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ARGENTINA | 29-06-2024 04:25

Milei slashes budget for state legal centres in favour of spending on prisons

Argentina’s Justice Ministry announces closure of 81 Centres of Access to Justice nationwide; Milei government boosts budget for the ‘Criminal Policy’ programme by 963% in move to “modernise Penitentiary Service” and “improve the situation of persons deprived of liberty."

President Javier Milei’s government has decided to slash spending improving access to judicial and legal issues and increased by 963 percent the budget for a programme focusing on “modernising” Argentina’s Penitentiary Service.

“Another political slush fund is being closed down – the Justice Ministry is putting an end to 81 CAJs,” Argentina’s government said via a communiqué, referring to Centros de Acceso a la Justicia, state offices that provide free primary legal services to citizens on issues including employment, family and social security.

According to the scheme’s website, it attended to more than 340,000 people and 600,000 consultations nationwide between 2020 and 2023.

The Milei administration said that CAJs “were costing eight billion pesos a year, something which cannot continue in the new stage being experienced by our country.” It justified the move as “taking care of taxpayers’ money.”

However, at least five billion pesos of that taxpayers’ money will be reassigned to the government’s Criminal Policy programme, which has seen its annual budget of 521 million pesos last year boosted to 5.539 billion for 2024, an increase of 963 percent.

The Criminal Policy programme, according to a government website, is dedicated to “generating statistics and tools of criminal investigation” and “modernising the Penitentiary Service,” leading to an “improved situation for persons deprived of liberty.”

News of the move comes a week after Security Minister Patricia Bullrich toured El Salvador to learn about the crime-fighting methods used by President Nayib Bukele to tackle drug gangs. 

On that trip, prior to meeting Bukele, she toured a massive maximum security prison that the Salvadoran government inaugurated two years ago, which has a capacity for 40,000 inmates.

Bullrich has said Argentina should learn from El Salvador and be tough on criminals” in order to province “freedom for the good Argentines.”

El Salvador has been in a “state of emergency” since March 2022. The declaration, issued by Bukele, implies, among other things, the suspension of the right to legitimate self-defence, the extension of pre-trial detention orders from 72 hours to 15 days, and the possibility of detaining minors from the age of 12 upwards.

Approximately 80,000 people have been detained and, although crime levels have dropped considerably, according to human rights organisations in the country, the families of detainees have no information about the prisoners, their state of health or their possible transfers. 

 

Budgeted spending

According to Open Budget data in Argentina, the increase for the Criminal Policy programme is superior to that for any other Justice Ministry department. “Boosting Justice,” with an increase of 217 percent, is the second most important. 

Programmes linked to the defence of rights and freedoms had little or no increase. Promotion and Defence of Human Rights  received a 17 percent increase and University Training in Human Rights was frozen. Also unchanged were the programmes for Anti-Corruption Controls (whose budget stays at 281 million pesos) and Notaries Representing the State (maintained at 85 million pesos).

For the aforementioned Access to Justice scheme, there is not only no budget increase but considerable cuts. These will disproportionately affect inland regions, according to experts.

“The CAJs are a key route to access to justice because they provide what is known as primary legal attention,” Guillermina Greco, the co-ordinator of the access to justice programme of ACIJ (Asociación Civil por la Igualdad y la Justicia), told Perfil in an interview.

“This is the first entrance door for many people which has to do with every kind of rights from complex matters like criminal cases, the victims of crimes and difficult family issues to simple things like problems with DNI identity documents or immigration,” added Greco.

The CAJs are also interdisciplinary centres which often manage to avoid a greater conflict burdening the work of other judicial instances, he explained.

“They have an integral and personal perspective which permits them a much more suitable attention for difficult cases such as gender violence.”

Being decentralised services, “in more remote rural places, in villas [shantytowns] or other places where the state is not present, the centres are the only possibility for some people to gain access to their rights,” detailed the ACIJ representative.

 

Concern

Along with ACIJ staff and officials, various other organisations have manifested in a communiqué their concern over the closure of these
centres.

“The first thing which needs to be said is that it is impossible to verify the figure of eight billion pesos mentioned by the Justice Ministry as the cost of maintaining the CAJs. Nevertheless, it is necessary to highlight that if that were the correct number, it would correspond to only 0.01 percent of public spending,” read the statement, which was signed by groups including the Equipo Latinoamericano de Justicia Y Genero (Latin American Team for Justice and Gender, or ELA in its Spanish acronym).

“Reducing the CAJs from 105 to 24 and limiting the attention to a virtual format reflects a great ignorance of and scorn for the scope of the access to justice as a fundamental human right instrumental for the access to other basic rights, as well as a huge lack of interest in the relevance of the territorial dimension in the access to justice,” explained ELA official Julieta Izcurdia.

“The CAJs have also been fundamental means of accompanying and advising women in a situation of gender violence so it becomes highly worrying that in the contexts of the revival of such violence as we are now experiencing, the decision is taken to dismantle them instead of improving their functioning,” she considered.

CAJ centres have existed in the country since 2008 and were maintained by the administrations of Cristina Fernández de Kirchner, Mauricio Macri and Alberto Fernández.

According to its website, consultations at its centres grew 118 percent between 2020 and 2023.

“They have been sustained by different governments and constitute a federal network of primary public legal services,” Mayca Balaguer, the executive director of Fundeps (Fundación para el desarrollo de políticas sustentables), told Perfil.

“The measures announced on June 10 indicate that only one centre per province will be maintained, giving priority to virtual attention. This means dismantling an initiative which permitted the removal of the historic barriers linked to the distance between the vulnerable and the responses which they require from the state,” she summed up.

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Agustina Bordigoni

Agustina Bordigoni

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