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Police Death Squads Haunt Brazil’s Favelas
by Giovanni Dubon
“Brazil has begun to teeter on the brink of human rights violations” as it begins to clear 1.5 million poor citizens from their neighborhoods in preparation for the 2014 World Cup and the 2016 Olympics. Killings of favela residents far exceed police violence, even in the United States. “Everyone knows the police here in Rio de Janeiro… nearly all of them abuse their authority…. The shooting cases you hear about, most of them are executions…It’s all premeditated—very cold-blooded and calculated”
Police Death Squads Haunt Brazil’s Favelas
by Giovanni Dubon
This article previously appeared in Prospect Journal.
“In 2008 alone, the state of Rio de Janeiro experienced 1,137 police killings, a staggering number compared to 371 in the whole United States.”
To host the 2014 World Cup and 2016 Olympics should be a joyous and proud accomplishment for the Brazilian people, but for some it has begun to turn into a nightmare.
An estimated 1.5 million families living in favelas (shanty towns) around Brazil’s major cities such as Rio de Janeiro and São Paulo are within construction zones of urban renovation projects for the two sporting events (Van Auken).
Bulldozing of homes in Favela do Metrô, Rio de Janeiro, has commenced to construct a large parking area and other renovations designed to accommodate visitors at the Maracanã Stadium. Hundreds of homes in Favela do Metrô have already been destroyed and hundreds of families have been forced to relocate to housing projects built miles away.
Although the World Cup and Olympic games are a great economic opportunity for Brazil and all Brazilians, the displacement of the homes of those in the cross hairs of the infrastructure development is drastically detrimental to a large portion of the population (Philips).
Brazil has begun to teeter on the brink of human rights violation as it continues with the displacement of favelas in a reckless manner.
As recently as 2009, the Human Rights Watch released a report regarding abuses that have plagued Brazil’s crime infected cities of Rio de Janeiro and São Paulo as local law enforcers commit unlawful killings and excessive use of force.
“Hundreds of homes in Favela do Metrô have already been destroyed and hundreds of families have been forced to relocate to housing projects built miles away.”
Brazilian authorities must crackdown on unsafe destruction of homes and neighborhoods, as well as known human rights abuse cases, to avoid a tarnished image of Brazil and to show the international community that as a nation they value human rights.
Human Rights Watch has conducted an extensive investigation on unlawful kills by police officers from 2006 to 2009 in the cities of Rio de Janeiro and São Paulo using 74 cases and interviews with over 40 governmental officials as well as with victims and eyewitnesses.
Authorities use the term “resistance killing” to describe killings by policemen of individuals who had broken the law. Essentially, resistance killing means the killing of a suspect who resisted arrest. However, Human Rights Watch concluded that,
“In several cases, autopsy reports showed gunshot entry wounds to the back of the head or nape of the neck of the victim, injuries that would seem unlikely in most shootout situations but are consistent with executions” (Lethal Force 27).
In other words, these were not signs of suspects killed while resisting arrest, but rather point blank shooting of suspects.
In 2008 alone, the state of Rio de Janeiro experienced 1,137 police killings, a staggering number compared to 371 in the whole United States.
Such a high number of homicides certainly must catch the attention of high federal officials, yet very little is being done to curtail these rates.
Police officers are able to get away with murder because they are not prosecuted by the state. The fact that the victims are more often than not favela dwellers with very little money, education, and political voice, makes them easily overlooked. More pressing though is the fact that these police officers murder as part of organized gang groups.
“Brazilian authorities must crackdown on unsafe destruction of homes and neighborhoods, as well as known human rights abuse cases, to avoid a tarnished image of Brazil and to show the international community that as a nation they value human rights.”
Credible evidence that police officers are members of illegal organized crime gangs, known as death squads, has surfaced after investigations in Rio de Janeiro and São Paolo. In a 2005 BBC report a former military policeman acknowledged the existence of death squads stating,
“Everyone knows the police here in Rio de Janeiro… nearly all of them abuse their authority…When you get excited you feel you are the law… The shooting cases you hear about, most of them are executions…It’s all premeditated—very cold-blooded and calculated” (Stickler).
From 2006 to 2008, São Paolo experienced an increase in number of suspected cases of death squad killings yet the number of prosecutions against these perpetrators has not kept up with the cases. More often than not, the police officers falsify reports, plant evidence in crime scenes, and intimidate witnesses in order cover up their crimes.
Stories of masked and unmasked police officers beating teenagers after reporting police abuse are all too common throughout the favelas of Rio and São Paulo. Even lawyers involved in prosecution of police officers receive death threats. The fear of police retaliation prevents victims from filing reports and becoming legal witnesses to crimes.
In the past ten years, favelas all across Brazil have faced extreme hardship due to the extremely low economic situation that most of its inhabitants face. Inadequate schools, hospitals, services, and security are all serious issues that Brazil must resolve if it wishes to join the international community as a developed nation. The extremely high homicide rates in the favelas are unacceptable. Locals are unable to trust the local authorities because the officers meant to protect them are also the murderers.
“Even lawyers involved in prosecution of police officers receive death threats.”
The rampant corruption must be put under control in order to successfully face the real drug violence and warlords. The prosecution must show that vigilantism by police officers is not and will not be tolerated, and must incarcerate all those found guilty through just judicial processing.
Brasilia needs to intervene and persecute local officers suspected of forming part of death squads in federal court, and also effectively and humanely displace citizens whose homes have been affected by the construction of sport venues in order to show a tangible commitment to human rights.
The World Cup and the Olympics can be a positive and pride worthy occasion for every Brazilian and need not be tarnished by human rights abuses: the country still has three and a half years to tackle these issues and adhere to all human right laws before millions of tourists begin to pour into the streets of Rio de Janeiro and São Paulo to celebrate and enjoy all that it has to offer.
“Lethal Force: Police Violence and Public Security in Rio de Janeiro and São Paulo.” Human Rights Watch. 2009.
Phillips, Tom. “Rio World Cup demolitions leave favela families trapped in ghost town” Guardian.co.uk. 20 April 2011.
Stickler, Angus. “Brazilian Police ‘execute thousands.’” BBC News. 23 November 2005.
Van Auken, Bill. “Brazil’s poor evicted to make way for Olympics.” World Socialist Web Site. 4 May 2011.
Zirin, Dave. “Brazil’s disappearing favelas.” Aljazeera. 10 May 2011.