Rhetoric trumps policy as Rio police kills more than ever

. May 28, 2019
Rhetoric trumps policy as Rio police kills more than ever

On a windy Sunday afternoon in Rio de Janeiro, supporters of President Jair Bolsonaro flocked to Copacabana beach. Decked out in yellow and green, they teemed into metro stations in the city’s southern zone, chanting the president’s moniker from the campaign season: “Legend! Legend! Legend!”

A 10-minute walk away, a smaller group of protesters crowded the shore along Ipanema beach, echoing a very different cry. “Stop killing us!,” they yelled. Numbering in the low thousands, favela activists and community organizers had gathered to protest lethal police action in the city’s slums.

</span></p> <p><span style="font-weight: 400;">While Rio is no stranger to police violence, 2019 has seen new levels of bloodshed amid violent campaign rhetoric and promises of &#8216;</span><a href=""><span style="font-weight: 400;">shoot-to-kill</span></a><span style="font-weight: 400;">&#8216; policing from Governor Wilson Witzel. In 2018, Rio saw a record 1,538 people killed by security forces as a federally mandated military intervention placed police operations under the control of the armed forces. With 558 killed by police in the first four months of 2019, the number of people dying at the hands of the Rio police now stands at its highest level since records began. </span></p> <p><span style="font-weight: 400;">Sunday’s protesters, many of whom had only recently lost family members at the hands of the police, blamed the governor. </span></p> <p><span style="font-weight: 400;">“For <a href="">Marielle</a> [Franco], we asked who killed her and who ordered the killing,” yelled Sandra Mara, mother of Jean Rodrigo Aldrovande, a jiu-jitsu professor killed by the police in the favelas of Complexo do Alemão weeks ago. “For my son, we already know who gave the order. We’re just waiting [to find out] who pulled the trigger—because it was the governor who ordered it. [Mr.] Witzel gave the order to kill my son.” </span></p> <p><img loading="lazy" class="alignnone size-full wp-image-18131" src="" alt="stop killing us" width="960" height="640" srcset=" 960w, 300w, 768w, 610w" sizes="(max-width: 960px) 100vw, 960px" /></p> <h2>Killing as state policy</h2> <p><span style="font-weight: 400;">Along the campaign trail, Mr. Witzel rode to victory encouraging police to shoot criminals “in their little heads.” He advocated for the use of snipers and helicopter fire during police operations in Rio’s favelas. Whomever was seen carrying a rifle, he said during a TV interview back in October, “must be taken down.” Since taking office, his rhetoric has translated into practice on the ground. </span></p> <p><span style="font-weight: 400;">Large scale police operations turned bloody. Massacres during police incursions into the favelas of Fallet-Fogueteiro and Complexo da Maré left 13 and eight dead, respectively, bearing marks of </span><a href=""><span style="font-weight: 400;">extrajudicial killings</span></a><span style="font-weight: 400;">.</span></p> <p><span style="font-weight: 400;">In March, the governor </span><a href=""><span style="font-weight: 400;">declared</span></a><span style="font-weight: 400;"> that snipers had already been deployed during police operations. As reports of gunfire from armored police helicopters in the favelas reached </span><a href=""><span style="font-weight: 400;">new highs</span></a><span style="font-weight: 400;">, Mr. Witzel shared a video of himself boarding one such helicopter to participate in a police operation. During the flight, a civil police officer on board sprayed a local evangelical prayer tent with bullets. No-one was injured. </span></p> <p><iframe title="Wilson Witzel no helicóptero na região de Angra dos Reis, no momento de disparos contra os pobres" width="1200" height="675" src="" frameborder="0" allow="accelerometer; autoplay; clipboard-write; encrypted-media; gyroscope; picture-in-picture" allowfullscreen></iframe></p> <p><span style="font-weight: 400;">In contrast to Rio’s decade-long proximity policing project known as the Pacifying Police Units, or UPPs, experts have begun to wonder if there is any coordinated policy taking place at all. </span></p> <h2>Rio, in the ashes of the UPPs</h2> <p><span style="font-weight: 400;">The UPPs, which saw initial successes unravel amid Brazil’s devastating 2015-2016 recession, were all but dismantled during last year’s military intervention. Their goal of following police occupation of the favelas with consolidated access to public services and urbanization ultimately fell apart. </span></p> <p><span style="font-weight: 400;">Antônio Sampaio, a research associate for conflict security and development at the International Institute for Strategic Studies, said Rio authorities had lost their ambition since the fall of the UPPs. “In the absence of this ambition, the current state has decided to focus on the equipment side of things and the legal permissiveness of the use of force.” Meanwhile, Mr. Witzel’s campaign proposal for bringing state services to the favelas, “Cidade Comunidade” has gone unmentioned since November. </span></p> <p><span style="font-weight: 400;">“When they took over, there was very little left of the UPP project,” said Ignacio Cano, a sociologist at the Rio State University and coordinator of the Violence Analysis Laboratory. “Now with the proposal of &#8216;shoot-to-kill,&#8217; there is very little point in thinking about a proximity model.”</span></p> <p><span style="font-weight: 400;">Mr. Witzel, whose </span><a href=""><span style="font-weight: 400;">campaign platform</span></a><span style="font-weight: 400;"> included plans to consolidate control over Rio’s police forces, has so far only managed to dissolve Rio’s state security department, the executive agency responsible for coordinating police activity. </span></p> <p><span style="font-weight: 400;">The extinction of the department may have opened the door to unrestrained policing. Authorities such as the security department are important parts of a longstanding effort to place Brazilian police under civilian control following the military dictatorship (1964-1985), says Cano. Mr. Witzel has abandoned this process in favor of greater police independence. “He is selling the idea that the problem is that police forces have seen interference from the political side.” Even during the UPP project, Rio police enjoyed wide-ranging autonomy, says Cano. “He is selling this as a solution to a non-existent problem.”</span></p> <p><span style="font-weight: 400;">Mr. Witzel’s campaign plans would have had him assume direct responsibility for all matters related to public security via the creation of a Public Security Cabinet, which would have only included representatives from the Civil Police, Military Police, and himself. On taking office, however, Witzel changed step, electing to allow the state security department to remain until June. His plans to “create” a Public Security Council, or CONSPERJ (the CONSPERJ has existed since 1999) amounted to a restructuring to </span><a href=""><span style="font-weight: 400;">exclude the participation of civil society representatives</span></a><span style="font-weight: 400;">. </span></p> <p><span style="font-weight: 400;">At the time of writing, neither the state security department nor the new CONSPERJ appears on the Rio Government website. The Civil and Military Police, though, have been granted secretariat-level powers.</span></p> <p><span style="font-weight: 400;">For Colonel Ibis Pereira, a former commander of Rio’s Military Police, this jumbles the political chain of command. “Now, we don’t have any clarity about who is designing public policy,” he said. The reserve colonel admits it is too early to demand concrete developments only five months into Mr. Witzel’s term, but is unsure real policy will manifest. “I hope that the government is working on a policy for this area, but by the looks of things, I believe that this isn’t so.” </span></p> <p><span style="font-weight: 400;">“Policy, in the mind of these authorities, is synonymous with police autonomy,” said Mr. Pereira. “This is a mistake.”

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Edmund Ruge

Edmund is a freelance journalist based in Rio de Janeiro. He holds a Master's Degree in International Economics and Latin American Studies from the Johns Hopkins School of Advanced International Studies.

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