'Worse Than Gangs': Rio Police Criticized for Favela Crackdowns
A new security campaign is helping authorities win back control of Rio de Janeiro's favelas ahead of next year's World Cup. Special police units are driving drug gangs out of the slums -- but often only to replace them with their own thuggish rule.
The operation was peaceful, as had been previously promised. It took just 50 minutes on Sunday for police and soldiers to occupy the Lins favela complex in northern Rio de Janeiro, a collection of 12 slums with an estimated population of 15,000. At the high point of one of the slums, they hoisted the Brazilian flag as an announcement to all that the state had recaptured the site.
The complex had previously been ruled by a heavily armed gang of drug traffickers, as is the case in most of Rio's more than 300 favelas. The gangsters fled after the police announced that a Police Pacification Unit (UPP) would be set up in the favela complex.
UPPs stand at the center of the strategy of Rio governor Sérgio Cabral Filho. First the police set up permanent stations in the favelas -- they previously would only enter the slums during raids and then pull out again. These raids usually ended in shootouts, and innocent people often die. There are now 34 UPPs in Rio controlling more than 100 favelas with hundreds of thousands of residents.
Such measures aim to make the city safer as it gears up to host the World Cup next year and the 2016 Olympic Games. The man responsible for implementing the strategy is Security Secretary José Mariano Beltrame, a level-headed, respected former police commissioner from the country's south. He has ordered that favela occupations be announced in advance to avoid bloodbaths. This has usually resulted in the traffickers evacuating the favela before the UPP arrives.
Rio' s Finest
The only operation to result in heavy violence was the occupation two years ago of the Complexo do Alemão, one of the largest favela complexes in Rio, ending in several days of gun battles. Rio's largest criminal organization, the Comando Vermelho, had set up its headquarters in the massive slum quarter. They terrorized the city with attacks on busses and police stations, resulting in more than a dozen deaths.
Since the introduction of the UPPs, the murder rate has fallen drastically. The real estate market in the favelas is booming, especially in the slums of the South Zone that have become popular as a destination for tourists and locals. Enterprising residents rent out their verandas and roofs for parties and photo shoots.
But how long will the peace hold? Among many favela residents, Rio's police force has a worse reputation than the criminal drug gangs. They are seen as thugs and murderers -- and often rightly so, as Security Secretary Beltrame freely admits.
Ten police officers, including the head of the UPP, are allegedly responsible for torturing and murdering Amarildo de Souza, a bricklayer who lived in Rio's largest favela, Rocinha. At least 20 other favela residents are said to have been tortured by police. This resulted in an investigation by the state prosecutor, which came to a close last week. De Souza was apprehended by the police on July 14 and ordered to the UPP station. According to prosecutors, officers believed that Souza was working as a henchman for the drug mafia. They wanted information from him on the whereabouts of the gangsters and their weapons cache.
The UPP officers claim they sent Souza home after the interrogation because he wasn't able to provide any information. But they overlooked the fact that a 24-hour surveillance camera was filming the only entrance to the station. The footage shows Souza entering the station, but he doesn't come out again. An investigation by a special unit came to the conclusion that he was tortured with electroshocks in the presence of the UPP district commander and eventually murdered. His body is still missing. He was most likely taken from the favela in the trunk of a police vehicle.
Police Violence Run Rampant
The crime casts a shadow on the government's entire pacification strategy. "Where is Amarildo?" citizens have asked angrily on Facebook. Nearly every day, demonstrators have marched in front of the governor's palace demanding an explanation.
The wrongdoing is hardly unprecedented: Torture is routine in many police stations. Police, fire fighters and ex-military personnel have formed militias that drive traffickers out of many favelas and establish their own reigns of terror.
This has prompted the government to mostly recruit young policemen directly out of training to staff the UPPs. By boosting their salary if they work in a UPP, the government also hopes to make them less susceptible to bribery. But reports of attacks by UPP officers are piling up. Several UPP commanders have been removed due to their involvement in corruption scandals. At the same time, the drug mafia has repeatedly tried to retake UPP-occupied favelas. There have been shootings, especially in the Complexo do Alemão. And gangsters who have fled such favelas have taken refuge in other slums on the city outskirts, leading to an increase in suburban violence.
At the same time, the police are cracking down more brutally on demonstrators. Practically every week there is a street battle in Rio between protesters and police, who respond with tear gas and seemingly excessive violence, even against bystanders. "The police were less violent under the military dictatorship than they are under Governor Cabral," says Francisco Carlos Teixeira da Silva, a historian at the Federal University of Rio de Janeiro.
Security experts have been calling for years for a comprehensive reform of the police -- above all, for the security forces to be sufficiently demilitarized. Up to now, the regular state police have been organized by the military, and an esprit de corps rules their ranks, as it does within the armed forces. Many crimes committed by the police remain unpunished.
In Rocinha, Security Secretary Beltrame is beginning to take action on the scandal surrounding torture and murder by the police force. He replaced the commander of the UPP with Priscilla de Oliveira Azevedo, who successfully led the first UPP in the city. Now she faces a double challenge: Azevedo must not only keep the drug dealers at bay; she must also compel her macho colleagues to behave in a civilized manner.
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