The title of this contribution comes directly from a powerful and incisive article by Cosme Caal, a scholar and human rights activist originally from Guatemala. His article was published in Counterpunch in August 2014. His essay was prompted by the sudden influx of children, refugees from Guatemala, attempting to enter the United States without documentation. The BBC carried an article examining the multiple factors that have pushed thousands of these children out of their home country – continuing poverty, police violence and torture, drug-related extortion rackets, lack of schooling services – to seek a new life in the United States.
While elaborating on the wider political and economic policies that have led Guatemala into a state of civil war and immiseration – governed by a military regime propped up by the United States – Caal makes an important observation. As the neoliberal economic policies adopted by successive US-installed client regimes in Latin America resulted in the impoverishment of huge sections of the population, the police forces in those countries became a paramilitary enforcer for the privileged classes. The police were used to round up dissidents, suppress any dissent, and became a law unto themselves. Indeed, the police forces became entangled with criminal enterprises, engaging in massive corruption and extortionate cronyism that added to the woes of the people.
In the 1980s, the military dictatorships of Latin America – such as Guatemala – became notorious for police forces that killed and tortured with impunity. The police acted as a protector of the wealthy elite, pushing the impoverished into ghettos, out of sight and out of mind. Wealthy connections meant that a person accused of breaking the law could buy their way out of trouble, avoiding being held accountable for their actions. Meanwhile the petty crime of the poor – stealing in order to live – was punished ruthlessly. Organised protests and political opposition to an unjust economic and social order was criminalised.
Let us not forget that this culture of lawlessness has continued until today. Only in 2014, in Mexico, 43 student teachers on their way to protest a local governor were arrested by the Mexican police – and handed over to a known drug cartel that promptly executed them. The mass graves of these murdered students were found and uncovered – and the incestuous linkages between the local governing authorities, police and criminal syndicates were exposed. Mexicans across the country have been protesting against this egregious example of police-state criminality since then.
The police forces of the United States are currently undergoing Latin Americanization – becoming the unaccountable paramilitary-style enforcers of an unequal status quo. As the capitalist economic crisis undergoes its terminal stasis, the ruling class has decided on greater repression to crush all social discontent and threats to its super-profits. Political dissent is being criminalised, and the civil liberties of the people are gradually being eroded by the intelligence and surveillance apparatus.
The New York Police Commissioner, Bill Bratton, announced the creation of a specific police unit that will specialise in counter-terrorism, responding to any social disorder or protests. Bratton explicitly equated terrorism, such as the Boston marathon attacks or the Charlie Hebdo killings, with domestic political demonstrations and campaigns. In the eyes of the New York police, the #BlackLivesMatter protest movement, pushing for the accountability of racist police officers who murder African Americans, is a domestic threat to be violently suppressed. The criminality of the police force, which has murdered African Americans with impunity, is to be continued, not investigated.
Let us also note that the surveillance and targeting of people is expanding – the New York police department has conducted a warrantless surveillance programme specifically gathering information about the Islamic community over the last decade. Information about this spying activity came out in Philadelphia in early January 2015. The court case was brought by Muslim activists and constitutional civil rights groups against the New York Police Department. The NYPD infiltrated the mosques and religious places of Islamic groups and communities, spying on Muslim organisations and community groups. Over the last ten years, this surveillance has not resulted in the apprehension of a single terrorism suspect.
The Atlantic magazine, in May 2014, noted that the police in America increasingly resemble soldiers, becoming heavily militarised and responding with brute force in all situations, regardless of the circumstances in each case. The police are being used as a battering ram to intimidate any opposition to the capitalist system, and the militarisation of the police was evident at the protests in Ferguson, Missouri. The United States police force has a long history of racially-motivated violence, an unbroken line of racist suppression that extends from Ferguson all the way back to the days of slavery, in the words of veteran black activist Angela Davis.
Darren Wilson, the white police officer who killed the unarmed African American teenager Michael Brown, will not face any charges for his actions. Eric Garner, a middle-aged African American man, died in 2014 from asphyxiation after being held down in a chokehold by a New York police officer. His crime? Selling cigarettes on the street, which he did to support his family. He had no history of violence, and actually informed the police about his reasons for trading. An asthmatic, his last words, which he repeated eleven times were, ‘I can’t breathe’. No police officer has been held accountable for Garner’s death.
Developing increasingly dictatorial methods of rule, combined with greater electronic surveillance and domestic spying, are the hallmarks of a capitalist system that has no solution to its own terminal decline except greater repression. That was happening in Latin American countries in the 1980s. It is now happening in the United States. The methods of the war on terror, adopted as a matter of course when dealing with the non-white population of the world, are now being applied inside the United States itself.
Cosme Caal, in his article, stated that:
Impunity is now normalized in most police departments across the United States and in the minds of many Americans. I did not know I would live to see this phenomenon, yet, the more I peruse online news feeds, the more evident it is to me that Americans, especially minorities, are in great danger of militarized suppression as a matter of state policy.
Go read the entire article in Counterpunch here.
One thought on “The Latin Americanization of the United States police forces”
In this article Rupen Savoulian highlights the role of the repressive police forces in some Latin American countries. His narrative is based on some good sources that show how the vicious policies of neo-liberalism create acute cleavage between the rich beneficiaries of the exploiting system and the poor people who have no escape from perpetual poverty and misery. The role of the US police forces is also alarming and thanks to the author he gives the readers much needed information on the issue.