InSight: A Carnival of Police

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Carnival in Latin America means revelry, skin and ‘fiesta,’ or ‘festa’ as you might say in Portuguese. But it also means organized crime. From Rio to Barranquilla to Port au Prince, organized criminals have always financed the biggest party of the year.

So it was strange to see this year that one samba school from the hillside slum of Salgueiro in Rio de Janeiro would have some of their members dressed as police. The homage to the security forces, however, may reflect the winds of change in that city.

Samba schools throughout Rio pick a theme for the carnival, then build a song, dance, and costumes around it. In the case of Salgueiro, the reigning champ, the neighborhood is paying homage to film, one of which is the 2007 Brazilian police movie ‘Tropa de Elite’ (see trailer here).

Based on the exploits of the BOPE, Brazil’s version of SWAT, the movie touched a vigilante nerve in the country and was the type of box office success that not all critics appreciated.

“Brazil’s powerful military police are elevated to Rambo-style heroes in ‘The Elite Squad,’ a one-note celebration of violence-for-good that plays like a recruitment film for fascist thugs,” Variety magazine said.

The critics have a point. According to a 2009 Human Rights Watch report, Brazilian police in Rio and São Paulo killed more than 11,000 people between 2003 and 2009, in so-called “resistance” confrontations with criminal elements. In the report, the rights group shined a light on 33 cases where evidence was scant, had been tampered with, or just did not support the police story justifying the violence.

Rio has taken steps to reduce corruption and violence by its security forces. In mid-February, authorities arrested 32 military and civilian police as part of something called Operation Guillotine and promoted a woman to police chief. Rio state government is now proposing legislation to give cops incentives to tell on their fellow cops.

Perhaps more importantly in this equation is that the criminals may be worse than the police, judging from country’s decision to pay homage to their rivals at the box office and one of the prominent samba schools’ choice to do the same in Brazil’s most sacred public event.

It’s also probably not a coincidence that Salgueiro was occupied by the BOPE in August as part of the state and city’s efforts to take Rio’s 700 slums from the clutches of drug traffickers who have been using the areas as their operational bases for years.

As the video below illustrates (ignore the host’s banter with the parrot), it was an operation as clumsy as it was obvious that included driving an oversized shipping container through the winding hillside streets. But in the end, they achieved their goal: installing a UPP or Police Pacification Unit in the area, one of some 17 that have been placed in various parts of the city since last year.

The Salgueiro Samba School members are not all pleased with the decision to pay tribute to the BOPE. School President Regina Celi told O Globo that she worried about the band (appropriately called “Furious”) being confused with the real police.

“Criminals could confuse some members of the band with the BOPE getting ready to take the hill,” she said. “The beret is identical, so is the ammunition belt, and our drum sticks might look like weapons. We’re bringing peace, not war to the people.”

Such is the life in Rio’s slums, where efforts to keep criminals at bay seem as ephemeral as carnival itself. So while Rio’s police may have the stage at this event, organized crime is far from finished with its patronage.

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