A former military police officer in Brazil talks about the culture of violence that permeates the force, and how this can dehumanize those who initially joined in order to serve and protect the public.
Standing almost two meters tall and weighing over 100 kilos, Rodrigo Nogueira Batista is a “monster,” as individuals of his size are commonly called. A left ear mangled from ju-jitsu and a crooked nose reinforce this image of Rodrigo, a former military police (PM) officer and current inmate at Bangu 6, a penitentiary for former police officers, firefighters, prison officials, and members of militias. Imprisoned in November 2009, Rodrigo was sentenced by a military tribunal to 18 years in prison for theft, extortion via kidnapping, and indecent assault. He was also sentenced to 12 years and eight months by a jury tribunal for attempted triple homicide.
According to his criminal sentencing, Rodrigo and his then-partner, Marcelo Machado Carneiro, approached Helena Moreira, a street vendor in the municipality of São Carlos. She was going to the metro station in the Estacio de Sa neighborhood in Rio de Janeiro, and carried 1,750 reals (roughly $500 US dollars) in her purse. The officers searched, robbed, and kidnapped Helena, thinking she was the wife of a drug trafficker.
According to the decision handed down by judge Jorge Luiz Le Cocq D’Oliveira, the two officers held Helena in captivity for four hours, during which she was assaulted and obliged to perform sexual acts before being shot in the face, allegedly by Rodrigo. According to the sentencing, the victim pretended to be dead following the torture session and later went to a police station to file a complaint.
To use Rodrigo's own metaphor, I have before me a monster: someone convicted of a heinous crime, but who is the product of a cruel system.
Rodrigo appealed the verdict before the Superior Court of Justice (STJ). He claimed to have not committed the crime for which he was sentenced, although he says in so many words he is not innocent, that he committed “other errors” as a police officer, which he does not discuss in detail because he fears it could complicate his judicial situation.
Rodrigo is author of the book “Como Nascem os monstros” (How Monsters are Born), a brutal “non-fiction novel” that mixes his own stories with those of his colleagues about abuses within the military police. In the book, Rodrigo describes the transformation of an ordinary young man with vague ideas about defending society and combating crime, into a uniformed criminal who uses his position to kill, kidnap, extort, and provide services to militias.
Former military police official Rodrigo Batista
“I can guarantee that, on the first day of training, no one thinks that one day they will kidnap, rob, or murder someone and set fire to the corpse,” Rodrigo writes in his book. “You can contemplate shooting a criminal... but thinking of such cruelty is impossible.”
To use Rodrigo's own metaphor, I have before me a monster: someone convicted of a heinous crime, but who is the product of a cruel system. I turn on the recorder. This is his account.
You say in the book that [the military police academy] is where the degradation of a boy who wants to defend society begins, as you start to experience the violence and corruption within the force. What was that like?
The transformation process begins during the initial phase of training. The first place you go is a path surrounded by trees. From the treetops, veteran police officers begin firing blank shots and throwing bombs. We should be trained to carry out policing, but we are already being introduced to war.
Within the CFAP (Center for Officer Training), the attitude of the instructors is not to train police. It is to train combatants. And therein lies the problem: you are training a combatant to be inserted in as complex a structure as society. One day an officer is working with a beggar, the next day a judge, and the following day with an assassin. To train a combatant to work within this context, is very difficult. It takes a long time. And if it is not done correctly, you end up creating monsters.
How does a police officer learn torture?
It can be learned in just one day. Citizen rights can make the work of a police officer harder in some respects. Take for example, a youth who steals something from a tourist and runs. The police officer runs after the individual and catches him. The robber has already dropped what he stole and is a minor, so he can't be taken to the police station. Damn, but the police officer knows that he stole something.
I said to myself: “This is war, and if someone tries to kill me, I am going to respond with bullets as well.”
Now comes the revenge, the payback time. The suspect is taken to a private place where they pay dearly for what they've done.
And I can assure you: in my class at the CFAP, nine out of every ten officers in training never thought they would undergo such a dehumanizing process. The officer sees a youth being shocked, pepper spray directed at their anus, their scrotum, and in their mouth, yet the officer doesn't feel sorry at all. To the contrary, he laughs, he thinks it's funny.
And there is a reason for this. If -- while the veteran officer catches the criminal and begins the abuse -- you [as the trainee officer] begin to show emotion, you can be sure you will be made fun of in the battalion, you will be seen as weak. You will be seen as inept for police service.
In the book, you describe the constant climate of war and vindication between police and drug traffickers. You tell the story of one recruit, Sampaio...
I made a point of drawing attention to Sampaio's case, one of the true parts in my book. Perhaps the family will read it and know that someone remembers him. It was a very tragic case... It was hard to... [Rodrigo cries].
One day I arrived to work at the CFAP. It was a Friday during Carnaval. When I arrived, I heard the news that Sampaio had been killed by 19 gunshots, in Caxias [Duque de Caxias, a municipality in the Rio metropolitan area]. Sampaio was the youngest in a relatively large family, he had several brothers. He was supposed to be working with me that day.
He was standing at a bus stop that day; he was supposed to ride with a colleague on the bus to the CFAP. He lived in an area with a lot of drug traffickers, but, since he was a recruit and grew up in the area, he thought they would tolerate his presence at least until he graduated and left [the neighborhood].
It was 5:00 a.m., some guys had returned from dancing and one of them recognized him. They turned around and began to shoot at him. He ran, he ran far, almost 800 meters. He fell near a side street with 19 shots from a caliber .380 in him. All [of the bullets] were in his back. All of them.
We received the news of Sampaio's death as we were approaching graduation at the CFAP. They asked for volunteers to guard his funeral, and I went to his burial. Man, there I saw how... [Rodrigo cries again]. I had cracked before, but that was the breaking point. Sampaoi was just 19 years old. 19 years old...
In the book, you also comment on the participation of officers in this cycle of violence and corruption and even call them “gang leaders.” You say they [the officers] are in charge of it all. How does this happen?
It is due to the modern military hierarchy. Militarism, for better or worse, would not continue without the consent of those in charge. If you and I are on patrol and we do something that displeases our commander, we will be taken off patrol. If you and I are on patrol exchanging gunfire and killing people and we continue on patrol, it's because the bosses want you to continue. Within the military police structure, the colonel, the battalion commander, are coordinating the entire operation.
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I can guarantee you that any police officer in Rio de Janeiro that shuts down an illegal lottery agency, the next day will be in a different battalion. And you will have earned a reputation for being a “rebel” or “problematic.”
Why do you support the demilitarization of police?
When you see a soldier policing, there is already something wrong. A comrade is either a soldier, or he is a police officer. He can even be a police soldier in the barracks, but not on the street. What is the duty of a soldier? To kill the enemy. A soldier is trained to eliminate the enemy, and a police officer is not. Or at least, he shouldn't be.
A police officer, despite what a good part of Rio society believes, was not made to kill anybody. The police should not have enemies. A police officer is supposed to make arrests and to let the law mete out appropriate punishments. But one is convinced to believe in just the opposite.
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A criminal is the result of our society, our environment. Crime is part of society, and a police officer cannot see the criminal as an enemy. Police are not supposed to kill criminals.
At what point does one stop being a police officer and become a “monster”?
There can be various breaking points. For me, it was the death of Sampaio. When I saw him dead, a 19-year-old recruit with 19 shots in the back, I said to myself: “This is war, and if someone tries to kill me, I am going to respond with bullets as well.” It was then that I realized the cruelty of death. The daily interaction with violence is what causes the dehumanization.
Many of those in my recruiting class have died, are in prison, or have been expelled. Yet the monster factory is open, it's still there. The factory is open and a lot of people want to enter it, but they will eventually see their error.