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ARGENTINA: Buenos Aires Police Face Major Overhaul

Marcela Valente

BUENOS AIRES, Apr 14 2004 (IPS) - Juan Pagnotta, a young man under arrest for kidnapping and murder, is just one of many delinquents who apparently who have a cosy relationship with police in the eastern Argentine province of Buenos Aires, a phenomenon that the new provincial head of security has promised to eradicate.

León Arslanián became secretary of security in the province Tuesday, a post he had been forced to resign from six years ago, with a plan for an in-depth restructuring and purge of the provincial police, which is widely seen as corrupt.

His plan will include the replacement of police officials with civilians in several key positions.

Assuming the post of the head of security in Argentina’s biggest and most populous province, Arslanián said corruption ”is the gravest problem” in the police forces, which he described as ”authoritarian, bureaucratic, fossilized and dysfunctional.”

He also noted that there are serious suspicions that the provincial police ”liberate” or free up certain areas to allow criminals to act, and that they provide delinquents with protection.

Such practices were commonly used in support of murders or forced disappearances of leftist activists and other real or suspected dissidents during the dirty war waged by the 1976-1983 military dictatorship, and began to reappear in the mid-1990s.

The new head of security added that the corruption is the fruit of an authoritarian model, lack of oversight and controls, the complicity of political leaders, and the legacy left by the military officers who headed the provincial police force under the de facto regime.

In 1985, Arslanián presided over the federal court that tried and convicted, for crimes against humanity, the former members of the dictatorship’s ruling junta (who were later released under a pardon granted by president Carlos Menem (1989-1999).

He also served as justice minister in 1991 and 1992, and was one of the promoters of the adoption of oral trials as a means of accelerating legal proceedings and reducing the huge backlog of cases facing judges. In 1998, he briefly held the post to which he has now been re-appointed.

Gabriel Lerner, a lawyer who represents families of victims of police brutality and is active in the Coordinating Group Against Police Repression, told IPS that Arslanián’s principles and objectives are ”democratic and progressive.”

However, he took a cautious stance with regards to the prospect of real change, preferring to wait and see whether the political will exists to implement the announced reforms.

Gustavo Palmieri, an expert in security questions with another local human rights organisation, the Centre of Legal and Social Studies, highlighted Arslanián’s reputation of ”respect for the law,” and praised the political decision to appoint him in spite of resistance by several sectors.

But both activists expressed reservations as to the possibility of in-depth changes due to the complexity of the problem.

Collusion between police and criminals has been a widespread phenomenon in the province of Buenos Aires since the mid-1990s, and has grown enormously in the past few years of social and economic crisis, especially in the shady business of the stripping down and rebuilding of stolen cars and the boom in kidnappings for ransom.

Police brutality is also a serious problem. Both Human Rights Watch and Amnesty International have produced reports on the ”routine” use of torture and the excessive use of force, generally against young men, by ”trigger-happy” police in Argentina.

Complaints and accusations against the police have led to the sacking of the head of the provincial police force on more than one occasion since the late 1990s.

But the boiling-point seems to have been reached since the kidnapping and murder of 23-year-old Axel Blumberg in late March, which triggered an Apr. 1 protest by around 200,000 people outside of Congress to demand stiffer penalties for the perpetrators of violent crimes and an overhaul of the Buenos Aires provincial police.

The Blumberg kidnap-murder and the public campaign triggered by the young man’s father, Juan Carlos Blumberg, with the help of the media, has marked a kind of watershed in terms of tolerance of the ties between delinquents and the police.

Buenos Aires province Governor Felipe Solá acknowledged that the question of insecurity had been pushed to the top of the public agenda by the social mobilisation.

Solá pledged to eliminate ”the system of corruption and inefficiency” in the police force, which he said would even be ”replaced, if necessary.”

In the past week, Blumberg’s confessed murderers, as well as the 20-year-old Pagnotta, have been arrested. The central focus of both investigations are the police connections that apparently allowed the criminals to act freely.

In the case of Blumberg, neighbours had told the police they heard calls for help from the young man, who was held for six days before he was killed. They later complained of intimidation and threats by the police, aimed at keeping them from giving their testimony.

The judge ended up ordering the arrest of a federal police official.

There are also indications of police complicity in the circumstances that led to the death of businessman Daniel Bogani, who was killed last Thursday by Pagnotta.

Pagnotta kidnapped Bogani’s 21-year-old daughter, and while her friends and family sought police assistance, she was forced to drive her car to several automatic teller machines to withdraw cash, in what is known as an ”express kidnapping”, which have become common in Argentina.

Not satisfied with the amount of money she was able to withdraw, Pagnotta, along with two accomplices, took her to her house and tried to enter, holding a gun to her head. Her father tried to disarm Pagnotta, and was shot and killed. His daughter was injured.

The police never arrived although they had been alerted an hour earlier.

Several days later, the families of two people who were murdered in April and May 2003, apparently by Pagnotta, came forward to reveal the pressure they have been under since they identified him as the murderer.

The witnesses said the information they provided had been ignored by the police, and that before they testified in court, they received death threats over the phone.

The appointment of the new head of provincial security was the most far-reaching consequence of the growing public pressure. However, the change was not in keeping with the hard-line approach demanded by some media voices and politicians, like lawmaker Carlos Ruckauf, a former governor of Buenos Aires province.

Arslanián is an expert in criminal law who already tried, when he held the same post in 1998, to carry out a profound reform of the police force, which included decentralisation and the sacking of around 1,000 police officers.

He also tried to eradicate the pockets of police corruption, at a time when complaints of police brutality were rife in the courts and the press.

But while he welcomed Arslanián’s aims, Palmieri told IPS that he hoped that the short-term measures would be coherent with the medium- to long-term ones adopted in the future.

”If civilians are going to be named to key positions in the police force, progress is being made in one direction, but if the military is called on to grant logistical support, that would be a serious mistake,” he said.

Palmieri was referring to the Defence Ministry’s offer of using military installations as temporary jails, instead of the overcrowded police stations, as well as the use of helicopters and military communications systems in support of law enforcement efforts.

But Argentina’s laws prohibit the military from involvement in internal security matters.

Arslanián also announced Tuesday that a new independent telephone system would be created to receive phone calls from the public.

The new hotline, which will not be run by the police, is seen as a crucial renovation. In kidnapping cases that have ended in murder, neighbours have generally reported their suspicions to the police, who ignored them.

In addition, Arslanián said 5,600 people currently being held in police station jails, which he said had become hotbeds of ”social breakdown” due to the collusion they facilitate between delinquents and the police, would be moved elsewhere.

The new head of security also said ”good” police officers would be rewarded and ”bad” ones investigated, and that the system of automatic promotions would be replaced by promotions based on performance and leadership skills.

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