Use of lethal force in Latin America: A sinister political priority
The use of force by state security agents is high on the agenda for several countries and the figures are extremely concerning. But what exactly is happening?
The Lethal Force Use Monitor initiative, which brings together researchers and academics from five countries (Brazil, Colombia, El Salvador, Mexico and Venezuela) aims to answer this question. To do so, it uses shared indicators and methodologies in order to measure, analyse and understand the use and abuse of lethal force in a comparative sense with a view to finding evidence that helps the with the prevention of abuse, as well as creating a safer environment for both citizens and security officials.
In this article I will present a summary of the main findings of the regional analysis that was carried out in cooperation with Carlos Silva (Institute of Legal Research in National Autonomous University of Mexico), Catalina Pérez Correa (CIDE) and Ignacio Cano (Laboratory for the Analysis of Political Violence of the State University of Rio de Janeiro)
The first thing to note is the difficulty in finding high quality information that would allow for comparison on all the agreed indicators. In the case of Mexico and Venezuela some of the data was found in the newspapers rather than from official sources.
This highlights the lack of transparency that the states in the region have in relation to the issue.
Secondly, the number of civilian deaths is extremely high in Venezuela, followed by El Salvador. In Venezuela the number of people killed by the state is even higher than Brazil, despite its population being nearly seven times smaller.
The civilian death rate exceeds 15 per 100,000 inhabitants, a record higher than the homicide rate in the vast majority of countries in the world. El Salvador, on the other hand, has a rate of more than 6 civilians killed by the State and Brazil of just over 2. Only Colombia has a rate of below one. Mexico is very difficult to assess given that the only source is the press, which would likely lead to underestimation.
In relation to the deaths of state security agents, it is a different story. Mexico has the highest death rate for security officers, 0.5 per 1,000 officers, followed by Colombia and Venezuela (0.3), although the latter was based on news reports. Brazil and El Salvador have the lowest incidence rate at 0.1.
These indicators of abuse of force reveal a worrying situation in a number of the countries that were studied as part of the research. The most extreme case in Venezuela where a quarter of all homicides are as a result of intervention from state security forces.
El Salvador’s rate also exceeds the 10% that is associated with abuse of force. Brazil has a less severe rate, but still fairly high (7.3%). Only Colombia has low rate at 1.5%. As mentioned earlier, Mexico cannot be compared as the news was the only source of data.
The ratio between civilian deaths and state security deaths is alarming in El Salvador, where more than 100 civilians die for each state security officer death. In Brazil, the number is lower, but still very high: 58 civilians for each officer.
In Colombia, the figures are much lower (1.2) which indicates that the number of deaths is nearly equal between the 2 groups. Venezuela also has very high numbers (26) but like Mexico the indicator is news rather than official data.
The calculation of the lethality index was only possible in Mexico and Venezuela, in both cases based on information from the press. The two countries have a lethality index greater than 1, which is the acceptable limit. In the case of Venezuela, it was 16, and Mexico was 4.6, but it is important to remember that the journalistic sources tend to exaggerate this indicator.
The lethality ratio, which suffers from similar problems, put Mexico in last place with a score of 10 compared to Venezuela’s 5.7. This would mean that the lethality caused by state agents is 10 times higher than that generated by their opponents in Mexico and almost six times higher in the case of Venezuela.
The indicators therefore suggest that there is no proportional risk from the use of lethal force.
In summary, the information obtained by this study allowed us to reach two conclusions.
The first is the limited transparency regarding the use of lethal force in Latin America and, as a result, the need for greater demands for regular, transparent disclosure of the relevant data so as to allow monitoring.
The second conclusion is that the data points to excessive use of force in several countries of the region, with Venezuela the worst offender, followed by El Salvador.
All the countries analysed, with the exception of Colombia, exceed acceptable levels in at least one of the indicators of abuse of force. It is urgent, therefore, that governments and civil society act to improve the situation.
The Colombian and Mexican cases
The cases of Mexico and Colombia need a separate discussion. This was not part of the report mentioned earlier and, as such, the discussion here is my own, not that of the wider research group.
Colombia has a history of violence and has suffered for decades from: war, drug trafficking, contract killings, paramilitaries, extrajudicial executions, disappearances, and so on.
Some of Colombia’s authorities have been questioned by the International Criminal Court and recently the United Nations High Commissioner for Colombia reported that in 2017 (the year that was being studied) these types of state crimes continued in the country and questioned the promotions of officers linked to cases of “false positives” (extrajudicial executions).
Despite the signing and approval of the Peace Agreement in 2016, there have been hundreds of reports concerning the murder of civil society leaders.
Only a few months ago, The New York Times published an article which reported the murder of more than 130 former FARC members since the signing of the peace agreement, as well as indications that orders have been given to double the numbers of “surrenders, detentions and executions during military operations”. In short, the official information is not complete or reliable.
As discussed earlier, the police are manipulating figures in an attempt to produce more favourable figures and removing case of homicides from the official record, even if they were part of operations that are carried out with legitimate use of force, in defence of the population.
In 60.5% of homicides in Colombia there is no information about the perpetrator. Additionally, the existence of different armed groups, formal and informal, legal or illegal, that sometimes merge with each other and are hard to distinguish one from another, merits a more extensive analysis, especially given the difficulties of obtaining precise data and information that would make the situation in relation to the use of lethal force much clearer.
The Mexican case presents similar difficulties: in some cases there is no official information, and in other cases there is only incomplete, dispersed, patchy and incomplete and untrustworthy data, in a context of conflict, drug trafficking, war, a conflictual border and, allegations of thousands of disappearances (without dead bodies, it is impossible to register these as homicides).
Despite the expansion of military logic, the logic of the federal system is that each state institution operates in isolation, in which the armed forces are neither accountable nor controlled by higher responsibilities. It seems that the efforts of independent research simply cannot calculate the extent or the real levels of the use of lethal force in this case.
For these reasons, is it likely that the data on both the Colombian and the Mexican cases are underrepresented comparatively. This is not to say that the Venezuelan case is not serious, but it is possible that the gap that separates it from these countries is smaller than the one presented in the report.
The report closes with some general recommendations:
Transparency: there must be an accurate and detailed record of people killed and injured in incidents involving members of the State security forces. It is also essential that these data be disclosed regularly, so that it is possible to monitor the phenomenon and take, where appropriate, preventive or corrective measures.
Regulation of the force: there must be a specific and widely disseminated regulation that incorporates international standards on doctrine, equipment and training. Venezuela has regulations in line with international principles but does not apply them, which demonstrates that it is not enough just to have good legislation, it is necessary, in addition, a separate institution to enforce them.
Investigation of the incidents of lethal force: Each incidence of use of lethal force much be properly reported and thoroughly investigated. This will guarantee that the use of force is based in legal principals.
Deaths caused by intervention from state security forces should initially be classified as a homicide, regardless of legality of the action, so that investigation can take place and determining the legality of the action based on legal reasoning and facts. The investigation of the facts must be carried by members of an institution that didn’t participate in the incident in order to guarantee the independence of the investigation.
The investigation must not only consider the human rights violations but also the responsibilities of the chain of command. On the other hand, the possible victims, their relatives and witnesses must receive the protection of the State and, in cases where the crime is proven, they must receive adequate compensation.
Monitoring and prevention measures: States must create and promote mechanisms for monitoring and preventing the abusive use of lethal force.
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