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Perverse Incentives and Killings By Security Forces

By Taylor Marvin

Extrajudicial killings by security forces are not unique to the Americas, but have repeatedly dominated the region’s headlines. While these killings stem from many causes, occasionally they are encouraged by almost deliberately perverse incentives.

As Juliana Barbassa recounts in her excellent Dancing with the Devil in the City of God: Rio de Janeiro on the Brink, by the late 1980s Rio de Janeiro’s police forces found themselves increasingly outgunned by drug traffickers. “That imbalance lasted until 1994,” Barbassa writes, “when Rio elected a new tough-on-crime governor, Marcello Alencar.” In addition to up-gunning Rio’s Polícia Militar with more semiautomatic weapons, Alencar also “instituted raises for police who demonstrated bravery on the job—bravery as measured in the number of bodies left on the ground. This became known as the Wild West bonus: shoot, then collect.” Again according to Barbassa, the new policy doubled the number of suspects police reported killing in gunfights, many who the police are suspected of instead executing. Although Rio de Janeiro police’s harsh tactics predate the bonus policy – which was revoked in 1998 – “taking the Wild West bonus off the books did not change the culture it had reinforced within police departments” and today on-duty police commit 16 percent of Rio’s homicides.

This calls to mind Colombia’s so-called “false positive” scandal, which was first widely reported in 2008 (this Human Rights Watch report comes via Boz). Lured by a 2005 directive which rewarded combat kills in the war against leftist rebels with leave and cash bonuses, Colombian soldiers murdered thousands of civilians – usually poor men – before dressing them in fatigues and reporting them as rebels. These murders were systemic: citing Colombia ReportsJoel Gillin notes that when false positive killings peaked in 2007 “at least 40 percent of combat kills were in fact civilians.” As Tom Feiling writes in his book Short Walks from Bogotá: Journeys in the New Colombia, false positive killing spread throughout the Colombian Army. Similarly to Rio’s police, while the bonus policy was revoked in 2006 “body count syndrome” had already infected the Colombian military. Despite public outcry, investigations, and the forced resignations of some senior officers, “once the peripatetic gaze of the camera had passed,” Feiling writes, “the armed forces returned to time-honored tactics.” Both the military and the governments of Presidents Álvaro Uribe and Juan Manuel Santos balked at imposing real consequences, and the Colombian military’s human rights record remains poor.

What is particularly striking about both of these cases is how predictable the consequences of “body count syndrome” policies should have been. Beyond a myopic focus on body counts as a metric for judging counterinsurgency and policing, directly rewarding soldiers and police for killing the ‘enemy’ creates an obvious incentive for soldiers to murder civilians, or in police’s case for extrajudicial killings and disproportionate use of force. Indeed, this is not a case of Latin American institutions inadvertently allowing human rights abuses, but rather directly fostering them.

While Colombia’s insurgency is largely unique today, extreme insecurity continues to challenge many Latin American governments. Under public and international pressure to impose order these governments are tempted to reward soldiers and police who ‘get the job done,’ measure security though body counts, and impress the public with this progress: a 1997 diplomatic cable cited by Colombia Reports argues that the incentives created by institutional body count syndrome tended “to fuel human rights abuses by well-meaning soldiers trying to get their quota to impress superiors.” This is a mistake.

Recognizing the perverse incentives that rewarding security forces for combat kills create is vital for avoiding human rights abuses, but alone is not enough. Extrajudicial killings and coverups are not only prompted by personal rewards: InSight Crime has noted body count syndrome elsewhere and Boz police coverups in Mexico and Venezuela. American police forces and local governments also frequently conceal police murders, often of people of color. Just as in the US, Latin America’s false positive killings – and the Americas’ high homicide rate more broadly – are linked the region’s extreme inequality and racism. The victims of the Colombian Army’s false positive murders are mainly the poor, and according to a recent Amnesty International report the majority of those killed by Rio de Janeiro’s police are young black men. (Not coincidently, as Rio on Watch writes Rio de Janeiro’s Military Police is descended from a force tasked with keeping slaves down.)

The consequences of policies that reward individual soldiers and police for killing are predictable. Despite their very real security challenges it is difficult to imagine Latin American governments rewarding body counts if they valued the bodies of these policies’ victims.

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