Law and Order and the temptation of right-wing populism

31 August 2014

The lack of a feeling of citizen security in Peru has long been one of the top concerns of potential voters when consulted by the various polling agencies whose surveys have become a staple of newspapers and television. This is not surprising. Tales of crime and corruption litter media coverage, while the activities of drug trafficking and other mafias make themselves felt throughout the country.

In fact, Peru is far from being among Latin America’s most violent and lawless countries. It compares quite favourably with Mexico and the countries of Central America (especially Honduras, which has the dubious honour of having the world’s highest homicide rate).

Still, this is of little comfort to Peruvians who feel that the climate of insecurity is worsening and the Humala government is doing little to stem the tide.

Such feelings of insecurity, however, provide opportunities for politicians to surf the waves of public concern. Appearing to ‘get tough with crime’ is an easy way to rally public opinion behind you. This was not lost on the Fujimori government in the 1990s when it staged its ‘self coup’ (autogolpe) in April 1992, ripping up the constitution and violating both civil liberties and human rights. Alberto Fujimori is still in jail (albeit a gilded cage) for his involvement in human rights violations and corruption.

It has not been lost either on his daughter, Keiko, who narrowly missed being elected president in 2011. She and her fellow fujimoristas, represented in parliament as Fuerza Popular (FP), have made ‘law and order’ the lynchpin of their appeal to the Peruvian public. Not surprisingly, FP has strong supporters in the police and the armed forces, which have repeatedly been accused of violation of human and civil rights.

The latest to jump on this bandwagon is the present interior minister, Daniel Urresti. Urresti was appointed to the job in June, replacing as minister the former acting ombudsman and human rights lawyer Walter Albán. Urresti, formerly an army general, is under investigation for the part he is alleged to have played in the killing in 1988 of Hector Bustíos, correspondent in Ayacucho for the weekly magazine Caretas. Urresti, who was the head of army intelligence at the time in Ayacucho, denies the accusations made against him.

Since taking the job, Urresti has made a number of strongly-worded speeches about how he intends to pursue his ‘law and order’ agenda. As a result, his popularity has suddenly shot up in the opinion polls. Some commentators have even said that he might be a viable presidential candidate when Humala steps down in 2016. His critics have claimed that this is no more than a further example of right-wing populism in the Fujimori mould.

Whether or not Urresti manages to sustain his new-found popularity will depend if he can translate tough words into deeds, reducing significantly the incidence of crime and violence in the country. His predecessors in the job failed to make much impact, and the ministry of the interior has turned out to be one of the jobs in government with highest turnover.

The challenge, of course, is whether such action can be taken in ways that adhere strictly to the spirit and letter of the rule of law.  There is always a strong temptation for those in control of the police (like Urresti) and the army to short-cut legal procedures, taking matters of security into their own hands. The police force, in particular, is often a contributor to the climate of insecurity that prevails. Fortunately, however, Peru has some institutions that stand up for civil and human rights, like the Ombudsman’s office (Defensoría del Pueblo) and the number of human rights NGOs which have raised their voices over the last 30 years.

There is also a strong international network – which the Peru Support Group is proud to be part – which have brought repeated injustices to the attention of the outside world. As we look forward to the last two years of Ollanta Humala’s administration and beyond, there will be many who will seek to prevent the quest for ‘law and order’ turning into brazen oppression and political witch hunts.

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  • PSG Aims

    The Peru Support Group exists to promote social inclusion, sustainable development and the observance of human rights in Peru. To that end the PSG highlights shortcomings in observance of established norms, whether international or local in nature, in its research, advocacy and publications. In so doing, it underscores the relationships that exist within the political system, how institutions work, and the effectiveness of policies that aim to reduce poverty and inequality within the context of sustainable development.

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    Over the past century Peru has suffered a series of autocratic governments and a civil war in which nearly 70,000 people died. Many of the country's ongoing political and social problems are a legacy of its somewhat turbulent past. 

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    Human rights violations were widespread during the twenty years after the initiation of armed conflict in 1980. Efforts to convict perpetrators since the war's end have made only limited progress. Today, concerns remain over the treatment of those engaged in social protest, particularly against strategically important investment projects.

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