A photograph of President Mauricio Macri shaking hands with an offduty police officer who fatally shot a man in the back after he stabbed and robbed a US tourist has triggered a heated debate in Argentina over the limits of a crackdown on crime.
The government said the only objective of the encounter was to highlight the hard work of security forces and dispel the notion that officers should always be blamed in such incidents. Human rights advocates, however, fear that President Macri’s support gives police a green light to shoot first and ask questions later. They say it sets a dangerous precedent in a country haunted by memories of human rights abuses by authorities during the 1976-1983 military dictatorship.
Police officer Luis Chocobar shot 18-year-old Juan Pablo Kukoc on December 8 after he injured US citizen Joe Wolek in the La Boca neighbourhood of Buenos Aires, which draws tourists to stroll its narrow streets lined with colourful buildings. The scene was captured by surveillance cameras and the video of the incident has circulated widely.
While the family of the teenager decried his killing, Macri angered many last week when he welcomed Chocobar to the presidential palace and called him a hero. The president also blasted the judge who formally accused the officer in a criminal case.
“I wanted to offer him my full support, and tell him that we’re with him and that we trust that the justice will absolve him of any charge, recognising his courage,” Macri said on Facebook, along with the photograph that got more than 9,000 likes – more than double for the president’s usual posts.
Security Minister Patricia Bullrich said afterwards that the photo ratifies the government’s position that security forces are not always the guilty ones.
“We’re changing this doctrine that said police were always to blame,” she declared.
Such tough words are welcomed by many citizens who are weary of crime. But human rights groups say it sends the wrong message in a country where thousands were killed and forcibly disappeared during the dark days of the military dictatorship.
“It’s assumed that every time a uniformed (officer) kills a person it’s because of a clash and the behaviour is defended as public policy,” said Maria Carmen Verdu, a lawyer who is part of the group Coordinator Against Police Repression.
Verdu’s group says there have been 725 “trigger-happy” and other police abuses committed since Macri took office in December 2015. That would be the highest since the country’s return to democracy in 1983, although the Security Ministry says the statistic is false.
Macri has promised to rescue the discredited security forces he inherited after 12 years of rule by Cristina Fernández de Kirchnerand her late husband and predecessor as president, Néstor Kirchner.
Public safety statistics were untrustworthy during Fernández de Kirchner’s administration but were re-established after Macri took office. A 2017 report by the Security Ministry shows a slight drop in the homicide rate and the number of armed robberies compared to the previous year.
Orlando D’Adamo, head of the public opinion centre at Belgrano University in the capital, said rising crime is a hot-button issue because it affects people’s everyday lives.
“In Argentina’s case, the worsening crime has come in a very short period of time. There are countries in Latin America that have faced this for 50 years. (But here) all of a sudden people have had to incorporate security measures. Concerns cause tensions. Crime makes people very sensitive,” D’Adamo said.
The image of Macri shaking hands with the police officer is a powerful communication strategy that has a positive impact in the poorer and middle-class sectors of society, he said.
The government also publicly backed the actions of the Gendarmerie (Border Guard) forces who were accused of wrongdoing in the death of Santiago Maldonado, the activist whose disappearance in August prompted nationwide protests. Authorities said after an autopsy last year that he drowned and ruled out foul play, but the case is still being investigated. Maldonado’s family says members of the Border Guard killed him, but the force has denied any wrongdoing.
Macri’s administration has also supported federal agents who clashed with members of the Mapuche indigenous community while trying to evict the activists from lands they seized in a national park. Twenty-twoyear-old Rafael Nahuel was killed after being shot.
“This progressive identification between political authority and police institutions implies in practice an end to controlling the forces, at least when it comes to cases of police violence,” said the Center for Legal and Social Studies (CELS) in a statement.