The brief drama began shortly after 3 a.m. The lights of a black-and-white Chevrolet police patrol car picked out the form of a youth standing on the steps of a church and poised to swing a three-foot steel bar into the temple of a terrified teenage girl. Three policía militar, Brazilian policemen, jumped from their cruiser and pointed guns at the assailant. The youth quickly surrendered his makeshift club —and was sent on his way with a caution. In any North American city, such an incident would almost certainly have ended in handcuffs and an attempted murder charge. But in crimeridden Säo Paulo, Brazil’s biggest city, the assault was so routine that police Lieut. Francisco Barbosa did not consider it necessary to make an arrest.
Muggings: What was unusual about the incident was its bloodless outcome. Most of Säo Paulo’s 300 daily muggings go uninterrupted.
So do a dozen reported murders a day and 170 armed robberies. The pattern is similar in Brazil’s second-largest city, Rio de Janeiro, where a recent newspaper poll revealed that three out of every 10 citizens had been robbed at least once in the past year. Indeed, Brazil’s reeling metropolises are beginning to resemble urban Dodge Cities, where not even a marshal’s star guarantees that the wearer is on the right side of the law. In the past two years dozens of Säo Paulo and Rio detectives have been implicated in crimes ranging from car theft to murder. With the courts clogged and prisons explosively overcrowded, justice too often comes at the end of a nightstick or with the blunt finality of a police bullet.
Last August the daily newspaper, 0 Estado do Sào Paulo, described street crime as “our civil war.” Police chases often resemble military sweeps. In one recent operation, helicopters buzzed overhead and dozens of helmeted police combed the narrow alleys of a shantytown in search of a man wanted for armed robbery. The chase ended in
gunfire that left the suspect dead—one of the more than 500 killed each year by police bullets in Säo Paulo.
Still, criminals in that industrial city kill 10 times as many people each year. The case of Pedro (Matador) Rodrigues Jr. caused a sensation last year when the 34-year-old admitted to 40 murders since he started on a one-man crime wave at the age of 11. Rodrigues told a reporter, “I kill for necessity and for pleasure.” Each morning one million residents of Säo Paulo—Paulistas, as they are called—tune into
Rádio Capital to listen to crime reporter Afanasio Jazadji’s latest bloodcurdling newscast, frequently featuring interviews with rapists, thieves and murderers. Jazadji often ends with a strident call for enforcement of the little-used death penalty.
Fear of lawlessness shapes Brazil’s urban lifestyle, from architecture to fashion. In the wealthy neighborhoods of Säo Paulo and Rio, only the roof lines of the luxury villas are visible over high walls and electronic gates. In some areas, entire streets are encircled with barbed-wire fences and guardhouses manned 24 hours a day. Downtown, the main doors to office suites are routinely kept locked, and visitors are scrutinized through peepholes before being admitted. And for a growing number of residents, the only response to the threat of yet more
violence seems to be self-protection. Gun registrations in the city are running at a record 400 per day.
Uncertainty about who can be trusted adds to the climate of fear. Private guards, often paid minimal salaries, sometimes conspire with the very thieves they are supposed to protect against. In a gruesome case that shocked even jaded Brazilians, a 21year-old Säo Paulo law student, Denise Benoliel, was killed last year by the doorman in her apartment building as she resisted a kidnap attempt
that he had helped to organize.
Even more destructive of public confidence is the evidence of chronic corruption among the police. When three Säo Paulo officers were convicted last year of killing two teenage boys, testimony disclosed that they had managed to stifle prosecution of 50 previous brutality charges. And in Rio an investigation into 200 car thefts over a sixmonth period led to the arrest of 15 policemen last August. A police captain arrested in Säo Paulo for involvement in a similar ring was accused of ordering a kidnapping and murder.
Shortages: Dishonest policemen are only part of the problem. Metropolitan police forces face crippling shortages of manpower, training and equipment, and grave organizational shortcomings. “We are short of equipment, cars, radios and guns,” Säo Paulo police Col.
Aluiziu Silvera said. Indeed, many policemen are so doubtful about their aging standard-issue revolvers that they spend their own money to buy more reliable weapons. Typically, when a fiat tire stopped Lieut. Barbosa’s patrol car recently, he discovered that the jack had been stolen. In Rio, criminal investigations are run from a grimy condemned building with no washroom. Manpower is also in short supply: the ratio of 930 residents to one police officer in Säo Paulo is three times higher than United Nations recommendations for civil policing.
Thin resources are § rendered even less effective by competing police forces who often focus more energy on ; each other than on á crime. In major cities, uniformed military police patrol the streets and respond to crime reports. But detailed investigations and prosecutions are the responsibility of plainclothes civil police. When Col. Silvera’s troopers arrest a mugger or discover a body, they must turn the suspect and the crime scene over to civil police. Rivalry is so strong that last year military police in Säo Paulo surrounded a civil police station and forced the release of a military trooper arrested in the shooting of a criminal.
Solving crimes is rare, and convictions are unusual. In Rio, police have a I
backlog of 100,000 unsolved crimes. Once a criminal is caught, a ponderous court system can delay the trial of a serious charge for up to six years. When a sentence is finally passed, overcrowding in prisons can force authorities to shorten the length dramatically. Consequently, some 24-year murder terms have been served in as little as 24 months. Still, any term in prison is harsh punishment. In 1985 convicts in several prisons held bizarre lotteries in a desperate protest against overcrowding and unsanitary conditions. Fourteen prisoners, chosen by lot, were strangled, beaten to death or hanged by their fellows to focus attention on windowless cells, intended for four men, where as many as 13 were confined.
To bypass the court system, police often rely on brutal interrogation techniques and the rough justice of unequal shootouts. Said Säo Paulo lawyer Helio Bicudo: “Police have always
beaten suspects in Brazil to obtain confessions. But during the years of military repression they adopted the methods of political torture: burning with cigarettes, electrical shocks, neardrowning.” Such charges gained grisly credibility recently when a detective from the southern state of Rio Grande do Sul publicized tape recordings and photographs made during the 1985 torturing of a criminal.
Corruption: Still, growing public
alarm has drawn new attention to the situation—and some modest improvements. A round of police pay raises last year has reduced the temptation of corruption. The chilling death lottery of 1985 provoked a government promise to spend $91 million on new prisons. And the new constitution to be drafted in Brasilia starting next month promises a shakeup of Brazil’s moribund court system.
But violence seems bound to grow unless the breeding grounds for crime are eliminated. Brazil’s major cities are ringed with slums, inhabited mainly by landless peasants who have migrated to the cities to escape the chronic depression in the countryside. Many lack job skills. Many more have no family in the city willing or able to support them. Hunger and frustration prove powerful incentives for crime. “Our biggest problem,” Silvera said, “is crime against the person. The reasons are economic and social. The number of people coming here has overwhelmed our ability to absorb them.” For the 15 million inhabitants of Säo Paulo—whose numbers are expected to swell to 20 million by the end of the century—the scramble to live will only add to the death toll.
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