Violence in Rio is escalating—and police are part of the problem
WHERE EVEN THE GOOD ARE BAD
Violence in Rio is escalating—and police are part of the problem
Last year, on the first day of Carnaval in Rio de Janeiro—an event that has been called the “biggest party in the world”—the samba drums were quiet at the city’s Sambadrome parade route. Instead, the costumed revellers stood with their heads bowed for a minute of silence to remember all the victims of violence in the city. This February’s celebration, after a year that witnessed an even greater escalation in bloodshed, much of it linked to drugs, promises to be no different.
Carnaval itself, the world-famous preLenten celebration, has long been associated with violence and drug mafias, who finance many of the samba schools or clubs that take part in the parades of Carnaval, which begins the first week of February. Last week, Marco Lira, the president of the Viradouro samba school, was gunned down as he left his samba club in the middle of the afternoon. Brazil-
ian authorities have linked him to gambling and organized crime in the city, although no official motive has been ascribed for the shooting that has him clinging to life in a Rio hospital, surrounded by a well-armed security detail. Similarly, a few days before last year’s Carnaval began, killers shot dead the vice-president of the Salgueiro samba school and his wife.
Violence has long been a feature of Carnaval because the celebrations are largely the product of the 700 shantytowns—or favelas—that ring the city, and which are terrorized by the drug mafias that control them. Francisco Paulo Testas Moneiro is allegedly one of those drug traffickers. He is also the co-author of the samba for one of the city’s most famous samba clubs. According to police intelligence reports released to 0 Globo newspaper last week, Tuchinha, as he is known in his shantytown, writes sambas but makes an estimated $600,000 per week from the sale of drugs during the rehearsals of the samba school in the weeks leading up to Carnaval.
But the violence is not restricted to Car-
naval. Rio, a city of six million, has one of the highest homicide rates in the world. And for Brazil overall, a recent UNESCO report showed that, over the last decade, the death rate from gunshots was higher than in most of the world’s war zones. Last year there were 40,000 firearm fatalities in this country of 190 million, fully four times the number in the United States. So pervasive is the violence (Brazil’s rate of gun deaths is estimated to be second only to Venezuela in the Americas) that a team of Rio trauma surgeons was recently flown to Israel to share their emergency room techniques with professionals in one of the most troubled areas of the world.
Weeks before Carnaval, law enforcement authorities in Rio began bracing themselves for a new wave of violence in the favelas. Much of Rio’s gun bloodshed is, in fact, due to confrontations between police and drug lords in the favelas. Indeed, a raging national debate about urban violence and drugs has been generated by Brazilian filmmaker José Padilha, whose latest film, Elite Squad (Tropa de Elite), is the story of a conflicted police officer who tortures and kills drug dealers in an attempt to stem the violence that has become a fact of daily life in Rio.
Elite Squad details the actions of the BOPE, the Battalion for Special Police Operations (.Batalhâo de Operaçôes Policiais Especiáis), originally created to deal with a wave of kid-
nappings but now almost entirely concerned with drug trafficking. The film depicts police torturing their captives in order to obtain information—a reality in Brazil. While a 1997 law bans the use of torture, which was pretty much institutionalized under Brazil’s military governments and during centuries of slavery, human rights groups have documented the use of police torture.
The film also shows small-time drug dealers burning a prisoner by wrapping tires around him and setting him on fire. It has dominated the front pages, and caused widespread soul-searching about why huge swaths of Rio are controlled by drug dealers fighting an almost daily battle with these specially trained units of the military police, who are in many cases underpaid and corrupt.
Elite Squad had its world premiere at the Rio de Janeiro International Film Festival last fall, and many have praised it for its gritty depiction of reality. But others have called it an apology for the BOPE, whose members sport black uniforms bearing a skull with crossed pistols as their symbol and often wear masks when they conduct their operations in Rio’s favelas. Arnaldo Bloch, a leading columnist for O Globo newspaper, called Elite Squad a “fascist” film that glorifies police brutality. Hugo Acero Velásquez, the former Colombian security chief who helped stem urban violence in his county’s capital of Bogotá, said he hated Padilha’s film when he saw it on a recent trip to Brazil. “The police in the film attack the small and medium traffickers, which does very little,” he said in an interview. “Violence only incites more violence.”
Padilha, whose Emmy-award-winning 2002 documentary Bus 174 (Ônibus 174), told the story of the violent hijacking of a bus in an upper-class Rio neighbourhood injuly 2000, bristles at the suggestion that he is somehow condoning police violence with Elite Squad, co-produced by Harvey Weinstein’s company (it is scheduled for a North American release this month and will also be featured in competition at the Berlin film festival in February). “Elite Squad shows the point of view of a police officer in the BOPE,” said Padilha, 41. “I spoke to many police officers and psychiatrists to understand how a military police officer understands the world. Why does he torture? Why does he kill?”
Rodrigo Pimental, a former police officer and 12-year veteran of the BOPE who was also featured inßus 174, co-wrote Elite Squad’s screenplay. At the time of Bus 174’s release, he noted in an interview that “today in Rio de Janeiro, people who want to be police officers are those who can’t find any other regu-
lar work.” Police officers are mostly underpaid and poorly trained—ill-equipped to deal with the violence that confronts them daily, Pimental said. Five years later the situation hasn’t changed: in Rio, a police officer earns between US$300 and US$500 per month to carry out some of the most dangerous missions in slums that resemble war zones.
The reality depicted in Elite Squad has appeared to touch a raw nerve in Rio and in the rest of Brazil. Weeks before the film opened across the country in October, nearly 12 million people had already seen it on pirated DVDs. According to a poll by the weekly Veja magazine, 72 per cent of respondents said that drug traffickers got what they deserved in the film, although 51 per cent said that torture should not be used to obtain information. Seventy-nine per cent said they felt the film portrayed the police as they really are: some upstanding, others corrupt.
WITH CARNAVAL ALMOST HERE, THE AUTHORITIES ARE BRACING FOR A NEW WAVE OF BLOODSHED IN THE SHANTYTOWNS OF RIO
Although the film is a fictional account, police authorities in Rio demanded that Padilha identify all the officers who helped him with his research, and tried to get a court order to ban the film. Padilha says he interviewed no fewer than 20 police officers over the course of three years in order to create the film’s protagonist, Capt. Roberto Nascimento, played by Brazilian actor Wagner Moura in a black beret. Padilha refused to cooperate with the police, and, in the end, Rio de Janeiro state Governor Sérgio Cabral backed the filmmaker, telling him to ignore the authorities.
For many Rio residents, it’s difficult to ignore the violence that was once restricted to the favelas but has lately spilled over into the rest of the city. Bloodshed now touches every neighbourhood, and is no longer held at bay by the high walls and fences that uppermiddle-class Brazilians erect around their expensive apartment blocks. On Dec. 16, drug traffickers fired on a helicopter carrying Santa Claus and presents for children in
a nearby slum. They’d mistaken it for a police helicopter. (No one was injured.) The previous month, a 12-year-old boy at an elite sports facility in the tony Alto Leblon neighbourhood became the latest victim of a stray bullet. Hugo Ronca Cavalcante was on a soccer pitch in mid-afternoon when a bullet, shot from more than 600 m away, lodged in his brain. He died days later in hospital. The police continue their investigation, and suspect that the bullet came from a nearby shantytown, although ballistics experts say the bullet was probably fired from a .45-calibre gun, which is regularly used by military reservists, not traffickers.
A few months ago, parents at an elite international school in Rio received a notice from the principal informing them that the school’s staff had all been trained in emergency procedures. They knew what to do, the principal assured everyone, if drug traffickers from the favela adjacent to the school began a shootout with police during school hours. The principal’s bulletin was in response to a wave of violence last April that saw 19 people die in a single day’s confrontations between the BOPE and criminals in another shantytown close to the school. Authorities closed down one of the tunnels that connects Rio’s northern zone to the more affluent southern zone, leaving many children trapped in their school buses for hours.
While Padilha is critical of both the police and the drug traffickers in his film, he also targets Rio’s affluent, who barricade themselves behind high walls and fences and complain about daily violence in their city— although it is mainly them and their children who buy the drugs that spawn the violence, he says. During Carnaval, the consumption of cocaine and marijuana rise exponentially, according to law enforcement officials. “The fact is that if you buy marijuana in a favela, you are contributing to a system that terrorizes the population,” says Padilha, noting that in Rio, favelas are controlled by rival gangs of drug dealers who often employ children as lookouts and couriers. These children are often victims of a vicious cycle. Denied an education because they have to help support their families, they get involved in the drug trade.
Many end up dead. “The drug dealers are armed to a point now where if you go into their favelas to fight them, many ordinary people die because they get caught in the crossfire,” Padilha said, adding that his camera crew was temporarily kidnapped by traffickers during filming in a Rio favela. “But then again, if you don’t go in and take over, the drug traffickers simply terrorize the people and become the law. So, what do you do?” M
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