Rio de Janeiro police face ‘image problem’

A Brazilian military police officer carries out a patrol in the Complexo da Mare slum in Rio de Janeiro. Seeking to improve public safety, police have established a permanent presence in many of the city's slums.
(Mario Tama / Getty Images)

RIO DE JANEIRO — As the 2014 World Cup tournament nears, efforts to reform Rio de Janeiro’s police forces remain, like many of the Brazilian soccer stadiums themselves, a work in progress.

Seeking to improve public safety, police have established a permanent presence in many of the city’s slums, and attempted to replace sporadic, war-like operations against criminals with numbers-based community policing. Now, some of the city’s slums, known as favelas, are considered safe for tourists.

But law enforcement officers here remain widely accused of human rights abuses, and many question whether the long-troubled police force has changed enough to win the people’s trust and create a safe environment for Rio residents.

Two months before the international soccer tournament kicks off, the commanding officer of the largest police operation to “pacify” a favela in the city is behind bars, along with 12 underlings, awaiting trial on charges of torture and murder of a construction worker, whose body remains missing.


The disappearance of Amarildo Dias de Souza during street protests last year sparked complaints against the police, who are accused of corruption, excessive violence, killings and other crimes. Critics say the police also have been unable to deal with protesters, who are now focusing their energy on the World Cup, which begins in June.

In a national poll, less than 25% said they trust the police; the percentage has dropped recently.

“I agree that the police have an image problem,” says Commissioner Antonio Roberto Cesario de Sa, a sub-secretary for public safety in Rio de Janeiro who has been in charge of police planning since 2007. “But increasing contact with the community and reducing the incidence of abuse and corruption has to be a gradual conquest. What are six years compared to over 200 years” of police history?

But Human Rights Watch says it has documented numerous cases of “extrajudicial executions, torture and disproportionate use of force” since reform efforts began six years ago.

“The numbers in Brazil are alarming,” says Maria Laura Canineu, Brazil director of the rights group. “And the rule continues to be impunity.”

There are signs that the drive to “pacify” the city may be stalling. After years of decline, the number of recorded homicides in the state of Rio de Janeiro increased by 16.7% in 2013, compared with 2012. Armed drug gangs in recent months also appear to have regained some of their control, coordinating attacks on police and managing to expel civil society groups through threats of violence.


The police force also has a reputation for violence, as depicted in a pair of “Elite Squad” movies, which focus on Rio’s special forces and use 1997 as a starting point. Officers in the films, one of which was the highest grossing in Brazilian history, are tasked with preparing a slum for a visit by the pope. They charge into poor communities with guns blazing and torture residents.

Like the real special forces squad, their uniforms are adorned with the logo of a skull being pierced by a knife, set against two crossed guns.

Commissioner Sa says that when his administration took over, police were locked in a cycle of explosive battles with drug gangs in favelas.

“The traffickers had armed themselves with high-powered weapons, and so [had] the police. The conflicts went on and on, and it was a true urban conflict,” Sa says. “Criminals were killed, police were killed, and civilians suffered collateral damage.”

Many of Rio’s slums are nestled between well-to-do and tourist neighborhoods such as Ipanema and have long served as battlegrounds between police and drug gangs.

In 2009, police used young, supposedly less corrupt officers to staff the permanent slum bases. After initial successes, authorities have been increasingly accused of abusing residents.

“Growing up, the Brazilian society had its back turned on us, and I remember the police would come in here to trade bullets with the gangs,” says Rene Silva, 20, a resident of the Complexo do Alemao favela, who runs a community newspaper. He says that after a brief period of optimism, “pacification” has not diminished residents’ fear of the police.


In June 2013, as protests beginning in Sao Paulo against a bus-fare bike spread around the country, an unwieldy and violently repressive response from police was blamed for igniting tension and giving the protests mass support. As the final of the Confederations Cup soccer tournament unfolded in Rio, police fired tear gas on protesters just blocks from the stadium.

The disappearance of De Souza, who had no known links to crime, came during the protests. Neighbors said he was taken away by police from his favela, Rocinha, which sits near Brazil’s most famous beaches.

Police said they released him, but after a public outcry and media investigation, the neighborhood commander, Maj. Edson Santos, and other officers stand accused of torturing him to death and dumping his body in the jungle.

“The majority of our police are well-intentioned and honest,” says Commissioner Sa. “This case was an exception and an isolated case that, unfortunately, badly hurt our reputation.”

Few say the police had fully won the trust of favela residents, or have succeeded in bringing safe conditions to the slums. In early February, suspected drug traffickers killed an officer on duty near Alemao; six suspects were slain by police during their investigation of the killing. After a wave of attacks on police favela bases this year, the state’s governor requested backup from the military.

Police say the state’s homicide rate dropped by 40% from 2006 to 2012, and that 1,640 officers have been kicked off the force since 2007 — proof, they say, of a crackdown on corruption and abuse.

But even before the uptick in 2013, Rio reported 24.7 homicides per 100,000 people a year, more than triple the rate in Los Angeles. Nationwide, Brazilian police killed 1,890 people in 2012, according to official statistics. In comparison, about one person a day is killed in the United States, according to Human Rights Watch.

Critics say the problem may be even worse because as the number of slaying victims decreased in Rio’s slums, the number of missing persons rose sharply, leading some to believe that police have disposed of many bodies. Police representatives say that missing persons often return without having their case closed officially, which may account for the high number of such cases.


“The number of disappearances has nothing to do with the reduced homicide rate,” says Sa, sitting in his office in downtown Rio. A member of the elite squad portrayed in the movies, known as the BOPE (special police operations battalion), he has the knife-and-skull art displayed prominently on his desk and on the wall.

He denies that the logo clashes with the attempt to win over residents and move toward less militant, community-based policing.

“The BOPE is a special, tactical squad, like the SWAT team, prepared for the most dangerous situations. The image is meant to signify they may have to face the possibility of their own death and overcome that, not to celebrate killing,” says Sa. “Similar imagery might also be used by death squads, but that’s a coincidence.”

Bevins is a special correspondent.