Police surround a protester in Lima, Peru, Tuesday, Nov. 10, 2020. © 2020 Rodrigo Abd/AP Photo

Years of frustrated expectations and dissatisfaction with governments’ social policies boiled over in many Latin American countries in 2019, leading to massive protests. This year, the measures taken in response to the pandemic have forced people to gnaw at their anxieties in the solitude of their homes. But the underlying causes of social unrest have not been resolved.

Economic inequality—a central theme of last year’s demonstrations—has become even more glaring during the pandemic. Moreover, many other concerns behind the protests are still prevalent, such as Chile’s deficient pension system and the killings of human rights defenders in Colombia.

In recent weeks, there have been large demonstrations in Chile, Colombia, and Costa Rica, as well as in Peru, in response to the recent removal of its president. As the Covid-19 health crisis lessens, social unrest may well show up on the streets in other countries.

In 2019, Human Rights Watch documented dozens of cases in which the police and, in some instances, the armed forces responded to demonstrations with excessive and reckless force in Ecuador, Colombia, Chile, Haiti, and Bolivia, resulting in hundreds of serious injuries and many unlawful killings. Some of the demonstrators also committed acts of violence. In Ecuador, protesters held dozens of officers against their will for several hours and in Chile more than 1,800 officers were injured during the protests.

Police can certainly arrest people committing crimes. But last year officers often used excessive force, including against peaceful protesters and bystanders. Police violence frequently triggered further unrest.

Police abuses in Latin America are usually the result of pervasive impunity, lack of oversight, and an institutional culture that permits and, at times, encourages abuse.

Considering what happened last year, governments should urgently enact reforms in three areas: protocols and equipment for crowd-control; authority to detain protesters and the treatment of detainees; and accountability for abuses.

First, police must have clear rules and training to protect human rights during protests. Police should use force only as a measure of last resort, and always in a manner proportionate to specific threats.

In 2019, officers used what many of them called “non-lethal” weapons almost as if they were toys. Teargas, pellet shotguns, and tasers are not “non-lethal” weapons, but “less-lethal” weapons that can cause severe injuries and death.

A year ago, three Chilean police officers told us the pellet shotguns they were using against demonstrators were harmless even when fired at point-blank distance. By then, more than 200 protesters had suffered eye injuries caused by those shotguns. At Human Rights Watch’s request, and in light of a technical report about the composition of the pellets, the Chilean police forbade the use of the shotgun in most circumstances.

Second, reforms should end arbitrary detention and the mistreatment of detainees, which are facilitated by overly broad laws and structural failures in oversight. In Colombia, officers detained protesters by abusing a rule that allows them to “transfer” a person in order “to protect” them. In Ecuador, many protesters were charged with the broadly-defined crime of “rebellion.” In Chile, officers forced many detainees, including children, to undress and squat naked.

And third, when abuses occur, they should be punished. Some countries have laws that facilitate impunity.

In Bolivia, more than 20 protesters were killed in November 2019 after the interim government issued a decree granting the military overly broad discretion in the use of force against demonstrators. Even though the government repealed the decree shortly thereafter, no one has been held accountable for those deaths.

In Colombia and Brazil, many officers who commit abuses are tried by military courts that do not guarantee impartial and independent investigations. Even in countries where proper laws are in place, investigations into police abuses tend to proceed very slowly. In Chile, only one police officer has been convicted for abuses committed during last year’s protests, the Prosecutor´s Office told us. No officer has been convicted in Ecuador, Bolivia, or Colombia.

To be fair, justice systems across the region are slow to ensure accountability in all cases. But lack of political will to advance investigations against police officers and limited cooperation by security forces make judicial processes involving police even more difficult. Meanwhile, internal disciplinary proceedings tend to be opaque, arbitrary, and prone to hiding abuses.

Governments in the region seem to have learned little from the 2019 protests. In El Salvador, Honduras, and Argentina, security forces have engaged in serious abuses while enforcing measures against the spread of Covid-19, as well as in response to demonstrations.

The most recent case comes from Peru, where the police used teargas and pellet guns in an excessive manner, and officers dressed as civilians carried out arbitrary detentions. Two protesters were killed. In Colombia, 13 people died and hundreds were injured during the protests in September.

Chile is the only country in the region that is seriously discussing police reform. In Colombia, the Supreme Court recently decreed that reforms should take place. However, neither country has enacted significant changes thus far.

In other countries there have been serious setbacks. Peru recently passed a law that makes it more difficult to prosecute police who use excessive force. Ecuador approved a similar regulation for the armed forces, although the country’s Constitutional Court halted its application.

Abuses are not the result of a few bad apples, but of structural deficiencies. Latin Americans need professional police forces that have the training and supervision necessary to be held accountable for their performance. Getting there will be a long process, but it must begin immediately, for the well-being of both citizens and the police.