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Where Law Enforcement Goes Bad

Brazil’s Guarani-Kaiowá people are the targets of violence at the hands of large landowners and their paid gunmen in the Brazilian state of Mato Grosso do Sul. Credit: Mario Osava/IPS

RIO DE JANEIRO, May 23 2013 (IPS) - There is a “deficit of justice” in Brazil, where the police themselves sometimes join the ranks of organised crime, in the form of militias, according to Amnesty International.

In the past few years, significant advances have been made in Brazil in terms of ensuring basic rights, but there are still problems in many areas, Atila Roque, director of the Brazilian chapter of the London-based rights group, said Wednesday.

Amnesty’s Annual Report 2013: The State of the World’s Human Rights, released Wednesday, analyses the situation in 159 countries and dedicates over four pages to Brazil. It notes the country’s high rates of violent crime, and the excessive use of force and even torture by those in charge of law enforcement.

“The threat to the life of the population in general posed by criminal activities is still serious, and the state bodies that should guarantee the rights of society often become the agents of violations of those rights,” Roque told IPS.

Rio de Janeiro’s militias – squads of rogue police who have formed illegal vigilante gangs and dominate entire neighbourhoods – are an extreme case, Roque said, because they are made up of agents who “use the uniform as an instrument to break the law and join the world of crime.”

The activist said the state is having trouble fighting this new form of organised crime.

“This phenomenon has gained visibility in recent years and reveals, above all, a process of deterioration in public security, because of the failure to contain the expansion of organised crime within the very ranks of the police,” Roque said.

The policy of creating ‘Police Pacification Units’ in Rio de Janeiro favelas or shantytowns has been one of the measures used to bring down soaring homicide rates. But the community policing strategy has not extended to favelas dominated by the militias made up of corrupt police.

“If this problem is not addressed in-depth, there will be no improvement in terms of justice and human rights,” Roque said.

The Amnesty report says at least 200,000 more guards are needed in the country’s prisons, where it describes conditions as “cruel, inhuman and degrading.”

Roque said that due to an aggressive incarceration policy, the prison population in this country of 198 million people has climbed to over 500,000 – a number only surpassed by the United States, China and Russia.

Worse, over 40 percent of inmates have not yet been sentenced, and a number of them may not even be found guilty in the end.

An Amnesty delegation that visited prisons in the state of Amazonas in northwest Brazil last year to investigate reports of abuse “saw inmates in foetid, overcrowded, insecure cells.

“In several prisons women and minors were detained in the same units as men, and there were numerous reports of torture, including near-suffocation with a plastic bag, beatings and electric shocks by the state military police,” the report added.

Indigenous people especially vulnerable

The Amnesty report also focuses on the plight of the Guarani-Kaiowá indigenous people in the state of Mato Grosso do Sul, who are facing intimidation, violence and threats of being forced off their ancestral land.

“Peasant and indigenous leaders in that region are vulnerable to violence at the hands of landowners, and the risk of death remains high,” Roque said, referring to “the organised extermination of a people with the collusion of the state in the face of apathy on the part of society.”

Amnesty criticised a July 2012 attorney general’s office resolution authorising mining and hydroelectric projects and military constructions in indigenous territories without the prior consultation to which they are entitled under International Labour Organisation (ILO) Convention 169 concerning Indigenous and Tribal Peoples, which was ratified by Brazil in 2002.

Flavio Machado, regional coordinator of the Conselho Indigenista Missionário (CIMI), a Catholic missionary organisation that works on behalf of indigenous rights, told IPS that native people are “completely disregarded” by the authorities in Brazil and are facing the most complex situations seen since the 1964-1985 dictatorship.

“There is a concerted attack on indigenous people. The demarcation of indigenous territory is moving ahead slowly, and they are treated as second-class citizens,” said Machado, who worked with Amnesty on the indigenous rights section in the organisation’s annual report.

The 45,000-strong Guarani-Kaiowá community is the second-largest native group in the country, where 0.4 percent of the population is indigenous. Most of the Guarani-Kaiowá live in small areas of land in the southern part of the state of Mato Grosso do Sul, where they face alarming levels of violence.

The overall homicide rate in Brazil is 27.4 per 100,000 population, according to the 2012 Map of Violence. But the murder rate among the Guarani-Kaiowá is 140 per 100,000, Machado said.

In the last 10 years, 12 indigenous leaders were killed in the state of Mato Grosso do Sul alone. Most of them were Guarani-Kaiowá.

“The violence is exercised by ranchers and their paid gunmen,” reported CIMI, which is linked to the Catholic bishops’ conference. “There is a militia to kill indigenous people and prevent the demarcation of their ancestral land by the authorities. So far only 10 percent of their territory has been officially recognised.”

But Machado said the most serious problem faced by the Guarani-Kaiowá is the high suicide rate, caused by anguish over the lack of prospects for the future. According to the Health Ministry’s special office on indigenous health, there were 611 suicides in that ethnic group between 2000 and 2012.

Survival International, a human rights organisation that campaigns for the rights of indigenous peoples, reported that ”the Guarani suffer a wave of suicide unequalled in South America.”

“This is the consequence of the process of confinement in small areas without possibilities for development,” Machado said.

Brazilian President Dilma Rousseff has not received representatives of the country’s indigenous groups since taking office in January 2011, despite their numerous requests, CIMI reported.

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