Pubdate: Sun, 04 Dec 2005
Source: Houston Chronicle (TX)
Copyright: 2005 Houston Chronicle Publishing Company Division, Hearst Newspaper
Author: John Otis, South America Bureau
Bookmark: (Corruption - Outside U.S.)
Bookmark: (Cannabis)
Bookmark: (Cocaine)


More Than 4,000 Have Died at Hands of Police in Violent Cycle

RIO DE JANEIRO, BRAZIL - The pop-pop-pop of firecrackers filled the 
air. But this was no party.

To warn drug dealers of a police sweep, youngsters employed as 
lookouts in this sprawling Rio de Janeiro slum lit string after 
string of fireworks. Moments later, five officers waving automatic 
rifles charged down the crowded main street.

As they ducked for cover, fruit vendors and taxi drivers seemed more 
spooked by the cops than the criminals.

"Surely, someone will start shooting," said Alexandre Mello as he 
watched the hostilities unfold outside his Internet cafe. "In the 
crossfire, some innocent kid will wind up dead."

In their crusade against brutal cocaine and marijuana dealers who 
control many of Rio's shantytowns, or favelas, police often move in 
with guns blazing.

The operations have failed to dislodge the drug gangs or, analysts 
say, make the city safer. But the shock-and-awe tactics have produced 
a massive body count.

According to human rights organizations and government statistics, 
police in Rio and its suburbs -- home to a population of 11 million 
- -- have taken the lives of more than 4,000 people in the past five 
years. In the first 10 months of this year, more than 900 died at the 
hands of police.

Rio police aren't the only authorities enmeshed in a vicious circle 
of violence in Latin America.

Amid a wave of kidnappings, gangland slayings and drug-cartel 
savagery, several of the region's governments have opted for law 
enforcement crackdowns.

But often, many experts say, a single-minded strategy of brute force 
simply breeds more bloodshed.

"The message 'Kill them!' is always there," said Rubem Cesar 
Fernandez, director of Viva Rio, a peace organization founded in 1993 
amid a surge in police brutality in this Brazilian city. "But the 
problem with this response is that we have a war that never ends."


In Rio, many of the victims of police violence have been hapless 
bystanders. Others have undoubtedly been dope dealers who, human 
rights group say, never saw the inside of a jail cell because of 
rogue cops who sometimes act as judge, jury and firing squad.

"A lot of these killings are quasi-executions, with shots to the head 
and the heart," said Sandra Carvalho of Global Justice, a Brazilian 
human rights group that monitors the police.

Lashing back, suspected drug runners killed 52 Rio police on the job 
last year. Dozens of other officers were slain while off duty.

In defending his department's Wild West tactics, Rio police spokesman 
Col. Aristeu Tavares said: "If we are met with flowers, we will hand 
out flowers. But if we are met with bullets, we'll go in shooting."

Rio drew worldwide attention to the violence on its police force a 
dozen years ago when a group of hooded officers killed seven street 
children sleeping outside a downtown church. A month later, a 
police-run death squad massacred 21 civilians in a Rio slum. Only a 
few of the numerous officers charged in the two cases were convicted.

Today, many security and human rights experts say, police violence 
and corruption are spiraling out of control in Rio, as well as Sao 
Paulo and other big Brazilian cities despite government pledges to 
reform law enforcement agencies.

"Extrajudicial executions, excessive use of force and torture have 
apparently become regular policing tools," Amnesty International said 
in a report on Brazil that was released Friday.

The document said that killings by police death squads "are a routine 
and daily occurrence" in some favelas and that "many of those killed 
had no criminal record, were unarmed ... and shot in the back."

Rampaging Police

In the worst massacre in Rio's history, police officers gunned down 
29 men, women and children on the night of March 31.

According to Rio state officials, the rampage began in the 
crime-infested barrio of Queimados, where police randomly shot and 
killed residents hanging out at a park and a car wash. Next, they 
moved on to the Novo Iguacu neighborhood and unloaded their weapons 
into a cantina.

"My son wasn't into drugs," said a distraught Dulcinea Sipriano, 
whose 15-year-old son, Marco, was among the victims. "He was a high 
school student. Everyone liked him. They had no reason to kill him."

Homicide Rate Unchanged

So far, 10 policemen and one former officer have been detained in the case.

State officials think the massacre may have been the work of corrupt 
officers upset about the arrest of colleagues accused of a double 
murder. In that case, a TV crew filmed two officers as they tossed 
the head of a corpse over the back wall of a police station.

Lethal police raids have failed to improve security in Rio, according 
to many analysts.

A recent Global Justice report says that in 1999, police operations 
led to the deaths of 289 people in Rio de Janeiro state, almost all 
of them in the Rio metropolitan area. In 2003, the figure quadrupled 
to 1,195. Yet during the same period, the report says, the overall 
homicide rate -- a key indicator of safety trends -- remained the same.

Elsewhere in Latin America, military-style crackdowns have often 
produced disappointing results.

"In Central America, hard-line policies have made the gang problem 
even worse," said Joy Olson, director of the Washington Office on 
Latin America think tank.

In El Salvador, where street gangs have replaced leftist guerrillas 
as the government's public enemy No. 1, for example, a law-and-order 
campaign has been accompanied by an increase in the murder rate.

An all-out assault on narco-tics traffickers in Mexico led to the 
capture of key crime bosses. But the immediate result of the drug war 
was a power vacuum that led to an explosion of gangland slayings in 
Nuevo Laredo and other Mexican cities as cartel underlings fought for 
control of smuggling routes.

"History has taught us that addressing only law enforcement will not 
have a sustainable, long-term impact" on the crime rate, Adolfo 
Franco, the top official for Latin America at the U.S. Agency for 
International Development, told a congressional panel in Washington 
last spring.

Part of the problem in Brazil, many experts say, is that a 21-year 
military dictatorship blamed for the torture and deaths of numerous 
alleged subversives helped mold the law enforcement establishment. 
Although democracy returned to the nation in 1985, its police forces 
remain modeled after the army.

'Leave Behind Bullets'

Many of Rio's 38,000 officers are high school dropouts who have 
received little training and often work second jobs to augment their 
$450-a-month salaries.

For the most part, police enter the favelas only during blitzkrieg 
assaults, a modus operandi that breeds a paranoid, bunker mentality.

"The dynamic is that police go into the favelas looking for 
narco-traffickers and leave behind bullets," said police Col. Angelo 
Ubiratan, a veteran officer and an outspoken critic of the hard-line tactics.

Still, police often feel they're the ones in the line of fire when 
they enter the city's maze of 700 favelas, which provide easy hiding 
places and escape routes for well-armed criminals. On average, one 
officer is killed on the job every week.

To improve their odds of survival, some have cut deals with drug traffickers.

"Without the police, arms and drug trafficking in the favelas would 
be almost impossible," said Luiz Eduardo Soares, a former public 
security chief for the Rio de Janeiro state government. "They even 
negotiate balance-of-force agreements between the gangs."

Police collusion with criminals, experts say, is responsible for some 
of the mayhem.

In January 2004, 13-year-old Wallace de Souza was playing dominoes in 
a park in the Caju favela when he was arrested by police. The next 
day, the bullet-riddled bodies of Wallace and two other boys were 
found in a nearby swamp.

Venting Frustration

Elizabete de Souza, Wallace's sister, maintains that police were 
angry that day because a local drug dealer had failed to come up with 
a $2,000 bribe and had disappeared. The corrupt officers, she claims, 
decided to vent their frustration on the locals.

"These are not people," said de Souza, wearing a T-shirt emblazoned 
with a photo of her dead brother. "These are monsters."

Tavares, the police spokesman, insisted, however, that officers act 
in self-defense and that most of the people killed by police have 
been trigger-happy drug traffickers who put up heavy resistance. When 
police abuses do occur, they are investigated, added Tavares, noting 
that 59 Rio officers have been arrested this year.

But the Amnesty International report said that police officers are 
rarely suspended or put on trial in fatal shootings and that 
witnesses are sometimes detained and tortured until they withdraw 
their testimony.

Many experts say that powerful sectors of Rio society encourage 
police brutality.

The city's slums sit next to upscale districts, such as Copacabana, 
where frightened residents and merchants press the police for 
protection. Human rights groups say that some of the killings have 
been carried out by police death squads at the request of 
small-business owners and local politicians.

Rather than waging war on slum dwellers, officers in one Rio police 
unit are required to live and work in the favelas, where they make 
friends and trade information. Police in the unit claim the program 
has improved security in a few slums.

But because of resistance within the department, the program 
established in 2000 has never expanded and includes less than 1 
percent of Rio police officers.

Carvalho, of Global Justice, suggests that the government invest in 
schools, recreation, jobs programs and other initiatives that might 
prevent youths from joining drug gangs.

"We've got to start fundamentally addressing these issues," said 
Olson, of the Washington Office on Latin America. "The traditional 
notion of getting tough on crime is not a smart way to fight crime."

But many Rio politicians continue to adopt a kind of criminal 
populism and court voters with hawkish campaign rhetoric. Last year, 
they suggested sealing off the city's largest favela with a colossal wall.

Until a few years ago, it was state policy to pay Rio police officers 
a bonus for every bandit they gunned down.

Amid so much belligerent rhetoric, Amnesty International said, it's 
no wonder that many police officers have come to believe they have "a 
green light to kill." 
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MAP posted-by: Richard Lake