June 3, 2020 — The last week of May was particularly difficult in the United States. A new episode of institutional violence and racism gave way to demonstrations across the country. Demands for accountability, justice against those responsible, and structural reforms to the criminal justice system and the police were heard in massive protests. This situation takes place after two and half months of suspension of economic activities due to COVID-19. Institutional racism collided with the anger over unequal impacts of the health and economic crisis on afro-descendant and latinx communities.
The killing of George Floyd at the hands of four police officers in Minneapolis, Minnesota, on May 25, is the most recent event in an all too frequent history of incidents in which security forces exercise their power or use physical force against Black people. George Floyd is the last victim in a long list. Just recently we were outraged with the murders of Ahmaud Arbery, Breonna Taylor and Tony McDade. Institutional racism has deep roots in the United States, roots that have yet to be torn out. The white supremacist ideology persecutes and discriminates against people of color, including Latinx, Latin American immigrants, and persons from South East Asia.
Public safety has been militarized as part of the government’s response to violence and criminal organizations. This strategy fails to address the root causes of violence and crime, and instead promotes an escalation of generalized violence. Persons who are suspected of committing a criminal offense are viewed as the other, as enemies, dehumanized, resulting in the persistent and disproportionate use of force. Militarization is undermining security, not keeping people safe. This same approach has been applied to immigration control operations, resulting in episodes such as the murder of an indigenous woman from Guatemala, and of a child in Mexican territory in 2010, both carried out by the U.S. Border Patrol.
Incidents of police abuse are also part of the reality and challenges that Latin America needs to address. Examples abound, and impunity for the perpetrators is the norm. In Mexico, the current administration opted for the creation of the National Guard, in an effort to militarize public safety. This approach has resulted in many incidents, including the death of a Salvadoran woman who was shot crossing a police checkpoint in Veracruz, in June 2019. Other cases highlight shortcomings in the investigations of deaths at the hands of the police, such as that of a Nigerian man in Mexico City, in 2011; the disproportionate use of force to handle demonstrations in 2016, and in domestic violence incidents in Sonora, in 2019. During the COVID-19 quarantine in El Salvador, a young man was shot by a police officer for refusing to pay an extortion fee, and another man died in police custody. His body showed signs of torture, according to an ongoing investigation by the Human Rights Ombudsperson’s Office. In Honduras, a recent incident against a street vendor reflects patterns of impunity in the action of militarized police bodies, which are underscored in cases such as that of the disappearance of the 43 students in Ayotzinapa, México, and the police officers accused of extrajudicial executions in Guatemala.
The fight against impunity and creating mechanisms of public safety that respect human rights should be priorities. These two elements are essential in order to strengthen the rule of law. Working in both aspects, will allow us to create equity and safer conditions for all members of our communities, so that people are not forced to migrate.