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In this blog entry, ReCentGlobe member Agustina Carrizo de Reimann addresses the latest cases of police brutality in Latin America from a historical perspective and reflects upon other points of departure for the discussion. Against simplistic explanations, she traces the obscurity of the field of enquiry and contextualizes policing practices of knowledge and legitimation within state and society.

The pandemic has opened a new chapter in the history of police violence in Latin America. On 10 September, seven persons died in Bogota during a protest triggered by the death of an unarmed family man during an arrest. In Argentina, a team of forensic anthropologists confirmed on 2 September that the human remains found in a bog belong to the 22-year-old Facundo Astudillo Castro, who disappeared on 30 April after being detained by the Buenos Aires police for violating quarantine restrictions. According to Amnesty International, Castro’s and other topical cases of police brutality are not isolated or the results of the current extraordinary situation. Instead, they point to a long-standing structural problem by the Latin American security forces, which is now magnified by the pandemic. Brazilian and Venezuelan police have for years been among the most lethal security forces worldwide.

How can we tackle this enduring yet urgent issue? The Argentinian anthropologists Tomás Bover and Mariana Sirimarco argue that widespread explanations, which confine institutional violence to a problem of police training or the survival of an authoritarian past, do not grasp its complexity and even hinder productive public debate.[1] Correspondingly, the proposed consideration does not aim to provide simplistic answers. Building on the studies published in the volume Making Modern Police in Latin America,[2] it outlines the development of technics of knowledge, and legitimation tactics of Latin American police at the end of the 19th century. It traces the obscurity of the police as a field of enquiry and relocates its practices within and between state and society to identify other points of departure for the discussion.


On the one hand, modern police appear to be a much-discussed object of study. In Latin America, the return to democracy in the 1980s and the declassification of the archives opened up the field for critical enquiry on the role of security forces in state terrorism and the destabilizing effect of repression and corruption on the then restored democratic orders. On the other hand, police – as a site of knowledge production – remain a black box. The opacity that conceals the organization, doctrines, and quotidian policing practices challenges researchers on different levels: despite their accessibility, the disorganization and dispersion of police archives still pose a substantial problem for study. The material disarray also relates to the fact that, due to its role as an agent of “low politics”, scholars have long underestimated the impact of police agency on political, social, and cultural transformation. Indeed, both researchers and police tend to regard each other with suspicion. Rather than objectivity, this distancing reinforces the ignorance and ideological bias that deem police past and present as determined either by the logic of organic progress or by never-ending impunity. Therefore, researchers have called in the last decades for an epistemological rupture that relocates police within the executive, administrative, and sociocultural orders. Understanding police as socially, culturally, and politically produced organizations also requires to look beyond the modalities and logic of crime detection and prevention as well as to consider less extraordinary, yet equally meaningful practices of protection, control, and repression.

One fundamental difficulty of understanding police practices arises when looking at its generalist orientation. How do police forces and authorities find a balance between the obligations related to the defence of the state monopoly of violence and the vocation to serve the public welfare? As an answer to this question, well-known typologies have proposed to differentiate between state-centred police corps, driven by militarist rationality, and local forces with civic character. In praxis, however, this characterization has proven less productive. Likewise, linear models of institutional development and the contraposition of democratic and authoritarian contexts have not been able to give convincing answers.

Technics of Knowledge

In contrast, a glance at the history of Latin American police shows diverse modalities of modernization, which both redefined and covered the link between control, repression, and protection. It also points to the fact that police forces do not work in an isolated manner. Then, as today, they moved within a dense network of private, public, state, and civic order-making actors.

At the end of the 19th century, many Latin American cities experienced enormous growth as a result of internal and transnational migration. Multicultural, overcrowded cities like Buenos Aires or Ciudad de México posed a particular challenge for police forces, which were then, as still occurs today, short of personnel, financial, and technical resources. Barely literate policemen[3] were expected to document in writing the urban population and its movements. Data gathering and activity reports served as control tools of both city inhabitants and public servants. The documents allowed traceability and increased accountability, but they did not automatically produce transparency. The practices of bureaucratic writing and the circulation of documents among different instances contributed to the dissemination of responsibility and, thus, created additional room for impunity and collusion. At the same time, documentation disproportionally increased the workload and, hence, hindered effective policing. Besides collecting criminal and non-criminal population data, officers had to report to different authorities, exchange information with other institutions (such as tribunals, hospitals, orphanages, and banks), and issue documents and permits for citizens.

Why should we consider these early (dis)orders of police-bureaucratic writing to trace the sources of institutional violence? First, even though bureaucratic taxonomies produce objectivity by identifying, separating, locating, and relating living and dead things with each other, they are never neutral. Their categories, rules, and “gaps” (re)produce and mask the unequal distribution of power in society. From this perspective, racialized policing – as a means of structural and physical violence – cannot be reduced to a problem of police training or anti-democratic cop subcultures. The development of sustainable strategies against institutionalized discrimination needs to consider the laws and historically developed modes and logic of knowing and surveilling society beyond the institutional limits, which might be encouraging the over-policing and under-protection of certain social groups and ethnic communities.

Sensationalization as Legitimation Tactic

Just as today, police at the end of the 19th century were under constant scrutiny by the press, who equally denounced its abuses and failures and celebrated its reforms and success. For its part, Latin American police recognized the public gaze as both an enemy and an ally. They learned how to seize popular fascination with modern criminality and scientism to make their work more appealing to both policemen and society. By way of example, the Investigation Bureau of the City of Buenos Aires generated news in its favour and collaborated with the press to solve spectacular criminal cases. In this manner, it managed to gain more acceptance from the city’s precincts as well as to establish itself as the main driver of police modernization in the eyes of the public. Just as in Argentina, Brazilian and Mexican police journals published sensationalist true crime stories and detective fiction to both reinforce the moral and make the use of technical knowledge more popular among policemen. The sensationalization of everyday life helped to publicize police and state work as well as shaped the interpretation framework for local experiences of modernity. Hence, policing not only linked various actors but also integrated different imaginaries. The analysis of police brutality needs to contextualize abuses within wide discursive frames and consider the role of the mediatization of police work and the sensationalization of violence.

Police as a Contact Zone

Already the brief look at the history of police modernization in Latin America gives reasons why oversimplifying explanations, which reduce institutional violence to questions of training and anachronic political identifications, does not grasp the issue. Civic and state organizations need to look at the networks of policing actors as well as at the intersection of different practices and discourses that enable the discrimination, abuse, and impunity. For this purpose, it is helpful to understand police as a sociopolitical contact zone, both within and between state and society. The protest of armed policemen and policewomen that began on 7 September in different parts of the province of Buenos Aires raises further questions in this respect. How can and should armed civic forces communicate claims regarding salary, health, work conditions, and gender-based violence? Can policemen and policewomen be considered workers? And do they, as such, share the same rights as other state and non-state employees?[4] This debate ultimately builds on a more complex issue: how has modern society integrated polices forces?


[1] Tomás Bover and Mariana Sirimarco, “¿Otra vez la policía? A propósito de la violencia policial y las explicaciones de siempre,” La Tecl@ Eñe. Revista de Cultura y Política (8/9/2020).

[2] Agustina Carrizo de Reimann (ed.), Making Modern Police in Latin America: Beiträge zur Geschichte der Polizeien im 19. und 20. Jahrhundert (Leipziger Universitätsverlag, 2020).

[3] In the period under review, there were no women working in the police forces.

[4] Agustina Paz Frontera, “La protesta policial ¿Lxs policías son trabajadorxs? ¿Por qué no tienen sindicatos?,” El Cohete a la Luna (13/9/2020)