As far as evidence of police corruption goes, it doesn’t get much more compelling than this. Several armoured officers from Argentina’s gendarmerie are crossing a busy freeway jammed with cars. Horns are sounding and tempers seem flared all around. As the officers cross the central reservation, one of them suddenly dashes forward and launches himself across the front of a slow-moving car. He rolls onto the ground, clutching himself in apparent agony, the windscreen badly damaged from the impact. As the occupants of the car protest their innocence, a number of other officers surround the vehicle, striking it repeatedly, before dragging the driver out as his passenger screams for them to stop. They violently pin the driver to the ground and apply several blows. He is then carted away, off to the precinct where he can expect more rough treatment.
Unfortunately for the offending officers, the entire incident was filmed and uploaded on social media. Even among a public long resigned to the corruption of officialdom, the blatant abuse of power on show has provoked a shocked response. The motorist victim, Christian Romero, was taking part in a protest against job lay-offs at the Lear Corporation, an Argentine company which manufactures car seats. The protest was part of an ongoing workers’ struggle against Lear which has seen several other accusations of police brutality. According to reports, the motive for the simulated accident was to detain the protestor. What police hoped to achieve by targeting individuals in this way is unclear, as it would have been beyond even their shameless conniving to clear the entire demonstration by throwing themselves over the front of every car present.
The release of the video has shined a spotlight on the sort of underhand tactics police resort to when dealing with situations involving the public. With the next election a little over a year away, the official response has been swift and firm, as the government attempts to convince voters that such abuses will not be tolerated. Following pressure from the office of President Cristina Fernandez de Kirchner, the Secretary of Security Sergio Berni dismissed Colonel Roberto Angel Galeano, who had been leading the police operation and appears in the video. Berni took the action after the government implied his own position would be under threat were the issue not dealt with.
But if, as alleged, Galeano was following the chain of command, why should the buck stop with him? Berni had been a supporter of Galeano, previously nominating the colonel for the position of Sub-Secretary of Security, where the two would have worked closely together. The move was blocked by then-Minister of Defence Nilda Garré due to Galeano’s participation in the late-1980s in a series of military uprisings orchestrated by extreme-right factions of the armed forces known as carapintadas (painted Faces, due to the black paint they daubed themselves with). The uprisings were linked to government attempts to try military figures involved in state terrorism during the military dictatorship of 1976-83. Galeano was eventually appointed to a security forces coordination role after Garré stepped down from the position of Minister of Defence in June 2013. Now, following the recent scandal, he has been forced out as Berni looks to save his own hide.
According to Argentine media, to all extents and purposes Galeano had, until then, been Berni’s main guy. The colonel reported solely to Berni, even though his presence in security coordination was never publicly confirmed, even though his role was widely referred to in the media, while his name was mysteriously absent from all official documentation. It is thought that Galeano, who had a background in espionage and counterintelligence, led security forces’ infiltration of demonstrations and political movements. On one such occasion earlier this year, he was detected by protestors and had to be extracted by uniformed officers. The newspaper Perfil quoted an unnamed officer in the gendarmerie as saying that “he is Berni’s shadow, his man in the field of operations. He runs things in parallel (to Berni).”
In the incriminating video, the white-bearded Galeano can be seen in the foreground as the officer, later identified as Juan Alberto López Torales, throws himself over Cristian Romero’s car. Regarding the incident, Galeano claimed that López Torales had acted in accordance with the law and followed procedure for clearing the area. In its charge sheet, the gendarmerie accused Romero of deliberately accelerating to knock López Torales down. The video clearly shows this to be untrue. It is a level of deceit that many have long suspected to be endemic yet which has rarely been captured in such stark clarity. This particular case, in which a citizen exercising his democratic right to protest is essentially framed by the gendarmerie, raises questions as to the extent of institutional misconduct in the country and exactly how ‘routine’ this sort of behaviour is among law enforcement officials. The speed with which López Torales’ colleagues surround the stricken vehicle suggests that, at best, they were ready to make assumptions based on zero evidence or, worse, they wilfully colluded in the repression and abuse of Romero’s human rights.
This assault on democratic liberties is far from an isolated case. Just last week, police officer Martín Alexis Naredo received an indefinite jail sentence for killing 18-year old Jon Camafreitas in Buenos Aires in 2012. Witnesses said Naredo had forced Camafreitas onto his knees before shooting him in the head at point-blank range. Yet, in spite of the gravity of the charge against him, Naredo was remanded under house arrest and was able to flee before officers arrived to take him to prison. It is a remarkable failing in the judicial system, particularly seeing as lawyers for the dead teenager’s mother had requested immediate detention in order to avoid a repeat of the case of Néstor Ádrian González, a sergeant stationed at the same precinct as Naredo, who was convicted of the murder of 16-year old Sergio Casal in 2010. Due to a system which allowed González to remain at liberty throughout his trial, he fled prior to being sentenced to 15 years’ prison and has not been seen since. The double failing raises questions as to the involvement of Naredo and González’s police colleagues in their escapes and to the amount of effort being put into locating the two fugitive officers.
At a time when a number of trials related to human rights abuses under military rule are taking place, cases such as these show that, while Argentina has in many ways served as a global example in addressing past crimes, there is still much work to be done in eradicating exploitation and abuse among sectors of the security forces. The state’s response to the recent video may have helped contain this particular scandal but the government will have a tough task convincing the population that such behaviour is not commonplace. It is yet another in a long list of testing issues which the Fernandez de Kirchner administration will need to address before next year’s election.