Police brutality remains ‘business as usual’ in Brazil, says report

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Police brutality remains 'business as usual' in Brazil, says report

Episodes of police brutality have become common in Brazil. Photo: Guito Moreno/O Globo

Last Friday (January 12), Rio de Janeiro’s police launched a raid in the Jacarezinho and Arará favelas. They were looking for the criminals who murdered Fábio Monteiro, a 39-year-old police detective. His body was found on that very day, riddled with bullets, naked, and hidden inside the trunk of a car.

The raid ended with police taking some 40 people into custody for questioning. Men, women, and teenagers were put in a line, holding hands (some were cuffed to one another). The police later said that three of those people were arrested after police files showed multiple arrest orders against them. The rest were set free.

However, an image showing these young men and women in a humiliating situation (photo above) has sparked fury among human rights activists. During an interview with Nexo, sociologist Julita Lemgruber, from the Candido Mendes University, said that the image recalled the era of slavery. “The photograph is like those images of henchmen herding black slaves,” she told the website.

One week after the picture was taken, Human Rights Watch published its annual World Report, urging Brazilian authorities to take action against police brutality. The report points out that from January to September 2017, on-duty cops killed 494 people – a 19-percent rise from 2016. In Rio, things are even worse, with on-duty cops killing 1,035 people.

“While some police killings result from legitimate use of force, others are extrajudicial executions, as documented by Human Rights Watch and other groups,” the report states. Those acts endanger police officers, too, as many of them are subjected to reprisals for violent abuses carried out by their peers.

Police forces are not trusted

In general, Brazilians distrust the police – and the lower one’s income, the more one tends to be suspicious of men in uniforms. A survey conducted in November 2015 from the polling institute Datafolha reveals that 60 percent of people living in São Paulo fear the police more than they trust them. It represents an increase from the previous poll, conducted in 2013, when this statistic was at 50 percent.

One statistic in particular stands out to help explain this response from São Paulo’s residents: the force created to protect and serve citizens kills an average of six people per day. Amnesty International considers the Brazilian police to be more focused on “repression and confrontation, rather than crime prevention.”

“Brazilian police desperately need community cooperation to fight the high levels of crime that plague the country,” said Maria Laura Canineu, the director of Human Rights Watch in Brazil. “But as long as some police officers beat and execute people with impunity, communities will not trust the police.”

Cases involving police brutality often end in an acquittal for the officers involved. This happens even when victims have been shot from close range, or execution-style in the back of the head. Impunity is the rule when it comes to murder cases, and not only for cases involving policemen.

According to Amnesty International, just 8 percent of all murder cases result in an actual prosecution. Multiple factors contribute to this statistic, including flawed investigations and forensic work, as well as a slow-moving justice system.

To make matters worse, Congress approved, in October 2017, a bill that moves trials of unlawful killings of civilians to military courts, rather than civilian ones. And these courts are known for not doing their due diligence. Last year, the federal military prosecutor in charge told HRW that she relies on the Army to take statements from people involved in cases under investigation. The maneuver essentially functions as a shield to protect violent cops.

Violence against women

According to HRW’s World Report, Brazil’s Maria da Penha law, which was approved in 2006 to punish abusive male spouses, remains incomplete. Precincts dedicated to women lack the adequate human resources, are often closed during evenings and weekends, and remain largely concentrated in big urban centers, thus leaving thousands of cases without a proper investigation.

In 2016, 4,657 women were killed in Brazil, and prosecutors charged 2,904 individuals with “femicide.”

Prisons

The number of adult prisoners rose by 17 percent between December 2014 and June 2016, as the number of Brazilian inmates climbed to 726,700. However, prison capacity was down – about half of the inmate population.

Meanwhile, 24,000 teenagers are incarcerated in Brazil’s juvenile facilities – almost 5,000 more than the facilities’ capacity. The report, however, doesn’t include information from six states for lack of official data.

Indigenous rights

Violence due to land disputes is also on the rise in Brazil. HRW states that 61 rural activists or indigenous leaders were killed in 2016. That number was even bigger in 2017, as 64 deaths were confirmed between January and October. That data sits in line with a report released by Amnesty International in December, which claims that one human rights defender was murdered every five days.

Silver lining

On a positive note, the report highlights that thousands of Venezuelans have crossed the Brazilian border to escape from the country’s full-scale crisis. In response, says HRW, the Brazilian government facilitated the visa issuing process while asking for the restitution of democracy in Venezuela.

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About the author

Gustavo Ribeiro

An award-winning journalist with experience covering Brazilian politics and international affairs. His work has been featured across Brazilian and French media outlets.