Argentina: Dubious Past? No Problem for Private Security Firms

Civil society groups in Argentina are concerned that private security firms, which have mushroomed to 850 in Greater Buenos Aires, employ many former police officers and troops who played an active role in the political repression during the 1976-1983 military dictatorship.


(IPS)-Civil society groups in Argentina are concerned that private security firms, which have mushroomed to 850 in Greater Buenos Aires, employ many former police officers and troops who played an active role in the political repression during the 1976-1983 military dictatorship.

Non-governmental organisations complain that the state exercises very little oversight and control over the companies.

To shed light on the steadily growing business, the legislature of the city of Buenos Aires passed a measure under which the names and job history of the owners and employees of private security firms and the companies’ payrolls must be published on the internet by March 2010, to allow for scrutiny by civil society.

The measure was adopted after a court ruling in April forced the Buenos Aires city government, headed by right-wing Mayor Mauricio Macri, to give out information on the owners of two private security firms, Investigaciones Privadas Alsina and Scanner, which had been withheld from the local newspaper Página 12.

As the result of legal action brought by the Centre for Legal and Social Studies (CELS), a local human rights group, a Buenos Aires judge declared unconstitutional a clause in law 1913 on private security firms in the capital, which the city government had invoked to refuse to hand the information over to the newspaper.

According to statistics made available by CELS, of the 100,000 private security guards in this country of 40 million people in 2007, approximately two-thirds were in Greater Buenos Aires, which is home to around 13 million people.

A study by the National Coordinator against Police and Institutional Repression (CORREPI) blames private security guards for two percent of the 2,557 deaths from abuses in police stations and prisons, summary executions or trigger-happy police committed since democracy was restored in 1983.

María del Carmen Verdú, a lawyer with CORREPI – which represents families of the victims of police brutality – told IPS that "the problem is not a lack of laws, but that they do not have any real influence.

"Nearly all provinces and cities have laws banning the hiring of people who have been dismissed from the security forces, have criminal records, or are facing prosecution for crimes against humanity," she said.

"Nevertheless, every time we try to track down a fugitive from justice wanted for a ‘trigger-happy’ shooting, torture or arbitrary detention, we investigate the private security companies first," she said.

Gustavo Palmieri, director of CELS’ Institutional Violence and Citizen Safety programme, told IPS that "the interrelationship between private security agencies and public security is a problem in most countries.

"In Argentina, that relationship is often seen in the illegitimate use of the information and resources of public institutions by private security agencies," he said.

Verdú mentioned a case that highlighted the lack of oversight and enforcement of the laws prohibiting the hiring of private security agents with a dubious past: the case of Buenos Aires assistant police chief Jorge Ramón Fernández, found guilty of torturing to death 17-year-old Sergio Durán in 1992.

The legal ruling against Fernández, handed down in 1995, was the first to prove that the police continued to use the "picana" or electric shock device – a favourite torture technique used on political prisoners during the dictatorship.

Fernández was released from prison in 2003, just eight years after he was sentenced to life in prison. Four years later, CORREPI discovered that he was working for the Segur Part security firm, whose headquarters is located 100 metres from the police station where Durán was tortured to death and 200 metres from the courthouse in the Buenos Aires district of Morón.

"The most amazing thing was that the Parole Board and Criminal Court of Morón knew he was working there," said Verdú.

Other examples are Colonel Aldo Álvarez, a fugitive from justice who managed, according to Página 12, the Alsina security agency, and police commissioner Jorge "Fino" Palacios, who advised the police from the Strategic Security Consultancy SA although he is accused by prosecutors in connection with the 1994 bombing of the AMIA Jewish community centre, in which 85 people were killed.

Another case is that of Buenos Aires province police sergeant Hugo Cáceres, who was sentenced to 22 years in prison for heading a death squad, and was discovered at the head of a security company in Don Torcuato, to the north of Buenos Aires.

Many other private security agents belonged to the "carapintada" movement of far-right junior officers who staged four uprisings against democracy between 1987 and 1990. One of their leaders, Mohamed Ali Seineldin – who died Sept. 2 – was employed by the Fidei security company until 2002.

According to a CELS report, "the informal and illegal relations between the private security agencies, people linked to state terrorism in the last dictatorship, and Buenos Aires police officials were proven in the case of the Jan. 25, 1997 murder of photo journalist José Luis Cabezas," the only proven politically-motivated murder of a reporter since the return to democracy.

"There comes a point where you reach the conclusion that having people with these kinds of backgrounds is an objective, besides the fact that all the retired police chiefs have their own companies," said Verdú.