Lack of police controls poses danger to poor Argentine youth
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Lack of police controls poses danger to poor Argentine youth

In tandem with an historic verdict condemning a police officer for torturing a minor, human rights organizations have expressed their outrage over a notable hike in Argentine police brutality – the worst this past year since the Kirchners took office in 2003, according to a recent report.

The 640-page study released this month by the Center for Legal and Social Studies (CELS) – an NGO dedicated to the promotion and protection of human rights in Argentina since its founding in 1979 – condemns what it sees as the Argentine state’s “lack of political will to intervene in structural problems that generate rights violations.”

The report specifically addresses cases of police brutality and torture, often against youth from minority groups and poorer segments of the population.

Targeting poor youth

Luciano Arruga, a 16-year-old from the La Matanza – a lower-class district on the outskirts of Buenos Aires – was arrested in 2008, reportedly to be questioned about a stolen cell phone. According to witnesses, he was detained in a police kitchen for eight hours and tortured, suffering blows to the face as well as psychological torment from police inspector Julio Diego Torales. Upon his release, he displayed signs of depression and despondence, his mother and sister said.

Four months later, he disappeared. According to information gathered since then, Arruga was struck by a car one night while crossing a highway – possibly while escaping police– and died of his injuries in a Buenos Aires hospital. He was then buried in an unmarked grave without any notice being sent to his family.

While his relatives searched for him, not a single provincial or national agency lifted a finger to help find him. Following a Habeas Corpus request filed by CELS, Arruga’s body was finally discovered last year, buried as a “John Doe” in the capital’s Chacarita Cemetery.

After a lengthy trial, Torales, the police inspector responsible for physically and psychologically harming Arruga, was sentenced to 10 years of imprisonment on May 15 of this year.

Following Torales’ sentence, Arruga’s sister decried officials’ attempts to vilify her brother by labeling him with stereotypes often associated with lower-class youth.

“Luciano was the ‘leader of a mafia,’ he was ‘into drugs,’ he was the ‘worst of the worst’,” she said.

In line with Arruga’s sister’s complaint, CELS claimed in its 2015 report that the Luciano case “sheds light on the extortive relationship between the police and poor youth today.”

An alarming trend

According to the CELS report, federal forces killed 71 people in the Greater Buenos Aires area in 2014 – the highest fatality rate since 2003.

“We’re talking about instances in which a person ended up dead after a violent, unjustified police intervention,” Paula Litvachky, CELS’s justice and security director, clarified in an interview with Latin Correspondent.

She explained that the organization pulls its statistics from the press since the government does not grant access to official statistics – a problematic policy, she explained.

“The lack of official figures doesn’t allow us to see if certain policies or interventions are effective. So it’s easy to say, ‘crime has increased’ or ‘crime has decreased,’ but that doesn’t tell us much in terms of what’s working and what’s not,” she said.

According to Litvachky, violent police behavior stems from a lack of regulation.

“There are no policies meant to control the use of force; there’s no police follow-up; there’s no discussion of what’s legitimate and what’s not legitimate; and above all, there are no institutional bodies regulating police behavior,” she said.

Historically, this lack of regulation has especially impacted poorer populations.

“Young men from ‘popular’ neighborhoods and the suburbs are typically targeted,” she said.

Vestiges of the dictatorship

Cases of institutional torture were notorious during Argentina’s Dirty War (1976-1983), a military bid to squash out any form of left-wing “subversion,” during which approximately 30,000 people were “disappeared”: kidnapped, taken to secret detention centers, tortured and killed.

Since democracy’s return to the nation, however, justice for acts of brutality past and present have hardly had their day in court.

“The prevalence of torture is a critical situation that, after thirty years of democracy, has not been resolved,” the report’s prologue reads.

In a supposed bid to put the country’s embattled past behind it, Raúl Alfonsín, the first president to take office after democracy was restored to the country in 1983, enacted the Full Stop Law – which set a 60-day deadline for terminating all criminal proceedings involving crimes committed during the Dirty War – and the Due Obedience Law – which acquitted military personnel of criminal liability under the presumption that they were acting in the line of duty.

Both of these laws were condemned by the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights in 1991 for failing to defend human rights in Argentina.

Likewise, former President Carlos Menem, in office from 1989 to 1999, infamously pardoned military leaders of the military junta.

The Full Stop and Due Obedience Laws were finally repealed in 2003 when former President Nestor Kirchner took office.

A court cancelled the pardons granted to junta leaders Jorge Videla and Eduardo Massera in 2007. Videla had been tried and convicted for the murder of 66 people, the torture of 93 others, and the illegal detention of more than 300, while Massera had been found guilty of three murders, the torture of 12 people, and the detention of 69 others. Both had been pardoned under Menem.

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