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Few Question Escalating Police Violence in Crime-Scarred Rio

Lethal force by poorly educated, poorly paid officers is rife in slums, where drug bosses rule.

December 23, 2005|Henry Chu | Times Staff Writer

RIO DE JANEIRO — The five bodies in the bar were riddled with bullets fired at almost point-blank range. Four of the dead were boys no older than 16. The admitted gunmen: police officers carrying out a raid in a squalid shantytown.

But in this seaside city that has become hostage to gruesome acts of violence, the killings early this month barely caused a stir, in stark contrast to a bus burning by suspected drug traffickers the same week, which also killed five people. That incident was front-page news.

The lack of outrage illustrates the growing public indifference toward alleged police brutality in a society that is increasingly accustomed to such harsh measures and even, at times, supportive of them in the fight against spiraling crime.

Brazil, the biggest country in Latin America, suffers from one of the highest homicide rates in the world. At the same time, the number of killings by police has climbed steeply, even though, activists say, the authorities' frequent use of lethal force has failed to put a dent in crime.

In Rio de Janeiro state alone, police killed nearly 1,200 people in 2003, according to figures compiled by the local nonprofit group Global Justice -- an astonishing average of more than three people a day. The overwhelming majority of victims are young black or mixed-race males who live in the city's favelas, the teeming slums that blanket Rio's hillsides.

The favelas have become personal fiefdoms of drug kingpins. Fearful residents find themselves caught between the iron rule of their local drug lords and the repressive tactics of police who regularly invade their neighborhoods in military-style operations.

"The people in the favelas are victims twice over," said Marcelo Freixo of Global Justice.

Residents of the slums, most of them poor workers who provide services for Rio's tiny upper crust, routinely hear the sharp report of gunfire outside their homes or of firecrackers set off by scouts to warn drug traffickers of the presence of cops.

Nighttime raids by heavily armed police commandos, sometimes backed by helicopters, are common. Research released this month by Amnesty International said police often exceeded the limits of their powers by using single search warrants to sweep through entire communities.

"They are issued by judges against the spirit of the law, and they basically give police carte blanche to go and search houses in whole neighborhoods," said the human rights group's Patrick Wilcken.

Putting up a fight can result in injury or even a fatality that is classified as "resistance followed by death," Wilcken said.

In the Dec. 3 raid that left four boys and a young man dead in the suburb of Niteroi, officers said the youths had ties to the drug trade and had shot at them.

But after hearing the officers' conflicting accounts and visiting the bar where the supposed shootout took place, members of the state's human rights commission said there were "very strong indications" that the boys had been summarily executed -- that the only shots were fired by the police.

One of the victims was 11-year-old Wellington Santiago, who had stopped at the bar with friends to buy sodas for a birthday party they were on their way to attend.

"He was shot five times, in the head, in the stomach, which destroyed his internal organs, and the arm," said Fernanda de Oliveira, the boy's mother. "He was killed in such a brutal way. So very cruel."

Wellington was a conscientious student who had nothing to do with drugs, De Oliveira said.

She described police incursions as a constant horror in Morro do Estado, the favela where she lives. "They invade all the time. The schools are constantly closing" because of confrontations between police and drug traffickers, she said.

Twelve officers have been detained in connection with the killings.

Whether any will actually be punished remains to be seen. Brazil's judicial system grinds agonizingly slowly, with the result that cases go untried for years.

In one of Rio's bloodiest massacres, 32 officers were accused of participating in the slaughter of 21 innocent people in the Vigario Geral slum. Only seven of the attackers have been tried and convicted so far amid ongoing investigations.

The massacre took place 12 years ago.

But the worst rampage attributed to rogue cops in Rio state occurred in March. A group of gunmen, believed to be officers who were upset about an internal investigation of some of their colleagues, mowed down 29 people.

The state Ministry of Public Security did not respond to requests for comment on allegations of widespread police abuse and impunity.

But police officials have publicly defended their department's actions. While acknowledging the presence of wayward cops, whom they say they are trying to root out, the officials note that their officers' lives are in constant peril, threatened by drug gangs and other criminals who are often better armed and increasingly ruthless.

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