By Jean-Jacques Kourliandsky
On the 6th of October 2021, the Constitutional Court of Ecuador validated the right of armed forces to intervene in prisons. This decision put an end to the separation between police and military, responsible respectively for internal security and the defense of national sovereignty. This situation is far from exceptional: it confirms an evolution prevailing in a number of Latin American democracies.
In a prison near Guayaquil, on the 28th of September 2021, detainees belonging to rivaling gangs engaged in a violent fight to death. 119 prisoners died, the highest score ever recorded in a Latin American prison. Policemen couldn’t cope with the intensity of the situation, forcing the government to ask the army for help. This decision was solidified on the 29th of September, when a presidential decree was adopted and confirmed by the Constitutional Court.
A situation of emergency led to a decision that is anything but democratic. It reinvokes memories from military regimes that reigned at the end of the 20th century in Ecuador as well as in other countries. But did Quito have the choice? Obviously not. There were signs of this coming crisis several months before; despite that, prisons had not seen their budgets increase. It was announced in 2019 that 38.8 million dollars would be dedicated to prisons, out of which, only 3.5 million ended up used. Consequently, the carceral population increased. According to official numbers, in 2021, Ecuadorean prisons had 38,000 detainees while they had capacity for only 28,500. Conversely, prisons need to hire 70% more guards. The government was left with only one choice: attempt to handle a situation deemed out of control by relying on the last tool that it had left in hand: the army.
Other Latin American governments had been facing a similar fate. Each time, they too, responded with military intervention. Over these last years, the police have not managed to create calm in situations of crisis, not when it came to riots in prisons, nor in situations of social demonstrations and public security crises in general. But the most surprising thing is the fact that police forces seem to be less and less capable to guarantee peace, their main mission.
Generally speaking, forces meant to guarantee security and order suffer from a lack of training and organization, because they are not provided the means to do so. They end up permeable, which may be the reason why they are corrupt too. Federal states, such as Brazil and Mexico, are the most affected by this situation. To make ends meet, Brazilian policemen and jail guards, as well as Rio de Janeiro’s firemen, end up being part of vandal groups called “militias”. In Mexico, local police forces often deal directly with smugglers and cartels.
In this context, it is not uncommon to see public authorities isolating police forces from their main duty: maintaining order. Sometimes, this ends up being due to their priority being allocated to situations of social crisis such as carceral riots. In September 2021, the mobilization of the Ecuadorean army was not an isolated case. In Honduras, on the 20th of June 2019, the Chief of State asked the army to put an end to a sociopolitical movement of protests. On the 20th of January 2020, the President of Chile obtained the Senate’s approval to deploy the military “when there is a serious alteration of public order”. Other governments followed the same way, turning exceptions into law. Since the 1st of January 2019, in Brazil, military officers have been given ministerial and public positions. The Covid-19 pandemic, and the way it was managed, made this situation only even more common. In Mexico, since the 1st of December 2006, armies have been replacing police forces progressively in the fight against narcotrafficking. On the 26th of March 2019, the creation of a National Guard and its placing under the orders of the Secretariat of National Defense (Sedena) widened the scope of intervention of the military. Since then, armed forces have extended their prerogatives to ports and custom offices, based on the terms of a presidential decree that was adopted on the 17th of July 2020.
How far can this militarization within democratic regimes go? The past remains all too relevant. From Guatemala to Chile, the memories of dictators that have mistreated their populations still exist in the minds of their citizens. But isn’t there a risk that this militarized drift, a phenomenon that we can see prevailing at a universal level, ends up turning against everybody? In Ecuador, many blame the financial and economic crisis of the last years on the austerity measures that have been adopted to obtain loans from the IMF. Naturally, COVID-19 worsened this situation. Social iniquities and the fact that they have been neglected in their effects had a negative impact on social and ethical equilibriums and on stability. They ended up forcing authorities to step over democratic principles, and to rely on armed forces.