‘In shantytowns, security forces set up their own government’
For the Herald
“The police do also have a discretionary power which is legitimate — at times they have to take decisions on the spot and in a split second. But there is a very grey area which makes that power arbitrary.” explains Pita.
This takes the form of a series of practices and interventions which may be grouped under the label of “police harassment,” which cross the highly porous frontier between legality and illegality — interceptions, identity checks and arrests without a court warrant or the object being caught red-handed.
Pita co-ordinated the Political and Legal Anthropological Work Team dedicated to identifying and analysing such such proceedings in the City of Buenos Aires. Along with an analysis of the official statistics, the team carried out a field study in the Villa 21-24 shantytown in the Barracas neighbourhood. That was their main empirical reference but they also tackled similar problems in the neighbourhoods of Lugano (Villas 15/20), Flores (1-11-14) and La Boca. There the Federal and Metropolitan Police forces share control with the Border and Coast Guards displaced to this City by the so-called Operativo Cinturón Sur.
“The security forces arbitrarily decide how to apply the norms and their prerogatives. Each security force makes its specific use of these norms. For example, in Chaco they are more geared to persecuting political organisations — a form of control which adapts itself to different situations in different place. Here in Villa 21-24, they are on the prowl for street kids but in Chaco they harass social organisations,” said Pita, when pinpointing the situation om the City of Buenos Aires within the national map from the report “Harassed — arbitrary police violence in low-income neighbourhoods.”
What role do the security forces play in the low-income neighbourhoods of the City of Buenos Aires?
In those neighbourhoods the security forces set up their own government for the population by controlling traffic, public spaces and youth activities, which often imply a certain illegality such as smoking a joint.
On whom do the police focus their controls in low-income neighbourhoods?
Basically on the young males.
Why do the cops single them out?
I have no single answer. It’s multi-causal: in low-income neighbourhoods the population is mostly young, they use public spaces intensively and males are assumed to be less at risk in the street. And in the case of the women, who go out less in public, there is an added sexual threat. Perhaps there also is for males but nobody talks about it.
In the report you mention a kind of “curfew” which does not allow youths out into the street beyond a certain hour. Where did that practice originate?
It is highly characteristic of the Border Guard’s intervention in Villa 1-11-14. There is a certain overlap here between the perceptions of the security forces and the demands of neighbours — that there is a potential for conflict between juvenile gangs on street corners at night.
Where does that idea stem from?
Much of the debate over crime stems from a parting of the ways between the concepts of law and order and the idea of civic security. Public order implies seeing society as a source of conflict which requires state intervention to eliminate. But there is also an idea of civic security which implies understanding public safety as a right to be distributed as evenly as possible and which must be built up in non-violent forms which do not violate rights when administering conflicts. Conflict is inherent to society.
Is there anything new about police harassment?
No, nothing. It is a number of things which serve to practise violence against specific population groups.
Have the forms of harassment changed?
Arrests for identity checks have been going on for many years and were always the prelude to violent practices. They mark the transition from discretionary to arbitrary conduct and are used as tools to persecute and threaten, based on suspicion. All this is aggravated because today’s young people, who did not undergo the last dictatorship, do not have the habit of leaving home with their papers and that facilitates their arrest because they cannot prove their identity.
Have poor young males adapted to this?
It’s part of their daily experience. Not necessarily do they accept it but they know that they face big difficulties in eluding it. It is not so much a question of getting used to it as understanding the circumstances of inequality. There is plenty of resignation as to the scant chances of proving what they suffer from since being so young and poor, they do not have sufficient legitimacy to denounce it.
Beyond the practice of harassment and bearing in mind a Security Ministry report last August which showed that only 0.3 percent of those detained for identify checks were in trouble with the law, what is the use of this kind of action?
Within the security world it helps to produce a statistic showing that the police are working — it does not matter if efficiently or inefficiently. It shows them working on the street. It is an idea of crime-fighting shared with much of the political leadership heading security forces. And it is also a way of showing society that they are intervening with methods which are highly visible. The results don‘t matter.
What emerges from these detentions?
Looking at them in detail, we find that they are mostly workers returning home or heading out to their jobs. Nothing new — we have already seen this in a survey we did back in 1996, the statistics are similar. In the final analysis it is a tool for control and vigilance. And when the security forces cease to have an eye on civic safety when exercising their control, there is a margin to return to the worst practices.