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Police Helicopter Chase Highlights Recklessness in Rio de Janeiro

  • Written by Julia Michaels*
  • Wednesday, 15 May 2013
  • Media
Rio de Janeiro police chase video Rio de Janeiro police chase video

A video showing Rio de Janeiro police hunting down a drug trafficker from a helicopter raises all kinds of questions about why the clip is coming out now, and the degree to which reckless behavior is an accepted fact of life in Brazil

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On May 5, TV Globo's primetime program, Fantástico, aired a video of a risky helicopter chase that resulted in the death of a heavily armed drug trafficker and gang leader with eleven warrants out for his arrest. The year-old video has led to investigations by the Civil Police internal affairs department and Rio's state legistature's Human Rights Committee; the Rio State Attorney General reopened the case, and the helicopter pilot has been temporarily removed from his duties.

In the video (watch below, with narration in Spanish), civil police, hovering over rooftops as low as 70 feet, shouting excitedly, sprayed fire into a favela in Rio's West Zone. The suspects shot at the helicopter, which was hit by some bullets. Miraculously, no police or uninvolved civilians were hurt.

US security personnel, closely watching Brazil as mega-events quickly approach, weren't pleased by what they saw.

"I do not know any professional organization police, nor military, anywhere in the world where this level of force would be considered justifiable, reasonable or necessary," Eduardo Jany, a US Marine specialized in anti-terrorism, and Director of Law Enforcement Advisory Services for Mutualink, a police training, equipment and consulting firm, wrote in an e-mail to RioRealblog. "They are very lucky no innocents were injured or killed." Jany said he had spoken to two senior executives at the FBI and a senior officer in the US military's Special Operations Command. "We were trying to wrap our minds around this thing and see how [it] could unfold in this manner. All of us are just flabbergasted," he added.

(Civil Police Chief Martha Rocha said Monday morning (May 13) that there is no protocol for collecting, monitoring or evaluating video images of her force's operations. A committee has now been created to set up such a protocol. Protocols for police behavior seem to be one of the weakest links in the area of public safety. The creation of protocols was one of the main recommendations in the impact study of the state's pacification program.)

Wrapping one's mind around recent events in Rio is no easy task, only a month away from the Confederations Cup international soccer championship and two months before Pope Francis' visit, especially in light of the ease with which two young men allegedly bombed bystanders at the finish line of the Boston Marathon, last month.

Everyday life is hazardous.

Here, buses have been killing pedestrians and bicyclists, invading police have allegedly committed civil rights abuses in Complexo da Maré, a police helicopter crashed, a rainstorm doused lights in large parts of the city for too long, the city council failed to adequately debate health care policy, a water main burst right next to the just-reopened Maracanã stadium, and sewage has been flowing openly in downtown streets.

All of this came on the heels of some truly horrific events: a bus tumbled off an overpass during a fight between a passenger and the driver; and an American student was gang-raped on a public transit van, while her French boyfriend was beaten up. Since then, other rapes on public transportation have come to light.

In the face of such chaos, a couple of jokers recommended that cariocas remain immobile, since there's too much traffic to drive a car, the metro is too crowded, the trains don't work, you risk rape on a van, buses can fall off an overpass, helicopters crash and bicycles are run over. If you're hurt, the jokers added, don't get in an ambulance, because these too have been getting into wild accidents. Remain immobile, they conclude, making a play on the word for real estate, imóvel — because values have been skyrocketing.

What's really going on?

The question is being asked on several levels. Regarding the specific police operation carried out a year ago, perhaps the murkiest aspects are division of labor and the chain of command. Before pacification began in 2008, police reformers preached the unification of Brazil's various police forces, saying that the principal Civil and Military Police forces had historically worked more at odds with each other, than in concert.

But in Rio, State Secretary of Public Safety José Mariano Beltrame — who oversees both the Civil and Military Police — made clear that he preferred to work within the existing system. He focused on the RISPs, geographical divisions of the state for which Civil and Military Police share responsibility, receiving pay bonuses for crime reduction.

RioRealblog has often explained the division of labor between the two as intelligence work versus street police work. But as the helicopter chase indicates, it's not quite so clear-cut. Federal Police (Brazil's version of the US FBI) had reportedly been monitoring "Matemático", the drug trafficker, for five months. According to reports, the Military Police were supposed to move in on him, but their armored vehicle took a bullet in a tire — and so the Civil Police went into action, in a helicopter, communicating with those on the ground, reportedly utilizing an off-limits Navy FN MAG 7.62mm machine gun made in Belgium. Apparently, the mission was to kill the dealer — although Civil Police Chief Martha Rocha later suggested her men should have arrested him, instead.

You might say the case involves excellent cooperation among the various forces. But the "newspeak" statement released to Fantástico by State Public Safety Secretary Beltrame indicates otherwise: "The sector that is specialized in these actions must answer to society and those with the responsibility for acting must assume the responsibility for the consequences."

Did the Navy know the Civil Police was using its machine gun? Why did Civil Police Chief Rocha sit for a year on the footage presented last week on Fantástico, without following up? What kind of oversight exists, that allows a pilot to risk the lives of his passengers, who in turn risk those of favela residents? Would the police have dared to carry out such an operation in a middle-class neighborhood?

In developing democracies, conspiracy theories abound. Here, some posit that the video came to light now due to an internal power dispute within the Rio Civil Police. Others point out that Matemático wasn't arrested, to protect corrupt police.

Civil Police in trouble?

On May 11, yet another video surfaced, this time purportedly of Civil Police rearranging a West Zone crime scene, so as to make it look like they'd killed a criminal in self defense. The two videos, both coming out of the Civil Police (one was filmed on a police officer's head camera), would indicate internal difficulties. Whether or not this is the case, Beltrame's cryptic statement — especially given that he's generally quite outspoken– could signal tension between him and Civil Police forces, and command issues within Beltrame's domain. The Civil Police were also at fault in the case of the van rape: they didn't investigate a Brazilian woman's complaint some weeks before the American's tragic experience, involving the same perpetrators.

What do the two forces do, and when? In theory, the Military Police do preventive work, while the Civil Police investigate and follow up on criminal activity. But Military Police make arrests, they invade favelas, they amass information. Overlap must exist; after all, each force has its own elite squad: the BOPE, for the Military Police; and CORE, for the Civil Police. And when does the Civil Police's investigatory work shift to the Federal Police?

Perhaps it's time for a rethink of Rio's police forces?

The bigger picture

Issues of responsibility abound, as Brazil moves from a society run by an elite according to an unwritten code, to one of greater clarity, equality and participation. In Brasília, Congress and the Judiciary are battling over who has the last word on corruption rulings involving legislators — while the Executive branch struggles to overcome clientelist obstacles to modernizing policy such as much-needed port reforms.

In Rio, the usual buck-passing, neglect of human rights and power plays are exacerbated by the fact that public demand for quality services, provided directly or supervised by city or state government, is on the rise — due to upcoming mega-events, increased investment and greater income. This may be is part of the explanation for the growing number of people run over by buses, among other catastrophes. Bus companies, faced with a shortage of drivers, have reduced job requirements and curtailed training.

For decades, Brazilians have shrugged off — and shared in — widespread neglect for human life and health. This has been changing, as people gain income and access to information networks. Still, reckless individualistic behavior and acceptance of it come naturally. Fantástico's helicopter story got short-lived public attention, and many website comments praised the police for killing Matemático, urging them to bring down more bandidos.

Only days ago, a fight broke out among Brazilian passengers on an American Airlines flight to São Paulo, before it took off– because one passenger wanted to sleep, and the guy behind him preferred to watch a movie. Seven people disembarked in Miami, in handcuffs.

A version of this article was originally published at Rio Real. Reprinted with permission from *Julia Michaels, a reporter who has lived in Rio for over a decade.

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