Rio’s Police Face Reality Check in Un-Pacified Favela

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Brazil’s elite military police are trying to build ties with communities and undo the harm done by officers who allegedly abused residents in Complexo da Mare, a favela which has not yet come under police control, reports blogger Julia Michaels.

Since the 2008 start of Rio’s new public safety policy, BOPE, the military police elite squad, has met with community members, but never like this.

First of all, the cops weren’t even invited. “When we saw you coming in, the first thing we thought was, ‘They’re going to prevent us from meeting’,” said Rubens Casara, a judge active on human rights issues. “The second was, ‘They’re going to try to keep people from making accusations about police behavior’,” he told three elite squad members who came, it turned out, to actually listen and respond to residents.

Second, the reason everybody was crammed into a large classroom at the Observatorio de Favelas NGO in the Nova Holanda section of the Mare complex of favelas in Rio’s North Zone was… Rio’s first cable-stayed bridge — not the sort of thing that normally figures into public safety strategies.

Brazil, land of contrasts

Set to open to vehicle traffic next month, the ultra-modern $176 million equivalent bridge is taking shape by way of the machinery and men of the Queiroz Galvao construction company. It will connect the “Red Line” highway to UFRJ, the federal university campus where two other engineering feats are coming to life: the $500 million GE research and development center, and a $300 million equivalent research center where the university and several other companies will develop pre-salt oil exploration technology.

Third, the closest “community”, as the politically correct like to call favelas, the Complexo da Mare, isn’t pacified. So not pacified is it that on October 10, an unidentified number of armed drug traffickers reportedly showed up at the construction site, demanding two million reais ($1.2 million, equivalent) in exchange for a peaceful construction environment.

So what did the elite squad do, to make sure the bridge will be finished on time? They dropped pamphlets out of a helicopter, asking Mare residents for their help, and sent 120 men into the area to find the extortionists.

Except that the pamphlets (leftovers from another favela) erroneously said the area was being pacified, the extortionist chase wasn’t mentioned until today, and, residents say, the men have been searching homes without knocking, shooting their weapons without regard for passersby, and generally terrorizing people. “Their search warrants are their uniforms,” said one resident. “They say, ‘What are you looking at?’ and don’t wear nametags,” as required.

“There are from 400 to 500 drug traffickers here,” said Jailson de Souza, founder of the Observatorio, which has a strong focus on human rights. “And anywhere from 140,000 to 150,000 people live here, altogether. But the soldiers seem to think of all this as enemy territory”.

Blonde-ponytailed Captain Marlisa (no last name given, per Brazilian habit) said she’d give out her contact information, so residents can report police misdeeds. “I need this kind of feedback,” she said. Officers are supposed to wear nametags, and may only enter private property with a search warrant, or when catching a criminal in the act.

Can another sort of bridge be built?

All three BOPE officers appeared to sincerely want to improve communication and to work together with the community. In favelas with new police pacification units — from all accounts the only places where the elite squad has sat down to exchange ideas with locals — this posture has worked fairly well. But Complexo da Mare is another world, without peace, a true test of police training and performance.

Lieutenant Alexandra Vicente, a corps psychologist, said investigations would be carried out and that soldiers found to have abused their authority could be fired in as little time as a month.

De Souza recognized that the state public safety policy represents a change of paradigm, with the corps being trained in community policing, the retaking of territories until now dominated by criminals, and the establishment so far of 17 police pacification units. “But what’s going on here is the old paradigm,” he concluded.

Health workers present at the meeting said the stress on the local population has brought on increases in hypertension, diabetes and, in children, psychosomatic fevers. A teacher complained of a machine-gunned wall. Charles Guimarães, president of the Baixa do Sapateiro neighborhood association, said that the police didn’t stop to help a woman he claims they shot.

The bridge extortion attempt brings up questions about the geography of the huge Complex and just which one of three drug gangs might be responsible. The area where BOPE has been active for the last 10 days isn’t contiguous to the building site. But the police do have intelligence and a strategy, Lt. Vicente assured RioRealblog. “We’re not just saying, oh, let’s go here today,” she added.

Intelligence isn’t likely to be coming from residents, both wary and weary of the way they’re being treated.

They demanded, above all, that actual police behavior match the prescribed one. Police are known to fabricate in flagrante delicto crime scenes by providing drugs. “What am I going to say [when a cop conducts a search without a warrant, or hits a resident, for example], ‘I’m going to tell Captain Marlisa on you’?” asked a meeting participant.

After the meeting, 30 NGOs, neighborhood associations, community projects, municipal health clinics and a city school released a document demanding an immediate meeting with the State Public Safety Secretariat, with the BOPE command, and the local battalion commander; a communique from BOPE to residents explaining the current incursion and describing legally correct police behavior; the investigation of all human rights violations reported to BOPE; and the immediate suspension of the current operation until the above requests are fulfilled.

Reprinted with permission from Julia Michaels*, a reporter who has lived in Rio almost 30 years. See her blog, Rio Real, which is in English and Portuguese, and read the original post here.

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