By Jessi Loerch, CNN
Photojournalist Abel Uribe explored Rio de Janeiro during Brazil’s World Cup celebrations in 2014, but it was only afterward that he realized just how symbolic the uniformed police officers were — as individuals and as symbols.
During the celebrations, he photographed police officers working with impassive expressions, yet striking details were still present. The officers wore special vests, long pants, and boots that were designed by McDonald’s.
“As soon as I saw that, I thought about the cop wearing a McDonald’s uniform. What does that say? What are they wearing? How do they act? And I saw they were wearing actual uniforms of police, plain clothes, with sleeves and with socks. Now, as a person, I was immediately touched, because you understand that they are wearing what they are, what they are doing. And that makes me want to hug the people around them. I want to hug them, because I think that all we have is each other and no one is an island.”
But the officer’s attire did more than just generate empathy — it often caused local residents to rethink their often-skeptical attitude toward law enforcement.
“In Brazil, police officers are thought of as real cops. But once I saw the reaction of people … I understood that it’s an act of love. It is an act of care. It is an act of respect that they give. They are kind to people and they want to work because they want to support their families.”
‘Tears of sadness’
In Buenos Aires, famed for its wealthy banking culture, there is something else surprising about city security — a sort of street queuing for more police protection. The barricades — well-hidden and discreet — are worn by real police officers, in plain clothes, as members of the public queue in their ranks.
In a different way, carrying a gun can generate emotion in the general public — the concealment of the weapon creates the illusion of a loss of control, and the city’s new police force, de facto, sets the tone for the law and order and security debate. The riot police sit on the back foot, with a visible uniform in order to convey the feeling of a phalanx of men in uniform.
Brigadier Walter Dominguez, who participated in protests against the newly-installed military government in the 1976, remembers police drills for physical abuse. “The demonstrations against the junta went to the place where there were guerrillas,” he said. “That was the trouble. People knew there was a tough police force.”
One of the more symbolic measures of the armed forces to safeguard the economic value of Argentina was to use “junkyard dogs” to control barricades, recalls Argentine journalist Jaime D’Antona, who was covering the country’s armed forces during the 1976 coup.
“There were very restrictive measures taken,” he says. “The military had second thoughts, but of course as soon as the road was blocked or in this way — there was a jacked dog — it was obvious this was an enemy.”
By 1983, at the height of a decade-long armed uprising, many people reacted to the junta’s brutality and conflict by returning to the streets and the guerrillas, he says. But it was much tougher on the country’s police forces, who were considered undisciplined and have felt the need to demonstrate their power to protect the nation.
“All over the world, since World War II, people come together. But it seems to be only in South America,” he says. “They lost their bearings. They went outside. They might have flown their aircraft to places where this resistance might be present.”
You can see many of their images here.