Policing Protest in Argentina and Chile

October 11, 2016

Despite the return of electoral democracy to most of Latin America in the 1980s and early 1990s, thousands of protesters continue to be arbitrarily arrested, injured, or even killed by police.1 At the most extreme, dramatic events result in many people losing their lives to police violence. For example, during the December 2001 economic and political crisis in Argentina, 39 protesters were killed. Yet such repressive protest policing is not limited to dramatic and destabilizing events. Nor does it occur only in countries, like Argentina, where police are widely known by the public to be violent. Chile is a relatively stable democracy, with a well-respected police force. However, police in Chile have killed protesters as recently as 2011. Less fatal police repression of protest is routine.

According to the Inter-American Human Rights Commission, “societal participation through public demonstration is important for the consolidation of [the] democratic life of societies. In general, as an exercise of freedom of expression and freedom of assembly, it is of crucial social interest, which in turn leaves the State with very narrow margins to justify restrictions on this right.”2 Police repression of protests involves not only violence but also any action by police that increases the costs of collective action, and thus of freedom of speech and freedom of assembly.3

In addition to impacting citizens’ right to free speech, protest policing is highly visible and experienced by many people who do not normally come in contact with the police. Consequently, citizens’ trust in the police, the legal system, and their political leaders may be colored by these experiences. Yet most studies of police reform and democratization do not address protest policing.

This study fills this gap in the literature and analyzes protest policing from the perspective of accountability. If the right to protest is fundamental to democracy, it follows that those responsible for repressive protest policing should, in a democracy, be held accountable. However, accountability is not straightforward.

Protest policing is a complex challenge in all democracies. Repressive protest policing is not always viewed, in every society or every instance, as wrongdoing. Indeed, political and public support for mano dura (iron fist policing) has been noted as a significant challenge to police reform throughout Latin America.

In this book I tackle the challenge of mano duradiscourses. I ask: what role does discourse play in accountability for repressive protest policing? I argue that discourse matters for accountability in that it can establish repressive protest policing as wrongdoing, a precondition if other mechanisms of accountability are to be pursued or applied effectively. Discourses identify who is responsible, for what, and which mechanisms of institutional accountability should be pursued. They can shame the identified wrongdoers, demand answers, and advocate for the activation mechanism of state institutional accountability. This is what I call discursive accountability.

The study is based in an examination of history, media and document analysis, as well in-depth interviews with approximately 50 police experts in each country. “Police experts” refers to those state and society actors whose work involves the police in some manner: journalists, social movement activists, political leaders, political party members, civil servants, police, and former police. The two-country comparison highlights similarities and differences relevant to other countries.


Accountability and Repressive Protest Policing

Many scholars have studied the relationship between protests and repression, primarily in the context of established democracies. Those actors identified by scholars as responsible for repressive protest policing include the government, protesters, individual police officers, police as an institution, the media, and no one. Part of establishing accountability for repressive protest policing involves public debate regarding who (if anyone) is most responsible.

Accountability is also about state, civil society, and media actors discursively identifying the action or inaction they consider to be wrongdoing. The outcome of these debates can determine which state institutions of accountability are used (if any). The literature on protest policing identifies two dominant frames that are used to explain actions or inactions as wrongdoing or not. First, is a law-and-order frame, which involves justifying police using high levels of repression to maintain order, or identifying protesters as responsible for causing disorder. When law-and-order frames are dominant then police repression of protests tends to remain high or escalate. Second, is a civil rights frame that emphasizes the rights of protesters and the need for police to respond using minimal force. When a civil rights fame dominates in public debate then police repression of protests tends to decrease. This study examines the use of these frames by key state, civil society, and media actors in Argentina and Chile.


Comparing Argentina and Chile: What do we Learn?

Argentina and Chile provide two very interesting cases to compare. In Chile the police are well respected. Law-and-order and police repression of protests is valued. The mainstream media are conservative, use frames that bias against protesters, and support the police. In Argentina, the police are not well respected. The media, while politicized, is plural and generally supportive of the civil rights of protesters and critical of police repression. Yet, in both cases police repression of protests continues. Thus the comparison reveals that while a law-and-order versus civil rights frame for understanding protests is important, it is also important to pay attention to how responsibility is attributed.

In this study each case is analyzed in terms of the history of protest policing in the country; the discourses used by police experts to explain repressive protest policing; the practices used by journalists to cover protests; and, a media analysis of a pivotal protest in each country (2002 protest on Pueyrredón Bridge in Argentina and the 2006 student protest in Chile).

The study concludes that repressive protest policing can be held accountable through discourses supportive of civil rights and that these civil rights discourses can emerge through history, counterframes, media practices, and key events.



Drawing on aspects of history that support a civil rights understanding of protest policing can provide familiar stories that resonate as true for the intended audience.

In both countries, the national police were founded with the central task of controlling protest. Both the Argentina Federal Police and the Carabineros de Chile were established during a time of high social unrest and were called upon to protect the state from political opposition and control protests using whatever levels of force they deemed necessary. Throughout history, political leaders in each country continued to call on their respective police forces to manage political opposition.

Yet in both countries there are aspects of history that can be used to support a civil rights understanding of protest policing. In Argentina, the last dictatorship is widely rejected by the population as an example of political policing gone too far. It is often evoked to criticize repressive protest policing. In Chile, the Carabineros were founded on the idea of not only managing protests but also protecting citizens. Although the former has usually eclipsed the latter role, this founding idea (absent in Argentina) has contributed to the police caring about their public image and has been used by protesters to advocate for a civil rights understanding of protest policing.



A shift to a civil rights understanding of protest policing can also be supported through recognizing and strengthening the voices of political leaders, media, and social movements who favour nonrepressive protest policing.

In Argentina the dominant frame opposes repressive protest policing but obfuscates responsibility for its continuation. However, a pluralistic media may provide opportunities for well-organized political and social movement actors, who use frame repetition and key events to challenge discourses that obfuscate responsibility. They can offer clarity as to who is to be held accountable for repressive protest policing, why, and how.

In Chile the dominant frame justifies repressive protest policing in the need for public order, the actions being targeted, and that protesters are violent. However, there are actors, particularly but not exclusively social movement actors, who oppose this dominant frame and could, with repetition and time, shift the dominant frame to favour nonrepressive protest policing.



Civil rights can also be promoted through recognizing and strengthening media and journalistic practices that favour a broadening of the voices participating in the debate on how to manage protests. This is best achieved through a pluralistic media that include civil society actors as authoritative sources and are wary of police stage-managing protest coverage.

In Chile media is conservative and supportive of police and law-and-order protest policing. Mainstream journalists do not view civil society actors as authoritative sources, which, as the literature suggests, reduces the chances the media will hold police and political leaders to account. This is compounded by police actively stage-managing media coverage of protests by, for example, asking journalists to stay behind police lines. The perspective of the police on managing protests is reinforced through journalists’ acceptance of police stage-managing.

In Argentina the media is pluralistic and politicized (pro- or anti- Kirchner government), which facilitates debate on protest policing. Mainstream journalists view civil society actors as authoritative sources. This is in part historical, due to their role in the end of the last dictatorship, but perhaps more importantly civil society organizations have made themselves valuable sources to journalists by providing reliable statistical information on policing that the police and government do not provide. Combined with Argentine police not stage-managing the coverage of protests by media, the practices of journalists provide space for the voices of civil society actors and protesters who criticize repressive protest policing. However, responsibility for repressive protest policing is obfuscated.


Pivotal Protests

Drawing on key events that challenge the dominant frame can shift that frame over time. Key protests can create debate regarding whether the actions of police constituted wrongdoing and, if so, who was responsible, why, and how they should be held to account. In Argentina, police response to a protest on Pueyrredón Bridge in 2002 left two protesters dead. This event was widely viewed as wrongdoing and this position was supported by: 1) a recent history of criticism of police wrongdoing; 2) media coverage of civil society actors and their perspectives; and, 3) debate in the media that established the act as wrongdoing and attributed responsibility.

In Chile, the 2006 student protest was the first time since before the dictatorship that police repression of protests was significantly questioned. It then became a reference point for student protests in 2011. This was achieved in part by students making strategic choices on how they managed the media so that they became credible authoritative sources for journalists. Students succeeded in opening a debate on repressive protest policing as wrongdoing that, while qualified and individualized to particular officers, required police and political leaders to answer for wrongdoing.

There is no question that the management of protests is challenging in all countries. The possibility that repressive protest policing is more likely in new democracies than established democracies is not a reason to accept it as a “stage” of democratization—it might not be. The boundaries of democracy are not predetermined or static. It is important how protest policing is framed as it reflects the contours of societies’ acceptance of the right to protest and the use of state repression. The concept of discursive accountability provides a framework for understanding the possibilities and limitations for changes to protest policing.


1 This piece summarizes some of the main findings in my book Policing Protest in Argentina and Chile (Lynne Rienner, 2014). Available at: https://www.rienner.com/title/Policing_Protest_in_Argentina_and_Chile

2 Organization of American States (OAS). 2005. Annual Report of the Office of the Special Rapporteur for Freedom of Expression 2005. Washington, DC: Inter-American Commission on Human Rights. Pg. 140.

3 Tilly, Charles. 1978. From Mobilization to Revolution. Reading, MA: Addison-Wesley. Pg. 100.

About Author(s)

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Michelle Bonner
Dr. Michelle D. Bonner is Associate Professor in Political Science at the University of Victoria. Most recently, she is the author of Policing Protest in Argentina and Chile (Lynne Rienner, 2014), which won the 2015-16 Canadian Political Science Association’s Comparative Politics Book Prize.