1. Skip to content
  2. Skip to main menu
  3. Skip to more DW sites

Police impunity rife in Brazil

Robbie Blakeley Rio de Janeiro
February 13, 2019

President Jair Bolsonaro rode to power on a "30 bullets for every bandit" slogan in a bid to fight crime in Brazil. Those closest to the firing line are bearing the brunt of police impunity. Robbie Blakeley reports.

Brazilian police arrest Sao Goncalo
Image: picture-alliance/AP Photo/L. Correa

Cimara Fereira looks out of the window of her small living room and sighs. The Porto do Rosa neighborhood in the sprawling town of Sao Goncalo, roughly 25 kilometers (15 miles) from the state capital city Rio de Janeiro, used to be an oasis of relative calm, a place to raise children, to swap idle gossip over the fence with a neighbor.

"It hasn't been like that for a long time now," she told DW.

Violence has been on the rise in the area for a number of years. Last year the situation became so bad that a federal intervention was deemed necessary. However, the measures only served to worsen problems in the city. During the first five months of the intervention, rape increased by 48 percent while cargo theft has gone up 52 percent in Sao Goncalo, according to the NGO Observatorio da Intervencao (Intervention Monitoring Center).

Rio's legacy

Between 2013 and 2016, Rio de Janeiro was home to three huge sporting competitions. First up was the FIFA Confederations Cup in 2013 then the soccer World Cup 12 months later. And in 2016 it was the turn of the Olympic Games to pitch up, make their profits and leave behind little more than an extended metro line.

Prior to these events and in a bid to bring violence under control, Unidade de Policia Pacificadora (Police pacifying units) units were established and deployed across favela communities to combat violence in Rio. The idea was not only to provide security to the city's residents and tourists but to try and break up the groups which controlled these hilltop communities almost as parallel cities.

Read more: Brazilians struggle to escape violence in Rio de Janeiro

"They may have broken up the communities, but they didn't end them. They simply moved them on," Cimara explained. Several gangs simply moved their operations outside city limits, with many ending up in Sao Goncalo.

Brazil's President Jair Bolsonaro
Jair Bolosonaro rode to power promising to crack down on crime. But has he paved the way for police impunity?Image: imago/ZUMA Press/O Globo

Long-term residents hope that President Jair Bolsonaro has the answer to the problem. During the election campaign he spoke about "30 bullets for every bandit," and the phase quickly became popular among his supporters.

Read moreOpinion: Brazil's Bolsonaro sworn in but still campaigning

"More police presence on the streets can only be good, and that is something which Bolsonaro should deliver. I make the journey to Sao Goncalo twice a day and frequently you see hold ups by thieves [stealing anything from wallets and mobile phones to cars]. This has to stop. The Workers' Party did nothing to stop these guys. Maybe Bolsonaro will," Romero Moraes, an engineer, told DW.

Bolsonaro's proposals to loosen gun laws, among them a temporary decree making it easier for Brazilians to purchase firearms, have sparked concern in a nation which is already one of the most dangerous on earth. In 2017 the murder rate hit a record high of 63,880. It's numbers like that which go a long way to explaining how the former army captain was able to get himself elected president.

Read moreIs Brazil turning into a military state?

"The problem is that they don't really care if these guys are true bandits. It could be the drug lord sitting at the top of Rocinha [Rio's biggest favela] or it could be the guy on the corner who snatches a wallet to be able to provide a meal for his family," said Marcelo Azeredo, a furniture assembler.

<div class="opinary-widget-embed" data-poll="is-jair-bolsonaro-right-to-grant-brazils" data-customer="deutschewelleeng"></div> <script async type="text/javascript" src="//widgets.opinary.com/embed.js"></script>

Police impunity

Police violence is nothing new in this corner of the world, but there is genuine fear in some quarters that Bolsonaro's word will give those with authority carte blanche to do as they please with little fear of retribution. The past weeks have seen more evidence of where this bloody new path is likely to lead. Last week at least 11 people were killed during an operation by military police in Rio's city center even though witnesses said they had already surrendered to the police.

Human Rights Watch reports that from January to November 2018, there were 1,444 police killings in Brazil. Despite bold promises from the new man at the helm, there has been little in the way of change yet.

And the situation isn't always easy for the police. "It's a very tense situation. Often you find yourself going after people you know, or someone in your family knows. I don't want to bring retribution on them for my actions," said 29-year-old military policeman Vinicius, who only gave his first name.

Brazilian plain clothed police make an arrest
Bolsonaro's measures include giving police protection from prosecution in the case of on-duty conflictsImage: picture-alliance/AP Photo/L. Correa

According to those who have seen their homes turned into a playground for guns, police investigations hardly get off the ground, or, if they do, go nowhere fast. "At least this one [the city center shoot-out] was reported by the press. On so many occasions that isn't the case," said Cimara. "We are left to pick up the pieces by ourselves. It is not only the injustice of murders which go unsolved. It is robbing the family of a father, the mother of a son."

Loosening gun laws is one thing, but of equal concern is the bill proposed by Justice Minister Sergio Moro, which would exempt police of responsibility for killings committed in on-duty conflict situations. Observers say the move could put even more power into the hands of violent officers who, in the eyes of many, already act with impunity.

"When was the last time you saw any police officer punished for a crime committed here? Here, there is very little point in even reporting a miscarriage of justice. Those investigating are the brothers of those that committed the crime," Cimara said.

Skip next section DW's Top Story

DW's Top Story

Two women speak to a crowd holding EU and Moldovan flags
Skip next section More stories from DW
Go to homepage