A recent video of police seemingly executing teenage suspects raises an important question: to what extent could registered disappearance figures be hiding lethal “social cleansing” by the country’s own law enforcement officials?
The scenes are chilling. In the video released by Brazilian television network Globo on its news show Fantastico (see below), two military police officers chase and catch three teenagers suspected of robbery in downtown Rio. Once the alleged criminals are shut in the back of their truck, the police officers have a very casual conversation.
“Shall we go up there?” says one policeman to the other, who glances at him and nods.
“Shoot the gun a little bit,” he replies, looking at the boys in the rear view mirror.
“Up there” was Morro do Sumare (Sumare Hill), a secluded high point in Rio’s Tijuca Forest, a national park. The car, tracked by GPS, travels for what appears in the video to be about 45 minutes into the forest, then stops.
The officers, later identified as Vinicius Lima and Fabio Magalhaes, get out and provoke the youngsters.
“We haven’t even started beating you yet, and you’re already crying?” one goads them.
The officers then get back into the vehicle and drive for another minute before getting out again, laughing as they do. Magalhaes mimics shooting his gun, then gets back in the car and smiles.
Lima shouts at the boys: “Stop crying, damn it! You’re crying so damn much! Be a man, damn it!”
Two minutes later, they reach the top of Morro do Sumare. One teenager is escorted out of the truck and away for reasons that are not clear. Then the cameras stop rolling.
By the time the camera starts again the officers are back in the truck, driving down the hill, with no one in the back. They pass the first boy who was taken out of the truck walking down the road and signal for him to get back in.
“If there is any whisper about what you saw up there with us, we will be after you. You listening? You’re going to pretend that nothing happened,” says Magalhaes.
That boy is dropped off shortly afterwards in central Rio.
A Body and a Witness
Five days later, the body of Matheus Alves dos Santos, 14, was found at the top of the hill. The other boy, however, miraculously survived.
Identified only as “M” for his own protection, M told Brazilian investigative news site Publica that he had the “luck” to be taken out of the car before Matheus, then was made to lie on the ground.
“This one’s finished,” he heard the officers joke, before they shot M in the knee with a pistol and in the back with a rifle. M heard more shots then felt Matheus’ body fall on top of him.
(The third boy, found later by investigators, revealed he had been let go before execution took place because he knew a friend of the officers.)
The officers kicked the boys to check they were dead before driving off, M said. In additional footage released later by Fantastico, Lima and Magalhaes discussed the killings.
“Two down,” says Lima. “If we do this all week (it will) keep going down. We hit the target.”
The officers have not said publicly what they meant when they said “target.” Police may be under pressure to reduce street robberies in downtown Rio. They may also be under pressure to reduce their rates of lethal violence, which these police thought they had done by allegedly shooting the boys in a secret location. Yet, analysts in Brazil wonder whether “target” may have been code for something far more sinister.
Business as Usual
Police brutality in Brazil has been widely documented. In what is considered one of the most violent security forces in the world, police killed an average of five people per day in 2012. The bulk of these killings took place in the states of Rio de Janeiro, Sao Paulo and Bahia, and the vast majority of those killed were young, black, poor men.
Many of these recorded killings take place in favelas, during police operations against drug trafficking. Many occur when officers legitimately believe their lives are in danger, or when they make careless decisions in the heat of the moment. However, there are also many arbitrary executions.
What was particularly disturbing about Lima’s and Magalhaes’ actions was their calm and pre-meditated nature — the officers were not mid-operation, were not facing any kind of threat and did not appear to have an excess of adrenaline running through their veins when they made the decision to kill.
It was, in fact, a decision that appeared entirely routine.
“Even for those of us who are used to this behavior, this casual way they discussed the deaths was disturbing,” said Ignacio Cano, a leading expert on Rio public security, violence and human rights. “This appeared routine both in terms of the frequency and routine from a moral point of view. This was not a special moment for them at all. It was business as usual, like somebody who works in the slaughter house.”
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Had M not survived, it’s entirely possible no one would ever have known the act took place. The officers certainly did not seem too concerned about being discovered (though they now face charges of homicide).
This raises the question: how many victims of similar executions are never discovered?
Falling Homicides, Rising Disappearances
Figures published by the Rio state government’s Institute of Public Security (ISP) show a dramatic drop in the number of police killings between 2007 and 2013 — from 1,330 in 2007 to 402 between October 2012 and November 2013, a drop of 70 percent. Homicides as a whole also dropped significantly, from 6,133 in 2007 to 4,543 between 2012 and 2013, a decrease of 25 percent.
However, while recorded killings fell, registered disappearances rose. A total of 4,641 people were recorded missing in 2007, rising by 30 percent to 6,034 between 2012 and 2013.
Fabio Araujo, a sociologist who in his dissertation examined forced disappearances in Rio, believes the correlation is no coincidence.
“The Rio government has fabricated a drop in homicides,” he told InSight Crime. “My interpretation is the disappearance figures are hiding homicides and police killings. I have no doubt that the disappearance of people is a police practice.”
Police used various methods to disguise killings, he said, “disappearing” bodies being one of them.
“The act of disappearing bodies is a principle common among police, traffickers and militias alike,” he said.
Cano, meanwhile, does not believe the figures can be analyzed so simply.
“Many people take for granted that the decrease in homicides and the increase in disappearances are strongly linked,” he said. “I think it is just a hypothesis and the evidence in favor of it is limited. We certainly cannot say that most disappearances are actually homicides.”
He pointed to a 2009 survey by the ISP of 400 relatives of people who were registered disappeared in 2007. Most of them, 71 percent, had reappeared and just 7 percent were found dead.
Homicides really had fallen, he argued. “Pacification,” a Rio security scheme to take back favela territory controlled by drug gangs and install community policing units known as UPPs, had brought them down since it was launched in 2008, he said.
Even more significant had been the introduction of salary bonuses for officers who reduced their lethal violence, which had “been very instrumental in bringing down the number of people killed by police, and homicides in general.”
However, both Cano and Araujo agreed that such bonuses could also act as an incentive for police to hide bodies rather than report them when they killed people, accidentally or otherwise.
It is a complex picture, one in which the lines become even more blurred when the militias Araujo referred to are taken into account. These paramilitary groups formed in large part by off-duty or retired police officers and prison guards control many Rio favelas, charging protection money and “taxes” from residents and businesses.
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Rates of both homicides and disappearances are higher in certain militia-controlled areas, and there is a stronger correlation between them. Minor crimes, or simply being an undesirable presence, can exact severe penalties, including disappearance and death. As reported by Publica, in Campo Grande, an area in Rio city’s west zone, police officers had the second best result in the state for reducing lethal violence last year, with each officer receiving an almost $4,000 bonus. It is the also the area that registers the highest disappearance levels — and has a very strong militia presence.
A Culture of Police Brutality
State violence as a means of social control goes back centuries in Brazil. When the police force was first created during the 19th Century, one of its functions was to torture slaves. During the military dictatorship of the 1970s and 1980s, military police crushed dissent, torturing and killing “enemies” of the regime. Today, tear gas, pepper spray and truncheons are routinely used against protesters.
The notion that police should kill criminals or suspected criminals is nothing out of the ordinary in Brazilian society, and indeed is supported by many of its members. In a survey carried out by the federal Secretariat for Human Rights in 2009, 43 percent of Brazilians agreed with the statement: “A good criminal is a dead criminal.”
“We are not talking about just a very violent police, it goes much deeper than that,” said Cano. “They don’t just have the moral backing [to kill], there is a demand for it. For many echelons of society, especially the lower ones but not exclusively, violence is the means of social control, and killing these people is the way to go.”
Last month’s video was a stark illustration of the persistence of this mentality, said Adilson Paes de Souza, who was a military police officer in Brazil for 30 years before writing a book on police violence. The “naturalness, coldness and spontaneity” with which Lima and Magalhaes killed were typical of the scenarios described by officers he interviewed.
Officers have “the tranquility to do what they like” with the “certainty of impunity,” he said.