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'Peace Police' torturers

Astrid Prange / ccNovember 2, 2013

A torture scandal has brought Rio de Janeiro's lauded public security initiative into disrepute. In the run-up to the 2014 World Cup, there has been an outcry over revelations of violence among the 'Peace Police.'

Brazilian policemen and military personnel occupy a strategic favelas complex in Caju, northern Rio de Janeiro, Brazil, in the early hours on 03 March 2013, EPA/ANTONIO LACERDA
Image: picture alliance / dpa

They could hear his cries for help right through the wall, growing ever louder, increasingly racked with pain. Uniformed officers at the police headquarters in Rio de Janeiro's impoverished district of Rocinha were torturing a local resident with electric shocks. But their colleagues on duty in the next room didn't rush to help the victim. They just blocked their ears. Eventually, he fell silent.

The torture victim was a construction worker called Amarildo de Souza, who was arrested "by mistake" in Rocinha on 14 July 2013. The officers mistook him for a drug dealer. Amarildo de Souza not been seen since. No body has been found, but his family assume that he is dead.

The search for Amarildo has become a cause celebre, and a nationwide symbol of the struggle against police violence and injustice. Ever since, earlier this year, members of Rio's so-called "Peace Police", the UPP (Unidade de Policia Pacificadora: Police Peace Unit) admitted that torture was part of their daily routine, the city has been in uproar. More and more people are criticising the concept of security policing represented by the UPP.

The Peace Police force was set up to drive drug dealers out of Rio's impoverished districts, called favelas, and to combat criminality. The formula was developed by the government in Rio to ensure public security in advance of the 2014 World Cup and the Olympic Games, which are due to be held there in 2016. It has been highly praised internationally, but now it is coming under fire.

Protest banner in Copacabana demanding, in Portuguese, "Where is Amarildo?" 31.07.2013, shortly after his disappeareance. Copyright: Fernando Frazão/ABr
Construction worker Amarildo de Souza was tortured to death by the 'Peace Police'Image: Fernando Frazao/ABr

Shocking admissions

"The police are supposed to prevent torture, and they've done the exact opposite. And it's even more shocking when you consider that it's the Peace Police who've been doing this, because their mission is to bring peace to the favelas and spread hope," lawyer Carmen Eliza Bastos de Carvalho explains in an interview with DW. Now, she says, all that good work has been destroyed.

Bastos de Carvalho is the public prosecutor for the state of Rio de Janeiro, and in charge of the Amarildo case. She interrogated both witnesses and accused, and suspended 25 of the 700 law enforcement officers of the Rocinha UPP. She is all too familiar with cases of police violence, but even she was shocked by their confessions.

Initially the police in the Rocinha UPP unit claimed that the construction worker Amarildo had been murdered by drug dealers. However, three months on, they could no longer maintain their fictitious version of events. Five policemen broke their silence. Since then, fresh acts of cruelty have been laid bare to the Brazilian public on an almost daily basis.

Rio public prosecutor Carmen Eliza Bastos de Carvalho. Photo rights: Rio's Ministério Publico.
Rio public prosecutor Carmen Eliza Bastos de Carvalho was shocked by what she uncoveredImage: Ministério Publico

Model project criticized

The Rocinha torture scandal is not the first occasion on which the UPP in Rio has been discredited. Five years after the Peace Police Unit was set up, criticism of this former model project is growing. Out of around 300 favelas, 36 are currently controlled by the UPP, and the aim is take control of another 4 by 2014. Of the 45,000 military policemen in the city, 9,000 currently carry out their duties in one of the UPP units in the favelas.

But as more and more favelas are brought under their control, allegations of arbitrary policing, corruption, torture and wrongful arrest are mounting. A survey in the Brazilian daily Folha de Sao Paolo found that residents in 25 of the 33 favelas where the survey was conducted had made complaints. There has also been a sharp rise in the number of people registered as missing.

"The police in Rio have always been perceived as a war police," admits military policewoman Bianca Santana. She has worked in the "Prazer Escondidinho" UPP near Rio's city centre since February 2011. For her, hostilities are par for the course. "We've had stones thrown at us here; we've been cursed and insulted," she says. However, she maintains that people have now got used to the Peace Police, and have accepted them.

Mauricio Santoro of Amnesty International in Brazil is not so sure. He would like to get rid of the military police altogether. "It's not the first time the Peace Police has been accused of torture and murder," he says. Santoro explains that, for many people, the Amarildo case represents their own bitter experience, and that this is why it has tremendous significance for the ongoing debate about public security policy in Rio.

Military police dressed in black and carrying guns in the Rocinha favela, Rio de Janeiro, at the start of their mission, Sunday, Nov 13, 2011. (Foto:Silvia Izquierdo/AP/dapd)
The military police have brought violence in the favelas under control - but at what cost?Image: dapd

Yet it all began so promisingly. When police and soldiers occupied the first favela, Dona Marta, in Rio in December 2008, not a single shot was fired. Most of the occupations that followed were also peaceful. The plan to establish a permanent police presence in the Rio's favelas and drive out the drugs mafias and militias seemed to be working.

Favela property boom

With the return of the authorities, the daily lives of the favela-dwellers began to normalize. Kindergartens reopened, and the city's rubbish collectors started work again in the densely-populated, inaccessible hill above the city. With no more shoot-outs between police and drug dealers, murder rates sank dramatically. Shrewd businessmen began opening restaurants and renting out their roof terraces for photo shoots. The new security in the area sparked a boom in property prices.

The 'Peace Police' headquarters beside the cable car on the hillside above the favela Complexo do Alemao. Photo DW/Jan Walter/ am 26.1.2013 in der Favela Complexo do Alemao in Rio de Janeiro aufgenommen.
Under control: The 'Peace Police' headquarters in the favela Complexo do AlemaoImage: DW/Jan D. Walter

Now, though, the torture scandal in the Rocinha UPP has put an end to the illusion of a new, peaceful police force. Amnesty activist Mauricio Santoro is not surprised. "Why would military police have changed all of a sudden?" he asks. It's just not possible, he says, to create a new, different kind of police if you staff it with the same officers you had before.

However, state prosecutor Carmen Eliza Bastos de Carvalho believes there's no alternative to the Peace Police model. "Of course it's shocking, what happened in Rocinha," she says. Nonetheless, she is convinced that the UPP is needed. "We have direct access to the residents for the first time - and people now dare to report those who've committed a crime."