Something’s Rotten in Rio: Police Corruption : Brazil: Officers routinely rob the poor and extort money, even from a drug kingpin, informer says.
Ivan Custodio Barbosa de Lima, a longtime police informer with a sleazy reputation, has turned against Rio’s bad cops. Singing like a balladeer, he has regaled investigators and court authorities with a stunning repertoire of tales about just how bad Rio cops can be.
Police here have had a rotten reputation for years, based on such deeds as killing delinquent street kids and conniving with organized gangs that traffic in cocaine, stolen cars and guns. From 1987 to mid-1993, about 1,500 police were kicked off the force for involvement in different crimes, including homicide, automobile theft and kidnaping.
But Lima’s accusations, together with other recent evidence, suggest a much more widespread and blatant pattern of police crime than previously known.
According to Lima, 37, police routinely rob the poor, sell weapons to criminals and engage in extortion. They have grown so bold that they even shook down international cocaine kingpin Pablo Escobar for $10 million, he has said.
And as the key witness to the most shocking police crime of all, Lima has named names of 31 officers who he says participated in the Aug. 29 massacre of 21 people in a suburban slum called Vigario Geral.
The reality of crooked and vicious cops is hard to face for a city that takes pride in its dazzling beauty and laid-back friendliness. This is the home of happy sambas, bulging bikinis, Copacabana and Ipanema.
But Rio is also a metropolis of 11 million people, and like most of Latin America’s mega-cities, it suffers a plague of urban crime. Rio’s ramshackle favelas , slums that spread up green mountains in the city’s core and sprawl over flatter suburban lands, have become bases for powerful criminal networks that thrive on cocaine money and corruption, recruiting from legions of unemployed youths.
Organized crime has become as much a part of Rio as pre-Lenten carnival. And Rio cops, instead of solving the problem, have become part of it.
A U.S.-based human rights group, Americas Watch, blaming the massacre of children and the poor on police, urged the Brazilian government on Friday to take urgent action to halt the violence. The group urged Brazilian authorities to: widen probes into police abuses; punish those found guilty of torture and killings and being members of death squads, and allow civilian courts to deal with cases involving Brazil’s military police.
“These reforms would demonstrate to the people of Brazil and to the world that Brazil has finally managed to bring its police forces under control and made them subject to the rule of law,” Americas Watch said.
Despite his own criminal record, Lima has won considerable credibility for his stories about police crime because of their richness of detail, his long service as an underworld informer and his motives for confession: He is said to fear that if he does not receive official protection, he will be killed for knowing too much.
In a long sworn statement, Lima said he worked for years in the area of Vigario Geral and other north Rio slums, under the jurisdiction of the Ninth Military Police Battalion. (Brazil’s uniformed police forces are called military police and are organized with a militarized structure but are responsible to state governments and not the army.)
Lima said police from the Ninth Battalion invaded slums to seize traffickers’ weapons and drugs, which were sold to criminals in other slums. He said the police carried small amounts of cocaine on their raids to plant on “clean” traffickers.
They would detain criminals and take them to a station of the civil police, the state investigative agency that customarily works with informers like Lima. At the station, where investigators specialize in anti-narcotics work, “a sum was stipulated for letting the trafficker go” and defense lawyers often showed up to pay the bribes, he said.
Deputy Antonio Nonato da Costa, former director of the anti-narcotics division, was in on the deal, Lima said. Costa is now suspended and under investigation.
Lima also has said that a cut of the extortion money sometimes went to Col. Emir Laranjeiras, then head of the Ninth Battalion. Laranjeiras retired from the military police in 1990 and now is a state legislator. He has denied any involvement in corruption.
Lima said many of the corrupt operations in the Ninth Battalion were carried out by a group called the Race Horses. He said a new battalion commander transferred members to other units in 1992, “trying to disarticulate that criminal activity.”
Lima and some of the transferred military police were assigned to a civil police unit that investigated stolen cargo. In that unit, police would investigate a truck hijacking, looking for the fence who bought the stolen goods. The fence would be taken to the station. When his defense lawyer arrived, he would be presented with the bill for the bribe, Lima said.
This year, Lima said he continued his extortions in slums with a group of military police. Four members of the group were killed in a slum near Vigario Geral, on Rio’s tough and ugly north side. It was to avenge those slain comrades that police invaded Vigario Geral on Aug. 29.
Early that Sunday, more than 30 hooded gunmen swarmed into the slum and went on a shooting rampage. They killed seven people gathered in a small bar, eight in the home of a family of evangelical Christians and others on the street. Some of the victims were women; one was a 15-year-old girl.
Most had no known criminal past. They may have been killed because they were witnesses to revenge killings. It was a case, it seems, of killer cops gone completely berserk.
Naildo de Souza, president of the Residents Assn. in Vigario Geral, said the people gunned down in the bar were there to celebrate Brazil’s soccer victory in an elimination game for next year’s World Cup in the United States.
The victims included Souza’s son, Adalberto, who worked as a station agent in the commuter railway system. He was married, the father of a boy, 12, and a girl, 9.
“If I didn’t have my head in the right place, I would be forming a guerrilla squad for vengeance,” said Souza, 65, a retired railroad worker and political leftist who says he only wants peace in the slum.
“The police, who have the duty to guarantee our safety, are our main worry,” he said. “More than 50% are involved in one way or another with acts of violence and corruption.”
Rio cops are not the only bad Brazilian police, and in some ways, not the worst. In Sao Paulo, on-duty military police killed 1,470 civilians in 1992, mostly while patrolling violent slums on the outskirts of the city, South America’s largest.
The Rio military police department does not keep a record of the number of civilians killed by its officers. The number for 1992 is estimated at 400--compared with 25 such deaths reported by the Los Angeles Police Department and 18 killed by Los Angeles sheriff’s deputies in that same year.
Tecio Lins e Silva, a former Rio state secretary of justice, said concern focuses on Rio because bad cops contrast so violently with “the magic that Rio has” as the former national capital, the nation’s cultural center and a beautiful resort-metropolis with shiny beaches and friendly people.
Like other observers, Lins e Silva said the police problem is closely tied to failures of an antiquated, underfinanced, corrupt and inefficient criminal justice system.
Lt. Col. Abirio Faria, spokesman for Rio’s military police, said opportunities for buying impunity with bribes exist all the way through the police, justice and penal systems. And when police see criminals they have arrested back on the street without punishment, their dedication often flags.
Faria said police do not routinely patrol high-crime slums because patrol vehicles can’t get through narrow lanes and a foot patrolman “is going to die.” He admitted that abuses occur when police enter slums on anti-crime operations. The policeman is under pressure, “and he ends up treating a citizen the same way he treats a criminal,” he said.
He also acknowledged abuses by off-duty policemen who work in private security. “Almost all” of metropolitan Rio’s 25,000 military police hold such side jobs, he said. The security guard’s job is to stop robberies, he explained. “He runs a risk of losing his job if he isn’t efficient. He ends up being violent.”
Evaristo de Moraes, a prominent Rio criminal lawyer, said the police problem has its roots in history, including the period of military rule from 1964 to 1985. “The policeman became partly an instrument of support for the regime and therefore had guaranteed impunity in his excesses, and also in the exploitation of his position for personal advantages,” Moraes said. “So the police abuse and corruption spread.”
Now, he added, “People join the police and find solid centers of corruption, and they end up being absorbed, attracted and accepting the rules of corruption.”
Military police are recruited from the lowest economic levels of society because a new “soldier” makes only about $200 a month. Training is “precarious,” Moraes said, a program of three or four months.
And most police live in poor areas like Vigario Geral, where organized crime reigns. “They live in a general climate of corruption, and a person doesn’t have restraint to resist offers,” he said.
Police corruption has increased in the past 15 years with the growth of cocaine trafficking and other organized crime. And that has fed police violence. Police “kill at the request of someone who wants some person dead, even a child. Or they kill to impose terror, to gain an advantage over the traffickers,” Moraes said.
Alba Zaluar, an anthropologist who has studied the issue, said her research shows that collaboration between police and organized crime at the street level is widespread, especially in the lucrative activities of drug trafficking and auto theft.
Extortion of youths caught with marijuana is also widespread, she said. That crime, in turn, breeds hate among youths, who often have to steal to pay off police. “Instead of containing criminality, police are increasing it,” she said.
Helio Saboia, lawyer and former state secretary of civil police, puts much of the blame for the police problem on Gov. Leonel Brizola and what Saboia calls “permissiveness of the state government with criminality.” He said the government excuses criminality because of poverty. “This has pushed the middle class into a fascist attitude,” Saboia said. “It wants criminals to be killed.” And this encourages death squads.
Saboia warned that bad cops and bad policing pose a danger of urban chaos in Rio. “There is an absolute lack of control by the state with regard to the police forces,” he said.
There is no shortage of proposed solutions to Rio’s police problem. Many analysts recommend reforming the justice system, increasing police salaries and improving recruitment standards and training.
But political scientist Marcio Moreira Alves questioned any plan for solving the police corruption problem, which he said is so widespread that “I imagine most police are corrupt.. . . Every battalion has a gang.” The most implacable force behind police corruption is cocaine money, Alves said. “The sums involved are so enormous that no government can compete with the payments that come out of this traffic.”
But even upstanding citizens commonly contribute to the environment of police corruption. “Everyone is willing to pay off a traffic cop--at the least,” he said. “If your son is arrested, you probably go down and pay the police off.”
Since the Vigario Geral massacre, the state government has begun a “general cleanup” of police forces. The civil police launched “Operation Clean Hands” with the suspension of 11 deputies and 23 other civil police, who were to be investigated for suspected extortion, ties to drug traffickers, auto thefts and homicides.
Meanwhile, the Brazilian army has begun working with police in small operations aimed at cocaine and weapons trafficking in Rio slums. The newspaper Jornal do Brasil reported in late October that the army hopes to expand the efforts into “a giant operation of encirclement and occupation of the slums of Rio de Janeiro.”
In a public opinion survey published at the end of September, 89% of those interviewed said they favored army intervention to help police fight organized crime. But some analysts say the move could run the risk of corrupting the army.
Police Gone Bad in Rio
The massacre at Vigario Geral has been the most stunning but certainly not the only example of scandals that have afflicted police in Rio de Janeiro. Other recent incidents include:
* Three military police have been charged with fatally shooting eight street children in July while the children slept on a sidewalk in downtown Rio. Scores of street children are killed every year in greater Rio, many by death squads.
* Ivan Custodio Barbosa de Lima, an informer, has accused police of participating in death squads that killed five people in a slum named Favela de Lucas, four in a slum called Morro de Sao Jose in May and three youths who robbed a bakery.
* Investigators have detected about 180 “extermination groups” or death squads in the huge, poor Baixada Fluminense suburbs on Rio’s northern outskirts. “Every big extermination group has a policeman, civil or military,” said state attorney Tania Maria Moreira, who investigates death squad activities there.
* Twenty-two civil police who worked in an anti-kidnaping unit are accused of abducting and killing a private security guard in August. The cops reportedly confused the guard with a gangster they were after.
* A military policeman and a former policeman arrested in August for a bank holdup said 15 other cops participated in the robbery.