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How America Exports Police Violence Around the World

Confronting the militarized response to protests in the United States requires a reckoning with our foreign policy.

Victor Moriyama/Getty Images
A pro-democracy protester faces off with the military police during a protest against President Jair Bolsonaro on June 7, 2020, in São Paulo, Brazil.

As the protest movement responding to the police killing of George Floyd has erupted across the country in recent weeks, my now habitual encounters with police clad in full riot gear in my usually calm Brooklyn neighborhood have been a new and disconcerting experience. In certain moments, while listening to close-flying helicopters and begrudgingly following curfew mandates, as journalists are roughly arrested and beaten up by police, I’ve found myself responding to the surreal scenes with some familiar clichés. I’m not in Brooklyn anymore, Toto, “things” like this “don’t happen here.” Those of us who experience white privilege in the United States don’t typically encounter these sights. These police tactics are usually pushed out of the frame, beyond our sight lines, relegated only to poor minority neighborhoods in America as well as crisis-torn countries of the so-called “global south.”

In fact, the connections between my streets and the streets of others—between policing in the United States and policing in “third world” countries—run deep. While the U.S. polices Black and brown neighborhoods within its own borders as internal colonies, it exports those same militarized and abusive policing techniques to almost every country in the world, through both the State Department and Department of Defense, as well as private contractors. Though it’s difficult to obtain a full accounting, in 2018 alone, the U.S. appropriated over $19 billion in security aid to military and police forces to 144 countries around the world, according to the Security Assistance Monitor.

The role of the U.S. in perpetuating abusive police tactics in other countries has not figured into most conversations around defunding and abolishing the police in recent weeks. But the two are inextricably linked by a common philosophy, and curbing police abuses here at home should force both changes to the way the U.S. provides assistance to police and military forces abroad and a larger reckoning with the neocolonial power structures that enable the U.S. to continue to export its policing strategies and its guns to poorer and less powerful countries in the first place.

“You pick the point in history since the beginning of the twentieth century, the United States has been bringing its national security apparatus abroad and using police in other countries to achieve its goals,” said Stuart Schrader, a historian and author of Badges Beyond Borders: How Global Counterinsurgency Transformed American Policing. From its assistance to military dictatorships during the Cold War to its ongoing support of two endless conflicts with metaphysical constructs—the “war on drugs” and the “war on terror”—the U.S. has become firmly attached, Schrader points out, to a long commitment.

America’s infernal policing of the global order has manifested itself especially heavily in Latin America. There, U.S. counternarcotics aid has provided counterinsurgency training, equipment—such as tanks and Black Hawk helicopters—and tactical and intelligence support to police and military across the region. In addition to government aid, the U.S. has exported “broken windows” policing to cities across the region. Former New York City Mayor Rudy Giuliani has pocketed millions from consulting with Latin American leaders on how to apply the strategy to their cities. Such policing strategies also disproportionately target both Indigenous and Black people across the Americas.

“The problem of anti-Black policing … is one that is very much alive throughout our hemisphere, and around the world,” said Christen Smith, an anthropologist whose work focuses on police violence against Black people in Brazil. “The way we police at home is also the way we police elsewhere.”

Walking home from protests in recent weeks has brought me back to my time spent living in Mexico City, where police in riot gear, carrying AK-47s, standing around passively on any given day in upper-class commercial districts, are a pedestrian sight. There, their bloated largesse is on full display, as they stare off blankly into the distance, fidgeting and picking their noses. The fact that they are holding weapons that could easily kill you is a passive, constant threat.

The U.S. government has funneled over $3 billion in security and development assistance to Mexico in recent decades, much of it in the name of stopping the flow of illicit drugs—and just as often, its people—to the U.S. This funding has involved multiple attempts to reform the police. These efforts typically amount to little more than a purge of personnel, followed by a rebranding of different “elite” police units, every time a new president is sworn into office. Other half-hearted measures involve the transfers of equipment, training, strategy, guns, and intelligence to Mexican police and military. The overall strategy, carried out in the name of the war on drugs, has chiefly involved the targeting and capturing of the heads of drug cartels. This has mostly led to a splintering and proliferation of violence across Mexico, leaving over 230,000 dead and over 60,000 disappeared since 2008.

Meanwhile, the security buildup of the U.S.-Mexico border wall has come alongside similar training and assistance to Mexico’s border patrol, notably in helping the Mexican government beef up security along its southern border to stop and deter Central American asylum-seekers before they even reach the U.S. border. Mexico’s border patrol, like our own, has been implicated in systematic human rights abuses.

The U.S. has also funded judicial reforms, as well as some nongovernmental organizations working on corruption and impunity in Mexico. But today, some 90 percent of crimes in Mexico remain unsolved. Mexicans know that the problem with the cops goes far beyond “a few bad apples.” Since the drug war began, it’s become increasingly difficult to locate exactly where the cops and the military end and where the “criminal organizations” they’ve pledged to fight begin. Despite this, the overall law enforcement strategy goes mostly unquestioned. This is largely due to the power dynamics at play: If Mexico—or any number of countries, for that matter—decided to do things differently, the U.S. would retaliate by cutting off aid, imposing sanctions, or even supporting a change to a more like-minded regime.

As in the U.S., it’s difficult for many to see an alternative to the police—though in some parts of rural Mexico, Indigenous communities have sought to expel the police from their neighborhoods and replace them with their own self-defense forces. But the police and military maintain a monopoly on authorized violence, no matter how “impervious to reform” these institutions might be, as Smith put it.

Though movements against state violence have deep roots in Latin America, the recent protests in the U.S. have reverberated in unique ways across the region, too, bringing renewed attention to racist and violent policing practices in these countries. In Guadalajara, Mexico, protests broke out earlier this month after a video emerged of the police arresting 30-year-old Giovanni López, allegedly for not wearing a face mask in public. López was later found dead, having been tortured.* On social media, posts proliferated of photos of López alongside a photo of George Floyd, prompting a discussion of race and racism in Mexico. Protesters connected the incident to police biases and excessive use of force against darker-skinned Indigenous and poor people in Mexico.

In Brazil, anti-Black policing is an even more salient issue—what Smith and anti-police activists call a “genocidal crisis.” On May 20, that crisis became embodied by 14-year-old João Pedro Matos Pinto, who was killed by police inside his uncle’s house during a raid. The incident prompted renewed protests across the country, drawing parallels to the movement that has arisen in the U.S. In Brazil, however, activists have logged many years in the fight to abolish and demilitarize the police and to direct government largesse in a more just way. In many parts of the country, explained Smith, “You don’t have a decent hospital, you don’t have a decent school, but you do have police with tanks and armored cars and military-grade weapons.”

Though figures vary, it’s clear that there is an epidemic of violence perpetrated by the police in Brazil. According to Smith, in 2019, police in Brazil killed 5,804 people, or 16 people a day, compared to about three per day in the U.S. Between 70 and 95 percent of these killings are of people of African descent, she estimated. And that’s just the official count, which is likely far from complete. While direct U.S. funding of the police in Brazil is fairly limited, there is a long history of U.S. underwriting of police and military abuses in the country, both through programs that trained Brazil’s generals in torture techniques during its military dictatorship during the Cold War, and today, via military cooperation and other training and counternarcotics programs.

In Brazil and elsewhere throughout the region, the repression of protest that feels so new in the U.S. is common. The most well-known example in Brazil was the 2018 assassination of Marielle Franco, an Afro-Brazilian activist and socialist congressperson from the favelas of Rio de Janeiro. Franco, whose work focused on demilitarizing the police, was murdered under mysterious circumstances—but evidence suggests her killer was an ex-cop and member of a milicia, a type of paramilitary organization made up of former law enforcement.

In the wake of Franco’s death, Smith said, Brazilian newspapers tried to smear her memory, intimating that because she was poor, Black, gay, and from the favelas, she had been involved in corruption or crime herself. Across the region, it’s common for authorities to claim their victims were involved in gang violence or drug trafficking, a practice that reverberates in the U.S. as well. These insinuations have also been marshaled to advocate for anti-immigrant policies: One needs to look no further than Trump’s “rapists and criminals” comment or his obsession with the MS-13 to find an example of this. In this regard, Trump has a kindred spirit with Brazil’s far-right president, Jair Bolsonaro, who has suggested the police are, in fact, too restrained in their law enforcement activities and maligns the left as deranged terrorists.

“The police as a state apparatus engage in a very calculated disinformation campaign that continuously frames the victims of police violence as criminal, as marginal, as people who are the worst of society,” said Smith.

In recent weeks, we’ve seen similar efforts to delegitimize activism and protest against police violence. The curfews that have been deployed across the country under the pretext of curbing looting and property damage made it criminal to protest at all after a certain hour. This move restricted both the right to assembly and the right to mobility, and gave cops the green light to arrest and beat demonstrators, journalists, and essential workers. As we’ve witnessed these rights stripped away, it seems we’ve reached a new level and scope of police and state repression of dissent.

But for activists and bystanders in majority-Black and brown neighborhoods across the hemisphere, the curfews and the teargas used against protesters in recent weeks is nothing new. “What we’re seeing with the hypermilitarized response to protesters is quite frankly a reflection of how state policing has been operating for generations, it’s just never operated against white bodies,” Smith said.

What’s being revealed now, she continued, is that, in addition to Black lives not mattering to the police, “lives that are approximate to Blackness” also “don’t matter.” So “if you’re defending a Black life, you also don’t matter.” The injuries inflicted upon 75-year-old Martin Gugino by police in Buffalo, New York, are a clear example of this dynamic.

Moreover, the police response to the protests has illuminated what Smith calls an “unmasking of American exceptionalism,” in which the policing practices that we’ve exported to other countries have been newly exposed as they’ve been deployed on the streets where we reside. The antecedents to our recent experiences can be dropped like pins all over a map of the world. For instance, as Schrader relates in his book, before tear gas was used on protesters in the U.S., it was used in Vietnam “as an offensive weapon to target people”—not as a tool for de-escalation, he says, but one of “suffering,” because it targeted innocent bystanders. “If a war logic is structuring our police forces, then what we’re seeing on the streets is exactly what we play out in other countries, in our relationships to other countries,” said Smith.

The connections between the way we police our streets and the way we exert our power abroad are intricate. And so the movement to defund racist, abusive police forces won’t ever truly succeed if the effort stops at our borders. In fact, its success may depend on bringing an international perspective to the work. As Schrader writes in Badges Beyond Borders, “To dismantle the carceral state, the national security state will also have to be dismantled.”

* This article originally stated that Giovanni López’s death had been captured on the video of his arrest.