Crime & Justice, Headlines, Human Rights, Latin America & the Caribbean

HUMAN RIGHTS-BRAZIL: Police Occupation Hurts Improved Relations with Favelas

Fabiana Frayssinet

RIO DE JANEIRO, Dec 1 2010 (IPS) - Reports of human rights abuses committed during the police and military occupation of several favelas in this Brazilian city are jeopardising local residents’ newfound support for the security forces and posing challenges within the police.

“I have never felt so humiliated,” a local woman who takes in people’s laundry for a living told IPS. Asking to be identified merely as “D”, she talked about what happened during the massive joint police and armed forces incursion in the Complexo do Alemão, a series of favelas or shantytowns on the north side of Rio de Janeiro.

D said she is trying to get back to life as normal, but that it is not easy in the midst of hundreds of police and soldiers who have been controlling the entire favela since Sunday, while searching every corner for weapons, drugs and fugitives from justice.

The occupation was launched after police intelligence received information indicating that the area was the origin of the orders for last week’s attacks in Rio de Janeiro, in which heavily armed gangs stopped buses and cars, robbed the passengers and set the vehicles on fire.

D said that during the operation, the police smashed in the doors of people’s houses and mistreated “honest” workers like her cousin, who she said had nothing to do with “the crooks.”

The complaints only refer to the military police, not the civil police, the armed forces or the BOPE (Batalhão de Operações Policiais Especiais), the military police elite special forces unit.

The military police have long been the target of accusations by human rights organisations, Antonio Costa, president of the Rio de Paz (Peace) Movement, told IPS.

In this South American country, the military police of Rio have the highest number of deaths that are officially registered as the result of armed resistance or firefights with the police.

A painter who went to the favela to check on his daughter, who lives there, told IPS that he was shoved up against a wall during one of the daily searches aimed at preventing drug traffickers from getting away.

“Not everyone who lives in a favela is a crook It’s infuriating to be treated like that,” “P” complained.

The accounts of the local woman and the painter, two of the few people who were not afraid to talk, albeit anonymously, stand in sharp contrast with what local residents were saying in the days preceding the police and military invasion.

Just before the operation, many people were having their photos taken alongside soldiers and their tanks, and some, fed up with the terror generated by drug gangs in their communities, directly called for the police to intervene.

Other images in the press showed the police holding babies or helping elderly women cross the roadblocks thrown up by drug gangs to keep armoured vehicles out. Complaints about police violence and corruption, which used to be so frequent, seemed to have become a thing of the past.

But Ignacio Cano at the Laboratory for the Analysis of Violence at the Rio de Janeiro State University (UERJ) expressed concern over the “triumphalist tone in the local press,” and called attention to the human rights challenges posed by the continuous presence of army troops in the favelas over the next seven months, as announced by the government.

“The military’s duty is national defence, and blurring its role is dangerous,” Cano warned, although he said that one “advantage” is that a majority of the troops involved in the occupation have taken part in the United Nations MINUSTAH peacekeeping mission in Haiti, and thus have experience in “public security.”

Cano also pointed to complaints that local residents have been mistreated, that there are bodies “that have not yet appeared” and are presumably still in the favelas, and that property has been stolen in homes that have been searched.

He said the door-to-door search is “totally illegal, based on collective search warrants that may have been authorised by a judge, but are nonetheless illegal.

“Just imagine if the police barged into house after house in Ipanema or Copacabana,” middle- and upper-class neighbourhoods in southern Rio de Janeiro, said Cano, who pointed out that in order for the police to search someone’s residence, they have to have a reasonable suspicion that a crime has been or is in the process of being committed.

“It’s important to follow up on and investigate the reports” of abuses, which could end up being “suffocated” by “the climate of triumphalism,” he said.

State government agencies say they are investigating the accusations. On Monday, the Human Rights Secretariat arranged a meeting with local non-governmental organisations and representatives of the communities occupied by the security forces.

Costa, who took part in the meeting, said he heard accounts of mistreatment, insults, slaps, theft of property, and police corruption. For example, one drug lord reportedly fled the favela hidden in an armoured vehicle of the military police.

“The cases of abuse of power and disrespect of human rights committed by the police show that this occupation, in the absence of real reforms within the police forces, will not resolve the problems faced in the field of public security,” he said.

“It has become clear that the police officer on the streets still has the same mentality and the same propensity for abusive behaviour as has always existed in the history of Rio de Janeiro,” Costa lamented.

Among the changes he said are needed are “better selection” of the members of the military police and “better appreciation of their job,” along with “rigorous training” including “training in moral issues.”

Furthermore, to fight corruption, the police “must earn good salaries for their work,” so that even university students “will be tempted to join a police force that guarantees a decent standard of living,” he said.

Cano, meanwhile, called for an improvement of police investigation units, and constant supervision of troops by their commanders.

According to the government of Rio de Janeiro, the attacks by the drug gangs that prompted the police and military operation were in response to the establishment of Pacification Police Units (UPPs) in 13 favelas, to wrest control over the neighbourhoods from drug traffickers.

As part of a policy of a saturation police presence in the favelas, which are home to around 20 percent of the population of Rio, the UPPs combine law enforcement with social spending in areas like health, education, sports and income-generating projects for local residents.

Cano said the police and military invasion of the Complexo do Alemão was “a regression to policies of the past.”

While the UPP community policing units represent “a focus on pacification and preservation of lives,” the current operation reflects a return “to a logic of war,” the concept of “victory over an enemy,” and a policy of “repression,” he said.

His fear is that as a result of the police incursion, which according to the government will be extended to other large favelas, “the historic advance” represented by the UPPs “will fade into oblivion.”

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