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Shocking videos reveal police crimes in Brazil

Friends and residents of the Pavao-Pavaozinho favela protest in Copacabana against the death of Douglas Rafael da Silva Pereira, in Rio de Janeiro, in April. The protest followed the burial of Pereira, whose shooting death sparked clashes between police and residents.
By Dom Phillips
The Washington Post (*)

Footage aired on primetime TV has shone a light on security problems — and sparked anger

RIO DE JANEIRO — The footage of the two officers chilled viewers of the primetime Brazilian TV show, Fantástico.

Filmed by a camera in the front seat of their patrol car, the video obtained by the programme showed the officers after they had picked up three teenage boys on June 11 in central Rio de Janeiro — an area afflicted by street crime and violent muggings often perpetrated by teenage boys. The officers had driven the boys to a nearby forested, hilly area; the video captured them nonchalantly discussing “discharging the weapon a little.”

The camera switched off when they parked the car in an isolated area. By the time the film started rolling again one boy, 15, lay shot and left for dead. A second boy, 14, was shot and killed. The third boy, 15, had been released before the shooting.

“Two less,” one officer is heard saying as the patrol car headed back to central Rio. “If we did this every week, it could start going down. We hit target.”

Such police violence is far from new in Brazil. In 2010, United Nations Special Rapporteur Philip Alston lambasted the country, concluding that “extrajudicial killings remain widespread” and that “few of the perpetrators are prosecuted or convicted, especially when they are police officers.”

The number of those known to have been either killed in confrontations with or by the police in Rio is down (from 283 in 2012 to 208 in 2013). But videos like the one that surfaced in the case of the teenage boys — whether taken by police cameras, surveillance equipment or individuals with cellphones and swapped via WhatsApp — are forcing the country to confront the problem in a way that it never has before.

“Unfortunately, we have bad officers, connected to crime. True criminals,” said Rio state security secretary José Beltrame. Technology such as GPS tracking systems, the cameras Beltrame highlighted, and testimony from the surviving boy helped prosecutors bring charges against the officers. Both are in jail.

Turning point?

Whether episodes like these will prove to be a turning point for Brazilian police is yet to be seen. But some hold out hope.

“It is a big advance in the respect of public security,” said Rivaldo Barbosa, head of Rio’s Civil Police Homicide Division, of the case’s resolution. (Investigations are done by Civil Police, patrols by Military Police.)

The roots of the problem are wide and deep. There were 56,000 homicides in Brazil in 2012, the last national figures available, a 7.9 percent increase over the previous year, according to Julio Jacobo Waiselfisz from the Latin American Faculty of Social Sciences that produces Brazil’s annual “Violence Map.”

Michel Misse, a sociology professor and violence specialist at Rio’s Federal University, found in a 2010 study that just 15 percent of murders in Rio were solved. TV Globo said in April that nationally, just five percent to eight percent of murderers were punished.

Starting in 2008, the city introduced police bases into favelas, which house some of the city’s poorest people, to expel the drug gangs that had been a major contributor to crime. In 2007, there had been 2,336 homicides in Rio, according to state government figures; the number had dropped by almost half by 2012.

But the number of homicides has begun inching upward, with 1,324 homicides reported in 2013.

“This is a culture that believes that violence is something natural,” said Rodrigo Prando, a sociologist at Sao Paulo’s Mackenzie University.

With such rampant violence “the police almost have carte blanche to commit abuses,” said Maria Canineu, Brazil director of Human Rights Watch.

Lack of trust

A lack of trust in law enforcement has other consequences and is being blamed for a nationwide wave of vigilante attacks, in which wrongdoers and innocent people have been beaten or even killed.

An investigation by the G1 news site documented more than 50 vigilante attacks in the first half of 2014 alone. Many attacks were filmed on cellphones.

Killings of Rio police officers are also rising. According to numbers compiled for a blog run by Rio crime journalist Roberta Trindade, 81 died in the state of Rio in 2013, up from 71 in 2012. So far this year, 46 have been killed. Nowhere is violence more in evidence than in the favelas and low-income suburbs that house Rio’s poorest.

Twenty-five police officers are on trial on charges associated with the disappearance and murder last year of one man from Rio’s Rocinha favela. Barbosa said his department is seeing success investigating such cases.

In the hillside Fogueteiro favela in central Rio, Rafael de Sousa was another young man caught in the swirling currents of brutality. A pot of white flowers sits in the alley, just below the blood splatters on the brick wall, where a police bullet shattered his skull on July 26. He was the second resident of the favela to be killed by police that day; Vitor Rodrigues, 38, was the first.

Cellphone footage shot by a resident showed a police officer near Rodrigues’ body wearing surgical gloves. The footage is part of a Civil Police inquiry, and also was shown on Fantástico. Six officers have been arrested, believed by Civil Police to have moved Rodrigues’ body and altered the crime scene.

Bystanders such as Rafael de Sousa are the victims of this war. His family said he was a shy young man who struggled with depression, yet worked as a labourer's assistant in order to raise his three-year-old daughter. “My nephew was innocent,” said his aunt Jane de Souza.

Witnesses told local media that police killed Rodrigues without provocation. Video sent to a local tabloid showed the officers afterwards, pinned down in an alley, surrounded by screaming residents.

The police patrol began firing in the air. Sousa, 23, was shot and killed in front of the two tiny houses he shared with his mother, daughter, aunts and young cousins.

“I asked the police officers why they had done this, and they said, ‘Your brother was another of the traffickers, he was looking to tell the others,’” said Sousa’s cousin Adriany Muniz, 17.

His family said Sousa had nothing to do with the drug trade. “The children saw everything, saw that whole scene,” Muniz added, her eyes wide with horror.

Marcelo Chalréo, a lawyer and chairman of the human rights commission of the Rio branch of the Order of Brazilian Lawyers, said Rio police regularly kill people they perceive as undesirable or criminal elements. “For them this is ordinary behaviour, to eliminate undesirables,” he said.

The authorities hope more cameras may stop them. José Beltrame said US$8 million would be spent installing cameras in another 2,000 Military Police cars by the end of the year.

“The institution created a system to supervise itself and, if necessary, cut its own flesh,” he said.

@domphillips

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