The Situation in Detail

Brazil fell under an extended dictatorship—1964-1985— in which police and military authorities engaged in widespread, institutionalized torture and other forms of rights abuse, including summary executions and forced disappearances.  State abuse targeted armed opposition; non-violent opponents; labor organizers; students and other dissidents.  Impunity for official abuse was assured by 1) sham military and police-led investigations of fellow officers; 2) manipulated crime-scenes; 3) poorly prepared and sometimes falsified coroners reports and 4) special military jurisdiction for most police offenses.  In 1988, Brazil adopted a new constitution.  In 1989, the first direct elections for president were held in nearly three decades.

Over the past two decades, Brazil has made enormous strides in democratizing society and in promoting economic growth.  Yet despite vital changes since the transition to democracy took hold two decades ago—changes that have made the country a regional and global leader—the criminal justice system has lagged far behind.  Tragically, the police continue to be extremely violent.  They continue to engage in torture.  They continue to kill shockingly high numbers of civilians.  And when they commit rights abuses, many of the same techniques applied during the military dictatorship continue to ensure their impunity.  These include, today, still, 1) sham police-led investigations of fellow officers; 2) manipulated crime-scenes; 3) poorly prepared and sometimes falsified coroners reports and 4) special military jurisdiction for many police offenses.

To be sure, Brazilian police and the criminal justice system have had to address rising crime and drug trafficking led by criminal syndicates.  Yet their response, particularly the abusive focus of Rio de Janeiro authorities, has done little to reduce violence; in fact, the extreme, violent tactics employed by Brazilian police have intensified overall levels of homicide and insecurity.

For example, according to the Centers for Disease Control, from 1980 to 2002, the homicide rate in Brazil more than doubled, from 11.4 per 100,000 to 28.4. In the City of São Paulo, for example, the rate more than tripled, from 17.5 in 1980 to 53.9 in 2002.  In Rio de Janeiro, a similar spike in homicide rates occurred even earlier.  The homicide rate in Rio soared from 2,826 in 1980 to 8,408 in 1994.  Over the past fifteen years, homicide rates in Rio de Janeiro have remained among the highest of any urban area in the Americas.

Unfortunately, rather than combating violence with professionalization, community engagement and modern techniques, Rio de Janeiro authorities have focused on what they have termed ‘confrontations’ with suspected criminals and drug traffickers.  Researchers, journalists and rights defenders, including myself, have demonstrated—through analysis of forensic, testimonial, and other evidence—that these ‘confrontations’ are in fact extrajudicial executions. The sheer volume suggests as much.  In 2007 and 2008, the police in Rio de Janeiro killed nearly 2,500 people. (1,137 in 2008 and 1,330 in 2007).   The Rio and São Paulo police have together killed more than 11,000 people since 2003.  Another indicator of the illegitimate use of lethal force is the ratio of those killed by police to police killed—more than 43 to 1 in Rio de Janeiro.  In other words, in alleged shootouts with allegedly armed suspects, police kill 43 civilians for every police fatality.

Close review of this universe of cases reveals first, that many cases are extrajudicial executions and not ‘shoot outs’ or ‘confrontations’ as the police allege.  Second, the vast majority of these killings occur in the poorer areas of the city.  Third, police routinely paper these over by classifying them as incidents in which the victim ‘resisted arrest.’  Fourth, police investigations of these incidents are generally extremely deficient.  And fifth, prosecutors rarely bring charges against killer police; when they do, they almost never get convictions.

The Brazilian civil police, are generally responsible for conducting criminal investigations. The fundamental conflict of interest that arises from assigning police investigators the responsibility of investigating police abuse is compounded by a strong culture of loyalty—to other police, but not the law— within the force.

Part of the focus on Brazil moving forward, particularly for the international community, must concern the World Cup, to be held in four years and the Olympics to be held in 2016.  A fair question to be asked in this context is whether authorities in Rio de Janeiro, in the case of the Olympics and in the various cities that will host World Cup, will implement a security policy for these global encounters that is consistent with even the most minimal standards of international human rights law. 

Pan American gamesScreen shot 2013-02-03 at 3.44.16 PMIn this regard, the 2007 Pan American Games in Rio is a worrisome precedent.  In the run up to those games, police killings and other abuses increased significantly; in June 2007, just weeks prior to the Games, police killed 19 people in a single day in the Complexo do Alemão community in Rio.  Police investigators amazingly failed to take so much as a single crime scene photograph in connection with the 19 killings.  The case remains stalled to this day despite the fact that a panel of forensics experts commissioned by the Brazilian federal government concluded that police had committed extrajudicial executions.

To date, Brazilian authorities, with few exceptions, have responded to the challenges presented by insecurity and crime by intensifying state violence and concomitant rights violations.  Attempts at meaningful reform have been met with harsh responses by affluent residents,  corrupt political forces, media and the police themselves.  In the months preceding the decision of the Olympic Committee, authorities in Rio took measures to surround  poor, visible, high crime areas with large walls, in effect, hiding the ‘problems’ of urban violence, gross inequality and official neglect and abuse.

Unless radical change of the police and security system in Rio de Janeiro occurs over the next several years, one can expect, tragically, extraordinary levels of police abuse and low levels of citizen and visitor security.  The international community, the people of Brazil and its authorities, must work together to ensure a new approach, one grounded in citizen engagement, popular participation and respect for fundamental rights, if we are to avoid the mistakes of the past.

From the testimony of Professor James Cavallaro, then Executive Director of the Human Rights and Law Program at Harvard University before the Tom Lantos Human Rights Commission, U.S. Congress, May 5, 2010. Professor James Cavallaro, is the founding director of Stanford Law School’s International Human Rights and Conflict Resolution Clinic.


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