RIO DE JANEIRO — The children of Vigario Geral, a dusty urban battlefield enclosed by train tracks, collect bullets the way other children collect marbles or seashells.
After gunfights between police and gangsters, the children of the favela, or slum, retrieve spent bullets by the fistful, the bucketful--a thousand bullets a month.
The children exchange the bullets for candy at the House of Peace, a community center established in a favela house where police are accused of massacring a family of evangelical Christians three years ago. Amid the slaughter, two ski-masked gunmen argued about the fate of five children, sparing them after one gunman threatened to kill the other if he shot them. Three dozen officers will go on trial in October on charges of killing a total of 21 people that night.
"I don't understand how the police can act so coldly, they don't seem like people," said Vera dos Santos, 33, who lost her parents and brothers and sisters. "I don't believe in the justice system. I am preparing for a disappointment."
Vigario Geral remains a symbol of Brazil's struggle against human rights abuse. President Fernando Henrique Cardoso recently launched a historic human rights program aimed largely at stopping police violence, which sometimes resembles an undeclared war. On paper, the program is a model for Latin America.
But the reforms face difficulties both on the street and in the political arena. An illustration: Cardoso gave Brazil's first human rights award to a young sociologist from Vigario Geral who turned the house of death into the House of Peace. But the sociologist fled to the United States this year because he received death threats--allegedly from rogue police.
"Brazil is a nation where the political, economic and social structures permit a great deal of violence," said Jose Gregori, the No. 2 official in the Justice Ministry and the president's point man on human rights. "So human rights questions are discussed in a climate of controversy. . . . But the existence of the program is an advance."
Fear of crime is the fundamental obstacle.
Violence is the leading cause of death among youths in this country, according to a recent study. Brazil records 17 murders per 100,000 people, compared with 11 per 100,000 in the United States. Many Brazilians applaud police for administering street justice.
After a wave of sadistic robberies and murders in affluent homes and nightspots in Sao Paulo this month, survivors had hostile words for the city's bishop, a critic of police misconduct. Their anger reflects a belief that the words "human rights" are code for protecting the enemy.
This war-like mentality has a swashbuckling champion: Gen. Nilton Cerquiera, the public security chief of the state of Rio de Janeiro. Cerquiera commanded a feared military anti-subversion unit during the military dictatorship that ended in 1985. He came out of retirement last year to lead Rio's counterattack on lawlessness.
In comments to journalists last week, Cerquiera, 66, a bespectacled white-haired warrior, defended his policy of what he described as salary raises for bravery. He scorned critics who blame such "Wild West bonuses" for an eightfold surge in police shootings over the past year.
Rio's crime rate has abated this year, with murders dropping to 1990 levels. Cerquiera said the police are winning the battle despite a "Maginot Line" of human rights activists defending criminals. "A bandit has to be treated like a bandit, no matter what the human rights groups say," Cerquiera declared.
Although federal officials argue that both crime and police brutality can be controlled, Cardoso's proposals face opposition in Congress. Cardoso, a distinguished sociologist, has a long record of activism on human rights. He has written books on social problems such as poverty and race relations, and his opposition to the dictatorship forced him into exile at one time.
After being elected in 1994, Cardoso recruited a leading scholar on violence, Paulo Sergio Pinheiro of the University of Sao Paulo, to design a long list of judicial and social reforms. "What has been decisive is the personal commitment of the president," Pinheiro said.
A landmark law passed this month shifts trials in questionable police killings from military tribunals, which are considered lenient, to civilian courts. A new program will protect witnesses such as the youth who survived the 1993 murders of sleeping street children in front of Candelaria Cathedral in Rio; after testifying against the police, he was wounded in an ambush and went into hiding in Switzerland.