The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

They’ve been linked to drug traffickers. They’ve run a ‘death squad.’ Can Peru’s police be reformed?

Police officer standing guard during an August parade in Lima. Surveys show that 65 percent of Peruvians distrust the police. (Reuters/Mariana Bazo)

LIMA, Peru — When news broke that a “death squad” within the Peruvian police had been murdering suspected criminals, there was outrage over the violation of human rights.

But arguably even more damaging for a force widely viewed by the public as inept and corrupt — including collusion in cocaine trafficking — was the realization that some of its most spectacularly successful recent operations had been staged.

In total, 27 alleged suspects died in “shootouts” between 2012 and 2015 as national police SWAT teams staged dramatic interceptions — in which no officers were injured — of armed gangs supposedly on the point of perpetrating kidnappings and robberies. Pictures of the bodies lying in the streets were plastered across front pages.

But now, according to investigators, some of these alleged criminals died from close-range gunshots from behind, without the victims ever having fired a shot. And some of those apparently imminent kidnappings and robberies were a figment of the officers’ imagination.

It is unlikely that Peru’s president, Pedro Pablo Kuczynski, who took office in July — just four days after the revelations emerged — had any doubts that the force was in dire need of reform.

The grim reputation of the national police is reinforced by most ordinary citizens’ firsthand experience of the force; traffic stops routinely result in requests for bribes. Crime victims, meanwhile, frequently do not bother to report offenses to avoid making a bad day worse with endless red tape and officers that make no discernible effort to find the perpetrator.

According to a study released this week by pollsters Ipsos, the police inspire “distrust” in 65 percent of Peruvians, “shame” in 51 percent and “fear” in 47 percent.

Little wonder perhaps that Kuczynski, a centrist technocrat, and his equally wonky interior minister, Carlos Basombrio, have been talking up a radical overhaul of the police, starting with the sacking of 39 of Peru’s 86 police generals earlier this month.

Although Basombrio was careful to avoid accusing the fired officers of wrongdoing — instead he spoke of “modernization” — the response from one general gave a hint as to why his services may have been dispensed with. “Basombrio is a sociologist and a defender of human rights,” former general Máximo Ramírez complained to the local newspaper La República, adding that the minister “knows nothing” about police work.

Yet those sackings are just the start. Next will be a review of the entire rank and file of the police, including compulsory polygraph tests and a sworn disclosure from each officer of his or her property and bank accounts. Basombrio has also promised to raise the force’s rock-bottom wages, improve training, and put external contracting into the hands of civilian staff.

One person giving a cautious welcome to the changes is Richard Ortega, general secretary of the police union. “Any conversation about how to improve the police has to start from recognizing that sad, embarrassing reality, that there is entrenched, systemic corruption,” he told The Washington Post.

Basombrio has also hired the highly regarded former head of Colombia’s police, Oscar Naranjo, as a consultant. Naranjo is an advocate of community policing and has criticized the tendency to rely on force over detective work as a hangover from Latin America’s authoritarian past.

Now, the litmus test for the reforms will likely be citizens’ evolving attitudes toward the men and women whose job, in theory, is to serve and protect.

“That is the hardest problem to solve,” said Carlos Rivera, a prominent human rights lawyer. “That sensation that the police are corrupt and useless, or even on the side of the crooks, is not something that will go away overnight.”