A Global Americans Review of Authoritarian Police in Democracy, Contested Security in Latin America

Yanilda María González’s book examines why it is so difficult to reform Latin America’s police forces.


Source: Cambridge University Press.

Yanilda María González, Authoritarian Police in Democracy, Contested Security in Latin America. Cambridge University Press. 2020.

Price: 36.99 USD | 355 pages


In the 2023 Latin America Barometer published by Vanderbilt University, only 38 percent of the region’s citizens expressed confidence in their police forces—far behind the armed forces, Catholic, and Evangelical churches. While some countries like El Salvador have managed to rein in crime with draconian measures, including massive arrests without due process, many countries in the region still struggle with epidemics of violence. In Ecuador, fueled by transnational gang wars, homicides surged by over 500 percent between 2016 and 2022. In recent years, Mexico dissolved its Federal Police and replaced it with the more muscular National Guard under military control, and Honduras withdrew and then re-deployed the Military Police for Public Order from the country’s prison systems after a heinous massacre in a women’s penitentiary. Even in Chile, where the Carabineros have been held up as a standard of competence and integrity, the army is now patrolling the northern border to curb illegal drugs and irregular migration, primarily from Venezuela. They have also been sent by the left-leaning Boric government to the south of the country to address crime, violence, and unrest related to unsettled conflicts with the Mapuche indigenous communities. In sum, Latin America’s police forces are simply unable to meet the public’s needs for citizen security or are insufficient as currently constituted.

In this light, Yanilda María González’s book Authoritarian Police in Democracy, Contested Security in Latin America unpacks some of the key obstacles that prevent Latin American governments from consolidating the reforms required to ensure that policing is a public good accessible to all citizens. Her research draws on extensive fieldwork studying the state police in São Paulo, Brazil, the provincial police of Buenos Aires, Argentina, and the Colombian National Police from the 1980s to the early 2010s. The three case studies reinforce shared challenges and highlight specific local and national dynamics. Her overarching thesis is that there are two necessary pre-conditions for police reform to take root. First, a security crisis, event, or scandal must occur to sustain public opinion in favor of police reform. Second, the distribution of partisan political power needs to be sufficiently competitive but not overly fragmented to allow for a pro-reform political champion or coalition to emerge and mobilize policy action that also promises political benefit.

González’s scholarship takes seriously the negative consequences of common policing practices on marginalized communities that emerged during 1990s democratization processes that largely left the police forces to govern themselves as long as they did not cause problems for political elites. While the region’s militaries were compelled to reorient their subordination to civilian leadership and prerogatives after UN-brokered peace agreements and democratization processes, police forces were either rebranded or created from new cloth in contexts of increased illicit drug trafficking and the urbanization of crime, in particular youth crime. However, in all three of the case studies covered in the book, the police forces were long-standing institutions.

Her assessment of policing in São Paulo uncovered compelling similarities with policing in the United States. State and local politicians were distributing policing resources disproportionately to upper-middle-class neighborhoods because of their ability to demand services via petition and through the ballot box. At the same time, poorer, mostly black neighborhoods had sub-standard police infrastructure and scant resources; local residents were also subject to arbitrary and excessive use of force when interacting with the police.

In Buenos Aires, González documents how the provincial police were used by authorities to spy on political opponents—even as the democratization process was well underway—and in exchange were allowed to use hard-handed tactics in their engagement with local criminals and in the protection of rackets led by police officers. When authorities tried to rein them in, they withheld policing services, generating citizen discontent. Police reform was only initiated in response to popular outrage when police killed a local journalist in the run-up to provincial elections.

Colombia is perhaps the unruliest of cases covered in the book, with a national police institution subordinate to the Ministry of Defense and in armed conflict with left-wing guerillas and highly armed drug cartels. González’s research clearly identifies the challenges that policing institutions face when pulled into missions outside their traditional institutional mandates. Under such circumstances, the vulnerable citizens to be protected by police instead found themselves treated as enemies of the state—caught between the dominance of illegal armed groups and government efforts to reclaim ungoverned spaces. Some believe that this mentality spilled over into recent police efforts in Colombia to quell urban social protest during the COVID-19 pandemic.

Authoritarian Police in Democracy covers a somewhat imprecise period, mostly from the 1980s to the late 2000s. A lot has happened since then, with some positive changes in Latin America’s police forces, but certainly not enough. For example, in Colombia, there have been some promising, if incipient, efforts to retrain police in major cities on the principles of procedural justice, such as fairness and respect, while increasing the number of positive police-community interactions. In Brazil and Argentina, police stations are staffed by female officers for the specific purpose of aiding women who need to interact with the criminal justice system.

Despite these positive developments, there are still too many cases of excessive use of force and corruption in many of Latin America’s policing institutions. There is no shortage of pronouncements by politicians calling for the reform and professionalization of police forces. González rightly emphasizes that there is a significant difference between formal procedure and actual substance, both in terms of democracy and policing.


William H. Godnick is a professor of practice with the William J. Perry Center for Hemispheric Defense Studies at the National Defense University in Washington, D.C. From 2009 to 2016, he was the Public Security Program Coordinator for the United Nations Regional Center for Peace, Disarmament, and Development in Latin America and the Caribbean.

Global Americans takes pride in serving as a platform that offers in-depth analyses on various political, economic, environmental, and foreign affairs issues in the Western Hemisphere. The views and opinions expressed in this article are solely those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of Global Americans or anyone associated with it, and publication by Global Americans does not constitute an endorsement of all or any part of the views expressed. 

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