Autonomization or political direction for police interventions in public demonstrations?

Written by: Cecilia Samanes. She is a founding member of RISE. She worked from 2011 to 2022 in the Ministry of Security of Argentina. Teacher and Sociologist

In Argentina, public demonstrations have historically been almost the collective action par excellence to express social conflict[i] .

In 2011, the recent National Ministry of Security created through Resolution 210/2011 the «Minimum Criteria for the intervention of police and security forces in public demonstrations and street blockades». This Resolution was composed of 21 fundamental points that established the way in which the security forces should act and invited the Provinces to adhere to them.

Here we present a comparative analysis of the management on intervention in public demonstrations in the administration of Minister Nilda Garré (2010-2013) as opposed to that of Minister Patricia Bullrich (2015-2019).

Brief historical review

From the 1990s onwards, the escalation of repression and deaths at the hands of state forces increased. The turning points were the 43 murders in the social outbreak of December 2001 and the deaths of Kosteky and Santillán in June 2002 at the blockade of the Pueyrredón Bridge linking the Province of Buenos Aires with the Argentine capital.

This situation was a concern of the Peronist governments, initiated in 2003, which resulted in various public policies promoting the defense and unrestricted respect for human rights by the state forces, but over the years this was not always complied with by the police forces.

Within this governmental framework and together with the creation of the Ministry of Security, the democratic security paradigm was promoted including different dimensions; among them, the regulation of interventions in public demonstrations in accordance with international regulations that had already been constitutionalized in 1994.

In May 2011, the former Minister Nilda Garré issued Resolution 210/2011 creating a «Working Group that will have as its objective the development of protocols of action of the Police and Federal Security Forces in public demonstrations». Article 4 approves the document «Minimum Criteria» developed in Annex I of that Resolution describing 21 points to be included in the protocols of each force and, therefore, respected in the interventions in the face of social protest.

On December 10, 2015, the Republican Proposal (PRO) party took over the national government and appointed Patricia Bullrich as Minister of Security. In February 2016, the then Minister presented to the Internal Security Council -one could say an impoverished and disrespectful remastering of human rights- a new Protocol of action. Despite the fact that none of the jurisdictions present adhered to it and that it was never published in the Official Gazette nor formally protocolized, the Minister and the Secretary of Internal Security, Mr. Milman, took care of communicating it as in force and using it to intimidate the different public demonstrations that were growing given the popular discontent with the Government of President Mauricio Macri.

A thorough criticism was made by the Center for Legal and Social Studies (CELS) in a letter[ii] addressed to the Minister on February 29 of that year, since the repression of demonstrations was in fact applied on the basis of a directive that was not legally in force.

Police intervention in public demonstrations in the paradigm of conflict management.

Resolution 210/2011 included in its recitals the UN proposals that guide the conduct of police forces and propose a paradigm shift in respect for the right of assembly and association, freedom of expression and press. It included the previous highly repressive experiences on social protest, and defined the objectives and scope of the measure, laying the foundations for respecting the right of demonstrators, reducing the impact on third parties outside the protest and establishing specific guidelines for intervention in each of the moments of the demonstration -concentration, development and deconcentration-.

Regarding restrictions and control measures, it promoted dialogue with the protesters and the peaceful resolution of any conflict. It provided for the intervention, at all times, of a political official who would identify the demands of the protest with the objective of channeling them to the specific state area to address the claims and also receive complaints of illegal actions by the police forces, which had to be duly identified, as well as the mobiles they used.

In this sense, it prescribes the obligation of communication between police sources, political and judicial officials during the development of the demonstration, as well as the due training and conflict management skills of the police personnel involved.

A substantial element was the regulation of the use of force. It established a strict prohibition on the use of firearms and gas-launching pistols, and considered the use of weapons not provided by the institution to be a serious offense. With respect to rubber bullets, their use was only authorized for defensive purposes when the physical integrity of the personnel was at risk. The use of aggressive chemical and anti-tumor agents was only allowed for specially trained personnel and with prior authorization from the superior in charge of the operation.

With respect to freedom of the press, it demanded that police forces guarantee the free exercise of journalism and not hinder the recording of images and testimonies at the time.

It also determined that police personnel, as workers, should be guaranteed the necessary elements – food, clothing, health care – for their intervention.

Police intervention in public demonstrations in the paradigm of order.

The following is an analysis of the same dimensions reviewed in the «Minimum Criteria» on the proposal made by former Minister Bullrich.

In principle, it should be noted that in the recitals only one paragraph referred to the National Constitution to refer to the international treaties recognized by Argentina.

Although it recognized the right to petition, it clarified that «the freedom of one individual or group ends where the freedom of another begins» and the constitutionally protected rights «in turn assume that those who do not participate in a demonstration on the public highway do not see their rights to move freely, to work and exercise any lawful industry, to trade, to educate themselves and other constitutionally protected rights affected».

He then recalled that «it is the duty of the State to ensure public order, social harmony, legal security and general welfare» and that, in the event of public demonstrations, the security forces must guarantee the protection of life and public and private property. Opposed to the conflict management paradigm of a democratic security model, it was positioned from the paradigm of order -in which police institutions had a long trajectory-.

Regarding the «Protocol of action of the State security forces in public demonstrations» itself, it is interesting to review the language and arguments used therein.

The object of the action was placed on the people who demonstrate and there is no evaluation and accountability look on the performance of police personnel. With an imperative and authoritarian writing, with imprecise, ambiguous and even contradictory paragraphs, the language is repressive, appealing to the legal punishment of those who demonstrate. It tacitly enabled the use of firearms and other types of ammunition and gas, since it did not expressly prohibit them and it is understood that it also allows the repression of the demonstration in the event of any intention to persist in the street blockade.

It distinguished «programmed» demonstrations, i.e., those that were announced and requested permission from the government, as opposed to «spontaneous» demonstrations, which were considered illegitimate.

At the end, the text explained that the operations are governed by the National Intelligence Law No. 25,520 and not by the Internal Security Law No. 23,059 and that the whole demonstration could be filmed with the purpose of providing information to Justice. However, since the filming is carried out by the federal forces themselves, it can be assumed, under the paradigm of order, that they would be used for criminal intelligence purposes.

Already in the «Procedure» it described a series of «rules» for the police forces that had to report a demonstration to their respective security ministries and open the negotiation space for the «cessation of the blockade and give notice to Justice», with which the first task is to cancel the possibility of demonstration and assembly.

In this sense, it did not collaborate in managing the conflict nor did it attempt to channel the demands, but it was established that «the order will be given through loudspeakers, megaphones or loudly, that the demonstrators must desist from cutting the traffic routes, must withdraw and be located in a determined area to exercise their constitutional rights, always guaranteeing free circulation» under penalty of acting according to the crimes of flagrancy in line with criminal procedures, informing the Justice, enabling the intervention to «dissolve the demonstration».

At no time did a political figure appear in the negotiations with the demonstrators; only the Ministry in charge of the federal forces was to be informed. Only when the demonstrators «put down» their attitude, a space for dialogue would be opened, leaving a record of what had been done and of the claims.

In another point, he advised police personnel on how to address demonstrators and not to react to provocations.

The question of criminal punishment was expressly mentioned in several paragraphs, that is to say that the important thing is to be punished with the full weight of the law, after the intervention of the police.

The ambiguity and vagueness of the instructions to police personnel is described in that federal forces may take the «necessary measures to prevent the possible commission of crimes» referring that the use of force «should always be limited to the minimum possible» without developing what should be understood by «necessary» or «minimum possible», when actions could be promoted with the objective of de-escalating violence. It ignored the obligation of accountability of police personnel in the case of use of force.

It also restricted freedom of the press and information since it established specific areas for the media, although it provided that «the material and working tools of the media must not be destroyed or confiscated by the public authorities», without specifically including the forces of law and order in this prohibition.

It should be emphasized that this document was never legally effective since it was not published in a Ministerial Resolution. Furthermore, it was not approved by the provincial jurisdictions although it was announced as the «Consensus on security for public demonstrations» in a «historic day for the Internal Security Council, with 80% adhesion of the provinces, we managed to implement the ‘Protocol of Action of the State Security Forces in Public Demonstrations'»[iii] .

On the other hand, it was rejected by human rights organizations such as CELS, Mothers of Plaza de Mayo, Argentine League for Human Rights, social movements and left-wing political parties.

Some conclusions

In principle, it is worth clarifying that Resolution 210/2011 remains in force since it was never repealed, although in practice it has not been applied for a period of time.

In addition, we intend to review the impact of political direction and control on the autonomy and self-regulation of police institutions in the case of interventions in public demonstrations, analyzing the directives issued by the Ministry of Security of the Nation in two different political moments.

According to Costantino[iv] the autonomy of the security forces depends on the highest level political actors (presidents and governors) who apply one or another security policy according to electoral needs, i.e. to whom they will respond in their security demands. It analyzes this question in a cross between the aspects on which these policies are applied and the propositions of the right (punitivist), center (guaranteeist) and left (policies of intervention in the causes of crime: education, poverty, among others) with the variables of application of these policies.

In the same sense as the author, this article identifies that a large proportion of the way in which the police interventions of the federal forces and their objectives take on depend, almost exclusively, on the political direction and the directives issued in one direction or the other that enable preventive or repressive public policies.

This statement is based on the differences found between Resolution 210/2011, which established the Minimum Criteria for the development of protocols for the actions of the Police and Federal Security Forces in public demonstrations, and the Protocol for the Actions of the State Security Forces in Public Demonstrations mentioned above.

Recognizing social conflict, allowing its public expressions and managing these conflicts is part of the guarantees that the State must ensure to the citizenry as a whole. Within this framework, the direction and political control of security management have concrete effects on the doctrinal bodies and concrete actions of the police and security forces.

In this sense, the government’s political direction of police interventions based on respect for human rights has a decisive impact on the regulation and control of repressive actions.

[i] You can also consult the 2017 report, «The right to social protest in Argentina», by the Center for Legal and Social Studies (CELS), which provides an excellent overview of the different collective actions, the political control of the repressive forces and the state’s response to the demands. https://www.cels.org.ar/protestasocial/

[ii] https://www.cels.org.ar/common/documentos/Carta_MinSeg.pdf

[iii] https://www.argentina.gob.ar/noticias/gconsenso-en-seguridad-para-las-manifestaciones-p%C3%BAblicas

[iv] Costantino, G. (2014). Security policies in Argentina: the limits of police autonomy. Aposta. Revista de Ciencias Sociales, no. 63, October-December, 2014, pp. 1-26. ISSN 1696-7348. Luis Gómez Encinas ed. E-ISSN: 1696-7348. Móstoles, Spain. Available at http://www.apostadigital.com/revistav3/hemeroteca/gabri3.pdf

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