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Brazil's police killings condemned by Human Rights Watch

More than 11,000 people have died at the hands of authorities in Rio de Janeiro and Sao Paulo since 2003. The rights group says the cities' police forces are fraught with mafia-like corruption.

December 09, 2009|By Chris Kraul and Marcelo Soares
  • Police search for guns and drugs in a Rio de Janeiro shantytown. In Brazil, law enforcement has the power to internally investigate any killing that involves police.
Police search for guns and drugs in a Rio de Janeiro shantytown. In Brazil,… (Spencer Platt / Getty Images )

Reporting from Bogota, Colombia, and Sao Paulo, Brazil -- The police killing earlier this year of 22-year-old clerk and expectant father Jose Carlos Barbosa in a Rio de Janeiro slum was anything but an isolated incident. He is one of more than 11,000 people slain at the hands of authorities in that city and Sao Paulo since 2003.

The hair-raising statistic on Tuesday prompted a rebuke and a call for reform by New York-based Human Rights Watch, which characterized the two Brazilian cities' police forces as riven with mafia-like corruption.

Jose Miguel Vivanco, Americas director for the advocacy group, said in a telephone interview from Rio, where he met with local officials, that a crucial factor in the killings is the power police have to investigate internally all homicides involving law enforcement authorities.

"It's the Achilles' heel of accountability. There is complete impunity because the police protect their own," Vivanco said, adding that an independent organization should be set up to investigate homicides involving police.

Police say the violence reflects the difficult job they face in confronting and containing highly armed drug gangs that rule urban favelas, or shantytowns, where most of the killings occur. In October, gangs shot down a police helicopter, killing three officers aboard.

But a two-year Human Rights Watch investigation of the killings by police, which authorities often label "resistance homicides," found that a "substantial portion of the deaths are in fact extrajudicial killings."

Many are carried out by death squads made up of off-duty police looking to protect their turf from other criminal gangs, the study found.

Although police described Barbosa as a suspected drug trafficker, others said he was an innocent bystander during a March police sweep, the kind of operation in which Rio cops are all too prone, observers say, to shoot first and ask questions later -- if they ask questions at all.

"Everyone who was on the street ran. Jose was passing by at the time, he saw an open door and got in," said one witness, who asked to remain anonymous out of fear of police retribution. "A policeman who was already inside began shooting. There wasn't even the chance for him to tell them he was a father, a working man."

Margarida Pressburger, head of the human rights branch of the Rio Bar Assn., said the reluctance to come forward was typical. She blamed the failure of authorities to protect witnesses, many of whom refuse to testify in homicide cases because of police threats.

The police killings and other violence illustrate the challenge local authorities face in hosting the 2016 Summer Olympics. Although high levels of violence are nothing new to Brazil's big cities, such incidents have escalated in recent years as Brazil has become a cocaine consumption and trafficking hub.

In a statement issued after meeting with Vivanco, Rio de Janeiro state Gov. Sergio Cabral said his government was making progress in "reconquering shantytowns to reestablish law and order."

"There is no magic formula to deal with a question as complex and long-standing as this," Cabral said.

The Human Rights Watch report notes that although alleged resistance killings in Rio fell 10% last year, to 1,137, the number is still alarmingly high.

Any reform will come too late for Barbosa, whose daughter was born three days after his death.

He was the second member of his family to die violently, rights officials said. His brother Marcos was slain in August 2008 by a Rio gang after soldiers, who had detained him on suspicion of being a drug dealer, turned him over to be tortured and killed.

Kraul and Soares are special correspondents.

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