If the Buenos Aires provincial policeman Luis Chocobar stands accused of “an excess of legitimate defence” in slaying a violent robber in the Boca neighbourhood, an excess of legitimate defence might also be a pretty good way of describing Mauricio Macri’s own stance in the matter. The president might be pushing the right political buttons in presenting this pleasingly simplistic image of good cops versus bad robbers while “the law is an ass” (the words placed by Charles Dickens in the mouth of Mr Bumble) but this gratuitous move was way out of line for a president seeking to restore institutional integrity – he was not only invoking all the weight of the Executive Branch in pre-empting the resolution of a case corresponding to the Judicial but also seeking to mobilise popular opinion.
The case as such does not lend itself to this rush to judgement. It’s impossible to present the dead man as an innocent victim of police brutality since he had just stabbed an American tourist (Francis Joseph Wolek by name) 10 times while trying to steal his camera. But there is far less clarity as to whether the mugger tried to attack Chocobar (we have only the policeman’s account of the pursuit) but also as to whether Chocobar intended to kill him (as many people would like to believe) since he shot him in the thigh, rarely a mortal wound. There is thus insufficient evidence to warrant the conclusion of either a police hero or a trigger-happy cop. In short, this seems a classic case of (in the words of Alexander Pope) “fools rush in where angels fear to tread.”
Macri’s motives for this move invite speculation. Was it simple sincerity or does it stem from prompting by spindoctors anxious to revive sagging presidential popularity? And if the latter, was it a broad attempt to tap public indignation against crime or was there a more specific target (for example, luring away voters from Sergio Massa who has eased his hard line on law and order since aligning with the progressive Margarita Stolbizer)? And was the timing – coming the same day as major increases in transport fares – entirely a coincidence? If indeed it was an attempt to distract attention, the government should be defending and explaining the new transport fares, which is far from a mission impossible (can charging six pesos for a suburban train ride of up to 60 kilometres really be considered daylight robbery, for example?). Or was Macri’s main target really permissive judges, perhaps irked by Inter-American Human Rights Court judge Eugenio Zaffaroni’s recent comments calling for his rapid exit from the presidency (an entirely justifiable anger since a regional court judge should not advance a political opinion of any kind, never mind virtual coup-mongering)?
Macri’s glorification of police work comes when the forensic tests into the Border Guard shooting of the Mapuche militant Rafael Nahuel are proceeding very much behind the headlines (Chocobar is a very common indigenous surname in the north, it might be inserted in passing). The opposition are also in line for criticism here because during the midterm election campaign some sectors presented the apparently accidental death of Santiago Maldonado as a return of genocide and now they have almost nothing to say on what looks like a much clearer case of a police excess.
Finally, are we seeing a more significant shift in Macri beyond a knee-jerk response to public crime anxieties? In the first two years of the presidency Macri’s more right-wing supporters were very much sidelined with the watchwords consensus and dialogue – since the midterms we have seen calls for steeply increased defence spending in the wake of the ARA San Juan submarine tragedy and increasingly loose use of the word “terrorism” (in connection with the Mapuches and drug-trafficking, which is far more organised crime). Isolated in Congress, is Macri now pitching toward a core of right-wing support?