia, and they contribute to present a security challenge that points to a growing need for regional leaders to recognize the importance for security sector reform.


Dealing with Maras


El Salvador has a problem with organized gangs. Known there as "Maras", these gangs are large groups of young men who have a poor education and little other option but to live a life of crime. Many enter the drug and gun trade. They are not afraid to use lethal force when confronting policemen, who increasingly choose to ignore legal boundaries when fighting back.


The security sector and judicial system are both still weak institutions in El Salvador, and have been limping along since the end of the civil war that ravaged the country from 1980 to 1991.


"In no Central American country, with the exception of Guatemala, are there investigations into illegal [extermination] groups," the director of El Salvadorian-based anti-corruption NGO Probidad, Jaime Lopez, told ISN Security Watch.


As the Maras have become more of a problem, political elites and wealthy businessmen have spurred the re-emergence of death squads to deal with a security problem that is perceived to be out of control.


While the Salvadorian government denies this claim, analysts with the US-based private intelligence agency Strategic Forecasting (Stratfor) disagree. Stratfor analysts wrote in a recent report that "violent crime caused by Maras and drug traffickers has sparked the revival of death squads that are conducting a clandestine war to eradicate Mara members". Stratfor also reports that sources in the Salvadorian security forces confirm that "there is no doubt that death squads are being financed by some wealthy business and political figures".


Carmen Aida Ibarra, a researcher with the Guatemala-based Myrna Mack Foundation, agrees. "A patron system of political violence exists [that is] run by civilians who have not necessarily been a part of the military," she told ISN Security Watch, adding that "corruption plays an important role because it is the principal factor that impedes the deconstruction of clandestine groups."


Meanwhile, major metropolitan areas in the US face their own problems with organized gangs connected to the Maras. El Salvador is the principal recipient of Mara gang members deported from the US, where officials label the Maras as a security threat.


Operations such as Operation Community Shield, which concluded on 22 August by deporting some 500 Mara members back to El Salvador, have been seen as successful in the US, but clearly exacerbate the growing problem El Salvador's already strained security forces have on their hands.


In an effort to train local officials and improve tactics in exchange for Mara-related intelligence, the FBI has staffed an office in El Salvador with agents who specifically work on this sensitive security issue. However, FBI public relations agent Steven Kodak told ISN Security Watch the FBI was "not able to comment on death squads in Central America at this time".


No confidence in public security


El Salvador is a country where high levels of violence have unfortunately become part of daily life, even after the war. El Salvador's civil war ended in 1991, and within five years the country had reached the world's highest death rate per capita, with over 150 deaths for every 100,000 inhabitants. During this time, some 46 per cent of the population believed that citizens retained the right to deliver justice with their own hands.


The number of private security agents burgeoned from 6,000 in 1996 to over 18,000 in 2001, according to Charles T. Call, in his article, "Democratization, War and State-Building: Constructing the Rule of Law in El Salvador", published in the Journal of Latin American studies.


Such rapid growth in this sector belies the fact that individuals with money were not willing to rely on the security sector to protect them from criminals. As the problem with the Maras grows, it is likely that reliance on private security agents will too.


Call notes in his essay that El Salvador's security sector reform since the war left 12,000 guerrillas, 20,000 soldiers, and 30,000 civil defense guards unemployed by 1993. During that same year, the number of guns circulating in this small Central American country was well above 300,000.


A lack of confidence in public security contributes to an environment where the use of clandestine murder is expected, and necessary, to feel safe. The security sector in El Salvador is developed enough to know the difference between judicial and extrajudicial actions, but the public security system, much like in Brazil, is simply not strong enough to keep individuals from taking up weapons and defending their rights with deadly force.


Unemployment feeds the fire. The sale of guns, which are widely available, maintains a steady source of illicit income. And a demand-driven market in Colombia, where two revolutionary armies and the paramilitary units fight over ownership of the cocaine trade, has spurred the illicit arms trade in Central America and countries like El Salvador where cheap guns, gang-related violence, and a weak security sector are the perfect setting for the formation of death squads.


No benchmark for what is judicial


Some of the most flagrant episodes of extrajudicial killings in South America occur in Colombia. The paramilitary forces there, known as the United-Self Defense Forces of Colombia (AUC), carry out massacres on a semi-regular basis in towns and other rural areas where they believe the locals have aligned themselves with revolutionary armies.


Because the AUC works so closely with the Colombian military, immunity is a norm. The justice system in Colombia is all but a broken institution, resulting in literally thousands of untried murders and an unknown number of killers who enjoy immunity. In one example, a special investigative commission was formed to report on the 8 June 2000 massacre of six peasants in the Colombian peace community village of La Union. The commission gathered some 100 witness testimonies, but no one was ever charged for the killings and the case was closed.


Most of this country is lawless. It is controlled by men who enforce their will with fear tactics and violence. The word "extrajudicial" cannot be used to describe what death squads do in Colombia. It is simply not relevant there because there is no benchmark for what is judicial.


Between 1997 and 2001, AUC forces committed massacres of ten or more persons on 17 different occasions in the Colombian department of Antioquia. In 1999, AUC forces killed 55 people in two massacres in Putamayo, a Colombian department known for violence and as a left-wing rebel stronghold. Another department important to the AUC's military strategy, Valle, saw the massacre of 100 Colombians in 2001.


As recently as February this year, eight Colombians were killed by members of the AUC, allegedly working with the Colombian military, in the much publicized massacre of San Jose de Apartado. All of those killed were unarmed peasants. These murders are unlikely to be punished. To date, no advances have been made in the investigation.


These are only a few examples out of the many documented massacres in Colombia. When one counts in the people killed by Colombia's two revolutionary armies, by various drug factions, by off-duty police officers, and by private citizens, the numbers are staggering.


In cities such as Medellín, Calí, and Bogota, where the drug trade has a strong grip on local politics, the public security system is highly corrupt.


"When planning raids, we had to make two sets of plans," explained Joe Toft, formerly the Bogota station chief for the US Drug Enforcement Agency (DEA). "We had two sets of plans because we knew that someone at a high level was passing information to our enemies," he told ISN Security Watch. "Usually we even used two helicopters, one to take a group on the fake mission and the other to take the rest of us to do our job."


Ingrained dysfunction


Brazil, Colombia, and El Salvador are three Latin American countries where the existence of death squads is undisputed. Clandestine murder has become integrated into the political and security fabric of these countries. A weak judicial system and public security sector cannot possibly improve where death threats, corruption, and unsolved murders replace courts, witnesses, and evidence.


The mighty effort that would be required to seriously reform these sectors is beyond the scope of any single presidential administration. Due to the deepty ingrained dysfunctional nature of these security and justice systems, any reform would have to be encompass all levels of the institutions.


Intangible problems of immunity and low levels of civilian confidence are difficult to reverse. Operations such as Brazil's Operacao Tentaculos, which netted a large number of extrajudicial killers, are not enough. There are low levels of support among political and business elites for efforts to change the status quo, and those who suffer most from extermination groups often know the killers because it is what the killers want - such immunity from their violent acts is political currency. There is no rule of law but of fear.


Adriana Paz Gomes lost her son in the massacre that left 30 dead in the Rio de Janeiro community of Baixada Fluminense. Although she mourns the loss of her 16-year-old boy, she faces the reality of her situation.


"[The police] say they are making arrests, but this is just for show," Gomes said soon after the massacre. "I know that one day I'll be seeing the man who killed my son driving past me in the street."