Brazil has recently generated positive headlines with its 2016 Olympic bid victory, as well as its increased economic and political visibility.
Based on current economic trends, it could be one of the world’s five biggest economies — along with China, the United States, India and Japan — by the middle of this century, according to The Economist.
Yet, the evidence of progress has been marred by the nation’s troubling crime statistics — and reports of unlawful methods employed by the security forces.
A report issued Tuesday by Human Rights Watch —“Lethal Force: Police Violence and Public Scrutiny in Rio de Janeiro and Sao Paulo” — concludes that in fighting heavily armed gangs, Brazilian police in Rio de Janeiro and Sao Paulo routinely resort to “lethal force, often committing extrajudicial executions and exacerbating violence in both states.”
According to the report, more than 1,000 people a year are killed in Rio and Sao Paulo during confrontations with the police, more than 11,000 since 2003. The police classify these deaths as “resistance killings,” but Human Rights Watch reports that they studied 51 cases which showed that victims were not killed in shootouts; in fact, some had been killed at point blank range.
Moreover, the report alleges that police in Rio de Janeiro arrested 23 people for every person killed in police confrontations in 2008. In Sao Paulo, the number was 348 for every person killed. “By contrast,” the report said, “police in the United States arrested over 37,000 for every person they killed in alleged confrontations that year.”
The report further added that even top prosecutors in Brazil acknowledged that “extrajudicial executions” are a major problem. Human Rights Watch Americas Director, Jose Miguel Vivanco, said that “the residents of Rio and Sao Paulo need more effective policing, not more violence from the police.”
The scale of the violence isn’t new. In 2007, Philip Alston, the United Nations Special Rapporteur on Extrajudicial, Summary or Arbitrary Executions, issued a report that stated that Rio police recorded 694 "acts of resistance followed by death" in a six-month period. “This is very often a euphemism for extrajudicial executions by the police killings and it is a category which virtually ensures that impunity will follow,” he said.
In a follow-up report in March of 2009 Alston said, “There is no conflict between the right of all Brazilians to security and freedom from criminal violence and the right not to be arbitrarily shot by the police. Murder is not an acceptable or effective crime control technique.”
Both the Human Rights Watch report and the United Nations report have recommended that Brazil create units independent of the police to investigate the “resistance killings.” The new report also urged the establishment of a crime scene protocol that deters police officers from engaging in false “rescues” and other cover-up techniques.
Brazilian government response
Last June, in response to the United Nations report, the Permanent Representative of Brazil at the United Nations in Geneva, Ambassador Maria Nazare Farani Azevedo, outlined Brazil’s ongoing work to guarantee that “the right of every person to security and social justice, must be in full compatibility with the rule of law.”
Azevedo cited investments in areas such as police intelligence and training, as well as a commitment to increase police salaries, improve police investigations and create national guidelines on the use of force.
The ambassador also noted that the rates of homicide in Brazil have dropped, from 30.4 per 100,00 inhabitants in 2002 to 24 per 100,000 in 2007.
Don’t militarize crime?
“We are living in a very difficult period in Brazil, especially Rio de Janeiro. The police are in constant battle against the drug traffickers,” said Sandra Cavalho, co-founder of Justica Global, a Brazilian human rights organization.
Cavalho received a Human Rights First 2009 Award for her work denouncing allegations of human rights abuses in Brazil, including violence at the hands of the police.
During her recent visit to New York, Cavalho noted how incidents, including a Brazilian police helicopter shot down by drug traffickers, demonstrate the challenge in fighting powerful armed gangs.
She added, “Unfortunately many human rights violations, especially the killing of innocent people, are perpetrated in the name of fighting this war against crime. The police see the inhabitants of the “favelas” (Brazilian shantytowns) as criminals, and as an enemy that has to be contained, and at times, exterminated.”
The Brazilian government has acknowledged the problems with the favelas. Ambassador Azevedo said that the government is investing over $450 million on improving conditions in these neighborhoods.
In the meantime, human rights activists such as Cavalho think that the spotlight on Brazil should be a force for change.
“I think there is a tendency to make Brazil’s crime a ‘spectacle,’" she said. “But now that the world’s attention is focused on Brazil, we need to develop a ‘politics of security’ which is not based on combating crime as an all-out ‘militarization’ or a war. Now we have an opportunity to construct a policy of crime-prevention and safety that also safeguards human rights.”