Rio Mass Arrest Points to Complex Police-Gang Relations

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The arrest of 59 Rio de Janeiro military police officers accused of drug ties, and the sentencing of an officer who confessed to killing a judge, are signs that the state is taking action against corruption in the police.

On December 4, security forces arrested 59 officers suspected of taking bribes from the Red Command (Comando Vermelho) drug gang in exchange for allowing it to work unmolested. All the police had been part of the Duque de Caxias battalion in the north of the city, whose commander has now been removed. The arrests were part of Operation Purification, launched in April.

Also arrested as part of the operation were 11 suspected Red Command members, along with a policeman who was found with a gun, and a lawyer who allegedly coordinated bribe payments and gave legal help to traffickers, as O Globo reported.

According to the state authorities, the police had been receiving regular payments from traffickers, collecting a payment of up to 2,500 reals ($1,190) each time they did a shift, O Globo reported. The scheme was reportedly so sophisticated that officers would receive the bribe payments directly into bank accounts. The police would extort further money from traffickers by kidnapping them or their families and demanding a ransom, confiscating their cars, and carrying out operations against them if payments were late.

The authorities presented the arrests as a tough move against corruption, with the head of Rio state’s military police declaring, “We will no longer accept being humiliated by the behavior of some.”

The same day that the mass arrests were carried out, a court in the suburb of Niteroi sentenced a military police officer to 21 years in prison for his part in the murder of Judge Patricia Acioli last year. He confessed to planning and committing the crime along with 10 other officers, after Acioli ordered the arrest of three policemen involved in the extrajudicial killing of a suspect.

InSight Crime Analysis

Efforts by Rio authorities to clean up the police force complement the drive to take control of many favelas from criminal groups. First the security forces are sent into an area drive out gangs, then, when it has been secured, elite forces known as Police Pacifying Units (UPPs) are installed as a permanent presence. The first UPP unit was put into place in December 2008, and they are gradually being rolled out to neighborhoods across the city, particularly those that are considered strategic for the upcoming Olympic Games and World Cup, with 28 in place to date.

As well as getting rid of drug gangs, the UPP program is meant to free these neighborhoods from the control of militias. These are vigilante groups made up of police and other officials that were set up to fight drug traffickers, but which have become involved in crime themselves, carrying out extortion and running illegal enterprises, like unlicensed bus services, in the neighborhoods they control.

The operation to arrest police working with the Red Command illustrates the complicated relationships that police in Rio have with drug gangs, with reports on the case suggesting that the police network both collaborated with and terrorized the traffickers in their territory, kidnapping members of their families for ransom. This is a product of the absence of real state control in parts of the city, meaning that police have in many cases been just another group competing for power.

The UPP forces are meant to overcome this, and designed to be elite and corruption-proof. There have been a few incidents undermining this reputation, including the arrest in February of a former UPP commander accused of taking bribes from drug gangs, but broadly it seems to have held so far.

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