The Latin Americanization of U.S. Police Forces
From Guatemala City I have been keeping up with the events in Ferguson, Missouri and my heart goes out to those United States citizens who are actively resisting a brutal local police state. I sit awake at night and contemplate how one of the greatest nations in the world has become militarized and despotic. Impunity is now normalized in most police departments across the United States and in the minds of many Americans. I did not know I would live to see this phenomenon, yet, the more I peruse online news feeds, the more evident it is to me that Americans, especially minorities, are in great danger of militarized suppression as a matter of state policy.
From our experience in half a century in Latin America I can tell you that, once the human rights of a minority are compromised, it is only a matter of time before they are compromised for an entire nation. From that same experience I can tell you it will take decades before they can be regained. Militarized police forces take on a life of their down, at the expense of the society’s well-being. The social contract that gives the state the duty to organize police forces itself becomes obsolete, almost a joke. Citizens begin to obey agents of the state not out of respect or cooperation, but out of fear of those sworn to protect them. Eventually, the militarized power of the police reaches such magnitude that political leaders lose all ability to rein them in. We experienced this USA-backed militarized transformation of the police in Guatemala, El Salvador, Honduras, Chile, and Colombia. What the U.S. helped do to Latin America, it is now doing to itself.
Even when there will officers who want to adhere to the law, militarized policing organizations become an unstoppable and despotic force. The very ideologies that give them life become obsolete, as do all existing laws that protect citizens. Central American dictatorships backed and armed by the United States government in the 1970’s built police forces, outfitted them with military gear, and allowed them to brutalize and kill with impunity. The murder or incarceration of progressive democratic leaders who resisted this transformation was sanctioned by United States intelligence agencies.
I call out to white United States citizens, and those police officers that believe in democracy and the rule of law, to unite with racial minorities who are now being suppressed, and to resist the catastrophic militarization of police forces across the United States. For white Americans to think that their race makes them immune to police brutality is a mistake that cannot be afforded. Central American urban mestizo masses ignored the genocide of hundreds of thousands of indigenous peoples. They saw these massacres as not their problem. Today we all suffer militarized suppression. Racial division was our greatest weakness.
We must not shy away from the reality of a racialized United States of America. We must face our racial diversity, embrace its beauty, and unite as one democratic and leading nation. We are not divided at heart or by nature. Media pundits play with our emotions by telling divisive stories of racial conflict. Recently they have trained many white Americans to fear Central Americans who have courageously made it to our borders, escaping undeclared and unstoppable internal conflicts. These are murderous conflicts born out of the very militarization of Central American nation-states by the United States. In Guatemala alone more than 800,000 citizens have been murdered since the peace accords were signed in 1996, after a thirty-six year internal militarized conflict.
But militarized police are not the only problem. Since the 1980’s, government, from Washington D.C. to the states and cities, has been poisoned with inept and cynical politicians who play a racist card to keep Americans divided. And this is a necessary part of a militarized state equation. In fact, 21st century United States politics follows a developing path in place in much of Latin America for half a century. I call it the Latinamericanization of the United States. This path includes politicians selling society to the highest bidder, eradicating laws that protect civilians against poverty, disease, job insecurity, and police brutality.
In Guatemala, for example, politicians have no economic or politics training, or educational experience to hold powerful and influential government office. Social breakdown is such that the average citizen is in danger of death by warring gangs, extortion mafias, or the police. Politicians have carved out the legislative and executive branches in such a way that the military and the police state serves their safety, and that of their families and friends. The police also guard the great fortunes and economic interests. Everyone else must suffer insecurity, poverty, prison, and sometimes, random death. Protests are now officially terrorist acts. Meanwhile the United States continues to provide weapons and military training to these Guatemalan elites.
We can no longer argue that the United States is a country where civil liberties and human rights are protected. While an elite class remains immune to political and police corruption and militarization, this does not hold truth for the majority.
Part of my family escaped to the United States in the 1980’s. We escaped Guatemala’s poverty, racism, and a raging internal conflict, in hopes of a better life. Our story is not new; it is the same story told millions of times over in the last two centuries by earlier migrants. We ended up in Los Angeles, California. I was blessed with my mother’s support to educate myself while she toiled away in underpaid jobs. That did not matter to her. It did not matter to me. We Mayans have been toiling at staying alive for the last five centuries. We are the continuation of that struggle for survival.
I was taught to love the United States by my teachers, and to work hard to contribute to a nation that held so much promise. I did. With great effort and dedication I became a sociologist and historian. I wanted to understand the social fabric that sustains us as Americans and sustains me as a survivor of genocide.
Although pockmarked with racism, my experience in graduate school was one of support by white professors, fellow graduate students, and my beloved students. I learned to have hope in the white American society. I strove to teach my students to understand and take advantage of their privilege to help us make of the United States a better racial democracy.
But living in South Los Angeles in the last decade also revealed to me the parallels of militarized Latin America to many pockets of the United States, and it gave me front row seat to observe the fast militarization of police departments in the United States. African Americans and Latin@s are on lock down in that part of Los Angeles. LAPD will kill anyone in South LA with impunity. Their impunity is now part of the Californian political structure, just as in Latin America. No overseeing agency, citizen watchdog or Californian political coalition can realistically reform the LAPD. For decades people have been suffering. The LA riots of 1992 were an example of that suffering.
In the Rampart scandal police officers sworn to crack down on gangs became a murderous gang themselves. This is a familiar pattern seen across Latin America, where police forces were encouraged to take on tougher tactics to combat the products of mass poverty and severe inequality. Extortion mafias now have Guatemala and El Salvador societies on their knees. Their militarized police forces are riddled with corruption, ineptitude, and seemingly ubiquitous violence. Violence is everywhere. America seems to be heading this way.
Let us not think we will not experience this in the United States. The footage from Ferguson shows the frightening militarization of police officers, playing war against civil society. They will not stop. The governor of Missouri will not stop them. Perhaps he can’t.
I call out to all white Americans, to unite with suppressed minorities who are incarcerated daily, killed in the streets, and who hold little political power against these militarized police forces. It is in their utmost interest to understand that, just as in Latin America, when the white peoples, the mestizos of Guatemala, Honduras, and El Salvador, stood aside as indigenous peoples were massacred, subjugation for all is certain once militarized monsters awaken, learn to walk, and find their own developmental path.
Cosme Caal is a community activist and scholar from the Americas. His interests include political mobilization of Mayans in Guatemala and Los Angeles, and the Pachakutik indigenous political organization in the Andean region.