Videos of police crimes spur Brazilians to confront a longtime problem


A work document belonging to Rafael de Sousa, who was fatally shot by police in Rio de Janeiro in July. Officers told his family that Sousa was a drug trafficker, but his relatives say he was innocent. (Dom Phillips/For The Washington Post)

— The footage of the two officers chilled viewers of the prime-time Brazilian TV show “Fantástico.”

Filmed by a camera in the front seat of their patrol car, the video obtained by the program showed the police officers after they picked up three teenage boys on June 11 in central Rio de Janeiro — an area afflicted by street crime and violent muggings often perpetrated by teenage boys. The officers had driven the boys to a nearby forested, hilly area; the video captured them nonchalantly discussing “discharging the weapon a little.”

The camera switched off when they parked the car in an isolated area. By the time it started recording again, one boy, 15, lay shot and left for dead. A second boy, 14, had been shot and killed. The third boy, 15, had been released before the shooting.

“Two less,” one officer is heard saying as the patrol car headed back to central Rio. “If we did this every week, it could start going down. We hit target.”

Such police violence is far from new in Brazil. In 2010, U.N. Special Rapporteur Philip Alston lambasted the country in a report, concluding that “extrajudicial killings remain widespread” and that “few of the perpetrators are prosecuted or convicted, especially when they are police officers.”


Rivaldo Barbosa, chief of Rio de Janeiro’s Civil Police homicide division, says his department is seeing success investigating cases involving police officers. (Dom Phillips/For The Washington Post)

The number of those known to have been killed in confrontations with or by the police in Rio is down, from 283 in 2012 to 208 in 2013. But videos like the one that surfaced in the case of the teenage boys — whether taken by police cameras, surveillance equipment or individuals with cellphones, and swapped via the WhatsApp smartphone app — are forcing the country to confront the problem in a way that it never has before.

“Unfortunately, we have bad officers, connected to crime. True criminals,” said Rio state Security Secretary José Beltrame. Technology such as GPS tracking systems and the cameras, as well as testimony from the surviving boy, helped prosecutors bring charges against the officers. Both are in jail.

‘A big advance’

Whether episodes like these will prove to be a turning point for Brazilian police is yet to be seen. But some hold out hope.

“It is a big advance in the respect of public security,” said Rivaldo Barbosa, head of Rio’s Civil Police homicide division, of the case’s resolution. (Investigations are done by Civil Police, patrols by Military Police.)

The roots of the problem are wide and deep. There were 56,000 homicides in Brazil in 2012, the last national figures available, a 7.9 percent increase over the previous year, according to Julio Jacobo Waiselfisz from the Latin American Faculty of Social Sciences, which produces Brazil’s annual Violence Map.

Michel Misse, a sociology professor and violence specialist at Rio’s Federal University, found in a 2010 study that just 15 percent of murders in Rio were solved. TV Globo said in April that nationally, just 5 to 8 percent of murderers were punished.

Starting in 2008, the city introduced police bases into favelas, neighborhoods that house some of Rio’s poorest people, to expel the drug gangs that were a major contributor to crime. In 2007, there were 2,336 homicides in Rio, according to state government figures; the number had dropped by almost half by 2012. But the figure has begun inching upward, with 1,324 homicides reported in 2013.


A view from the alleyway in Rio’s Fogueteiro favela, where Rafael de Sousa was killed by police. (Dom Phillips/For The Washington Post)

“This is a culture that believes that violence is something natural,” said Rodrigo Prando, a sociologist at São Paulo’s Mackenzie University.

With such rampant violence, “the police almost have carte blanche to commit abuses,” said Maria Canineu, Brazil director of Human Rights Watch. “As we face incredible levels of criminality, it is almost okay.”

The lack of trust in law enforcement has other consequences; it is being blamed for a nationwide wave of vigilante attacks in which wrongdoers and innocent people have been beaten or even killed. An investigation by the G1 news site documented more than 50 vigilante attacks in the first half of 2014. Many were filmed on cellphones.

Killings of Rio police officers also are rising. According to numbers compiled for a blog run by Rio crime journalist Roberta Trindade, 81 officers died in the state of Rio in 2013, up from 71 in 2012. So far this year, 46 have been killed.

Favela violence

Nowhere is the violence more in evidence than in the favelas and low-income suburbs that house Rio’s poorest.

Twenty-five police officers are on trial on charges associated with the disappearance and killing last year of a man from Rio’s Rocinha favela. Barbosa, from the Civil Police, said his department is seeing success in investigating cases such as these.

In the hillside Fogueteiro favela in central Rio, Rafael de Sousa was another young man caught in the swirling currents of brutality. A pot of white flowers sits in an alley, just below blood splatters on a brick wall, where a police bullet shattered his skull July 26. He was the second resident of the favela to be killed by police that day; Vitor Rodrigues, 38, was the first.

Cellphone footage shot by a resident showed a police officer near Rodrigues’s body wearing surgical gloves. The footage is part of a Civil Police inquiry and also was shown on “Fantástico.” Six officers have been arrested, believed by the Civil Police to have moved Rodrigues’s body and altered the crime scene.

Bystanders such as Sousa are also victims of this ­low-intensity war. His family said he was a shy young man who struggled with depression, yet worked as a laborer’s assistant in order to raise his 3-year-old daughter. “My nephew was innocent,” said his aunt Jane de Souza, 46.

Witnesses told local news media that police killed Rodrigues without provocation. Video sent to a local tabloid showed the officers afterward, pinned down in an alley, surrounded by screaming residents.

The police patrol began firing in the air. Sousa, 23, was shot and killed in front of the two tiny houses he shared with his mother, daughter, aunts and young cousins.

“I asked the police officers why they had done this, and they said, ‘Your brother was another of the traffickers; he was looking to tell the others,’ ” said Sousa’s cousin Adriany Muniz, 17. His family said Sousa had nothing to do with the drug trade. “The children saw everything, saw that whole scene,” Muniz added, her eyes wide with horror, her voice dazed with loss.

Marcelo Chalréo, a lawyer and chairman of the human rights commission of the Rio branch of the Order of Brazilian Lawyers, said Rio police regularly kill people they perceive as undesirable or criminal elements. “For them this is ordinary behavior, to eliminate undesirables,” he said.

The authorities hope more cameras may stop them. Beltrame, the security secretary, said $8 million will be spent installing cameras in 2,000 more Military Police cars by the end of the year.

“The institution created a system to supervise itself and, if necessary, cut its own flesh,” he said.

Dom Phillips is The Post's correspondent in Rio de Janeiro. He has previously written for The Times, Guardian and Sunday Times.
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