THEY HUNT POLICE IN RIO
An MP in Rio is 11 times more likely to get shot than the average Brazilian, and six times more likely than a Brazilian man; 79% of the 151 policemen killed in 2007 were off duty.
Rio’s lives of crime
Rio de Janeiro’s military police have a record of brutality and corruption. One Brazilian journalist went undercover to see how the force was tackling the culture of violence
by Raphael Gomide
It took a seven-month selection process before I became, technically, a member of the Military Police (MP). This began with standing for more than three hours in the Rio sun in 33ºC, along with the other lads, some of them almost 30. Sweat streamed down my face and dripped under my white shirt and down the legs of my jeans. The first test for 450 new recruits was to stand in formation, “eyes front” or “at ease”, for seven hours in the sun, with no food and only short breaks for water.
At 08.15 an ashen-faced recruit said he felt unwell and started to sway on his feet. Standing still for so long stops the circulation and can cause black-outs. “Don’t move unless you’re about to fall down!” shouted the commander of 2nd company. A man fainted, slumped to the ground. Another flinched twice. By 10.30, I felt nauseous and dizzy. I raised my hand and fell out of line, helped by a policeman. After splashing water on my face I felt better and returned to the ranks. About a hundred of us felt sick at some time. Many lived far away and had had to get up early to catch public transport. “Didn’t you enjoy it?” asked the instructor at the end. “Are you feeling weak? Then ask to leave! No one is forced to stay. And those of you who’ve come from the army: you won’t be shooting at watermelons here – we fight for real!”
Lieutenant-Colonel Siciliano, who was in charge of selection, began with a warning: “I know many of you will be waiting for the first opportunity to break the rules. But think hard first. There’s a thin line between good and evil, and there will be many times when a colleague encourages you to do something stupid. I don’t want to see you up in court or on the evening news described as bent cops, thrown out for bad behaviour or for committing a crime. If it were easy to find a job I’m sure many of you wouldn’t be here.”
The Rio of beaches and bossa nova is also the headquarters of the most deadly police force in Brazil, perhaps the world. The Rio security forces were responsible for the deaths of 1,330 in 2007 – almost four deaths a day (1) – while 151 policemen were killed. For the last 25 years, armed drug lords and their gangs have dominated the favelas (shanty towns), clashing violently with the police (2). The uniformed Military Police are the most visible security forces. There are 38,000 MPs in Rio – an estimated shortfall of around 12,000. The Civil Police has 12,000 members and undertakes criminal investigations.
I sat the initial exam in the Maracanã football stadium, with 25,000 candidates, all with a minimum of secondary school education. That’s where I first came across the attitudes I saw in my training. A lad who had been an MP auxiliary in a programme for army reservists said: “If you catch a criminal in the tourist area just beat him up. That’s easier than arresting him. But don’t do it in front of everyone – take him round the corner. Arresting someone is too much work. One day I was in the police station from one o’clock till ten at night! You waste your whole day and you miss dinner.” His neighbour told me about a typical day policing football games at Maracanã: “The crowd can be exhausting, but it’s worth it. You can earn five reals ($2.50) letting moneychangers skip the queue.”
I was one of 2,654 candidates who passed the written exam. The selection process followed – we had to undergo medical, psychological and physical examinations, provide references and documents to show we had no criminal record or history of debt, and we had to train. We were told what time to arrive for events, but not what time we would leave. Candidates complained about losing a day’s work, or travelling just to get the result of a test: “Couldn’t they just post it on the internet?” During the training period I had to leave the house at 6am, shaved and with my hair cropped. We marched and sang military songs all day, and finished at 7pm, exhausted.
The force was genuinely trying to curb corruption, but tolerated and even encouraged lethal violence. “Imagine you are in a gunfight with some crook in the favela, and he surrenders. Are you going to arrest him? No, you just kill him!” a recruit said. Another agreed: “Of course you kill him. The guy shot your friend. So he gets cornered and says ‘I give in’. You give in, eh? Too bad – you’re dead.”
I tried to argue that this was illegal and that the police were meant to arrest criminals. “If you don’t kill him, it’s like feeding an animal in a cage. He will attack you later. You know the justice system in Brazil – he’ll spend two years in prison and then be let out. If he finds you, he’ll kill you.” The first recruit tapped me on the shoulder: “If you join the MP with this idea of arresting criminals, you can say your prayers. Human rights only apply to human beings.”
Many of the recruits had family or friends in the force. Violence and death permeated their lives. In the big police operation against drug traffickers in Rio in 2007, 41.6 civilians were killed for every dead policeman. The instructors saw this as the inevitable outcome of such confrontations. One of them lectured us: “You must not fire your gun except in self-defence. You cannot shoot someone in the back. It’s absurd, but that’s how it is. Use of force must be proportional. If you do something wrong and you’re found out, you’ll be punished.”
But a student asked if it was ever like the murders in the film The Elite Squad (3). “That’s just the movies,” the instructor replied, but added in a changed tone: “But you will learn when you’re out there on the streets, if you shoot someone in the back, you put your gun in his hand and press the trigger, and then plead self-defence. I can imagine doing that, in the heat of the moment. But that’s when you’re on the street – you won’t learn such things in here. Arms are for self-defence or for defending a third party.”
A candidate described battle scenes he had watched on the Discovery Channel: “Man, those gun fights in Iraq! The guys behind the tanks, firing their rifles, Blackhawks circling above, rat-a-tat-tat, making a hell of a racket – it was awesome! It gives me goosebumps just thinking about it. A guy in goggles, with his eyes bulging, was firing off his .50 machine gun – I wanted to be there!” Everyone listened in silence. “I hate scum,” he added. “I hated them before, and now I hate them even more. I want to join the BOPE!” (4).
Danger is part of everyday life for Cariocas (residents of Rio). A candidate lifted up his shirt to reveal a huge scar from his chest to below his navel. He said he and a friend – an MP – were caught by muggers and taken into the favelas. “The trafficker shot my friend. I ran for it. I felt two shots hit me, but adrenaline kept me going. I didn’t stop till I got out of the favela. I had been shot in the back and in my right arm.” He spent three months in hospital. “Didn’t you keep the bullet?” someone asked. “Why?” he said. “I’ve still got the scar. And the hate in my heart. If I find one of them, I won’t hold back.”
Journalists arrived at the barracks on the first day of selection but the commander didn’t put any pressure on us to co-operate. “If anyone wants to be interviewed, then be careful. You don’t have to agree to having your picture taken either – it’s risky.” There was silence. After a moment, a volunteer stepped forward, followed by two others. Most didn’t want to expose themselves for fear of reprisals from criminals. The man who did step forward said: “It’s the criminal who should keep a low profile, not the MP. These scumbags should know who it is that’s going to blow their brains out.” A colleague sniggered: “He’s not even a policeman yet, and he’s already going to hit the headlines: ‘Police candidate mistaken for an MP and shot’!”
Criminals and police are at war. Criminals know they’ll probably be shot even if they surrender, so they don’t. They confront any policeman who invades their territory. Shots fired, stray bullets, people injured – innocent people mistaken for criminals by the police. A policeman under stress in hostile territory will shoot first and ask questions later. But when the police are in the minority, the uniform becomes a target and the criminals take revenge.
In the first week, outside the barracks, a lad took me to one side. “Don’t leave here looking like that, with your hair cropped and wearing jeans and a white shirt. Put on another shirt. Two or three have been killed that way, including one from my class in 2005. It’s like a uniform – on the bus, everyone will guess you’re a policeman.”
Colleagues on patrol see every motorcycle passenger as an assassin: “Speed up – let’s get out of here.” An MP in Rio is 11 times more likely to get shot than the average Brazilian, and six times more likely than a Brazilian man; 79% of the 151 policemen killed in 2007 were off duty.
There was excitement when the uniforms were given out. But an officer told us: “You see these boots. I advise you not to take them home with you – it’s too dangerous to take them on the bus. You’re all from Rio – you know what I’m saying.” A sergeant added: “This fear is going to stay with you all your life.” But most take the boots home so they can have their pictures taken with them on, to show their family or girlfriend. Many MPs have been killed after being betrayed by their clothes, weapons or police ID. The instructors told us how to hide our uniforms. In the car: put it in the boot, or in a bag under the back seat. On the bus: “it’s important to hide your ID. If you get into any bother, just throw everything out the window – bag, clothes, ID. I was in a hold-up but, thank God, I didn’t have my gun on me.” Another instructor suggested buying a car: “Don’t walk and don’t take the bus, it’s too risky. If you do have to, then pray God protects you.”
Just before we were about to begin as MPs, a sergeant said: “Choose carefully where you hang out. You are almost policemen, and there is scum everywhere. If you can get rid of them before you become MPs and you have to arrest them, go ahead.”
Your own revolver
There are many ex-soldiers among MPs. A former rifleman advised us: “Don’t stay in this hellhole. I’m going to leave as soon as possible – I’m not going to hang around for long.” Some recruits don’t want a career but only short-term employment. Many have been to university. Being an MP is badly paid and dangerous, and is used as a springboard to better paid and less dangerous posts.
MPs have become more aggressive towards criminals as violence has escalated. “If you don’t reduce the risks, you won’t make it home,” said a candidate. “Rio state is the most dangerous in the country, what can you do? It’s the only one at war. If you are not well prepared, you won’t make it.” His solution? To keep your gun pointed at all times. “It might seem brutal, but we’re the ones having to sit for 12 hours in a car, risking our lives. You have to be courteous, but we’re not in the countryside, this is Rio.”
A student asked if it was OK to fire at someone trying to escape a police raid. “Of course not! Some people get scared. You can’t shoot – you should run after them. If you fire, how are you going to explain that to a judge?” A lad sniggered quietly: “Well you’re not going to use your regulation gun to shoot them, are you?” He would have his own pistol, hidden away.
The official advice often conflicted with the unofficial, leaving the new recruit confused. The training includes 12 hours of “ethics and human rights” teaching – that’s 1% of the 1,160 hours of training. “It’s not much,” acknowledged a trainer. Under pressure, an inexperienced policeman will get nervous and resort to the law of the street. When the governor of Rio, Sergio Cabral, justified the “clashes” (5), soldiers understood it was OK to kill. They know politicians are not interested in reducing the number of civilian deaths, whether criminal or not, and that they will rarely be investigated. Mistakes are common. In 2008, police shot dead a three-year-old boy, João Roberto, who was sitting in his mother’s car. Another man, Luiz Costa, was being mugged in his car when he was mistaken for a criminal by the police and shot. Both incidents were caught on CCTV cameras or by a TV crew, and made the headlines.
The Military Police behave differently depending on what area of the city they are in. “In rich neighbourhoods they say ‘Good evening, sir’. In the favela it’s ‘Hand over your drugs or you’re done for’,” joked a colleague. “Are you going to behave the same in Ipanema [a chic area of Rio] as in the favela?” asked a sergeant. “It totally depends on the situation, on the level of risk. In the favela, if you turn your back you’re liable to get shot.”
We had some training with a Special Weapons and Tactics (Swat) team from Texas. To my surprise one of the Americans said that in 13 years of operations, he had never fired a shot: “Technique and speed replace violence.” During target practice, trainee MPs were taught to use reasonable force, and only fire in self-defence. We were also meant to learn to handle a gun properly, but in reality we only practised firing a pistol, revolver and rifle 40 times each. “MPs are terrible shots,” said the shooting instructor. “I’m fed up seeing policemen wearing gold chains, sitting in flash new cars with pretty blondes, and with a Glock pistol (6) on their belts. They fire 19 times but the target keeps running. Even when the target’s stationary they miss nine times out of 10.”
He had his own theory as to why 234 bullets went astray in Rio between January and September 2007 (causing 16 fatalities). “A rifle bullet goes through a wall and hits what it shouldn’t.” He thought the revolver was inappropriate in Rio – it only loads six bullets, and is difficult to reload quickly in a gunfight. “I don’t hold with this idea ‘if I can’t do it in six shots I won’t do it at all’. If I don’t do it in six, I’ll do it in 34, or 68 – I’ll keep shooting till I’ve done it.” He showed us three clips of ammo he was carrying in his pockets and two attached to his legs. It was inconceivable to him that MPs should not be properly armed: “Public apathy has got us into this situation. If all decent people carried guns, Rio wouldn’t be in this mess. This country doesn’t have a culture of using weapons. I saw a documentary about a family in New Orleans in the US: the husband, wife and 12-year-old son all had guns.”
‘Just take the money’
Relations between police and society are strained. One day a woman in a car shouted “scumbags!” at a group of recruits outside the barracks. The public resents the police, while the police feel they are not appreciated for risking their lives. “People are ignorant,” a sergeant complained. “No one stands up for us except our families.” A candidate tried to explain: “When a playboy is arrested, the first thing he does is ask how big a bribe to pay. He hands over 10 reals ($5) and leaves, calling us corrupt and shameless. But what about him? Society gets the police force it deserves.”
“If you say you are an MP, people look at you funny and think you’re a crook,” says a graduate MP. “You might have a new car which you’re paying for in hundreds of instalments, but everyone still calls you a thief.” A candidate confided that he was hoping to join the same battalion as his brother, covering two favelas infested with drug traffickers. When I asked him if this was dangerous he replied: “No problem. Everything is done with backhanders. My brother earns 2,000 reals ($1,000) a month over there.” He wasn’t selected, but cases like this worry the MP, which is trying to stop corruption.
Recruits see things differently: “If your superior, an old-timer, shares a bribe with you, do you say ‘no, Sarge, I don’t want it’? He’ll say ‘stop making a fuss, private, and just take the money’.” “I want to be a traffic policeman,” said one student. “It’s good money.” Others told stories of bribes – a bottle of mineral water here, a meal at McDonald’s there. Everyone laughed – it’s unjust, they said, that the MP have such a reputation for corruption.
The force is obsessed with its negative image, and wants to change its reputation for cruelty: “Are you going to hide your face during a raid?” asked a trainer. “Yell at the suspect, push him to the ground and point your gun at his head? Is that necessary? No – but you are going to take aim at him.” Police safety is important. In the face of public resentment the police stick together. Code 800 – which covers giving assistance to fellow policemen – takes priority. Even if an old woman is attacked, Code 800 says you must take care of your wounded colleague first. No one loves you apart from your dog. The city hates you. The waiter who serves you coffee, the woman who serves you a meal – they all hate you, they only serve you because they have to.
The anthropologist Jaqueline Muniz says MPs are confused because their mission is badly defined. They are given a blank cheque, providing opportunities for abuse. “There is no clear policy about the use of force or accountability. How do you make someone behave responsibly when the rules of the game are not clear?”
At the end of my seven-month selection and training period, and after living as an MP for a month, I handed in my resignation. Two sergeants tried to persuade me to stay. “Do you really want to leave?” a female sergeant asked me. When I replied “yes”, she told another student in the room to leave us. “Let me just update the list of deceased here,” she said. “You know you’re dead now, don’t you?” She pointed to a blackboard. Under the heading “graveyard” there was a drawing of a skull, and the names of four others who had resigned, with crosses next to their names. She added my name to the list.
I wrote my resignation letter by hand because none of the computers worked. Damp ran down the walls of the room, the plaster was crumbling and it was full of cobwebs. I noticed a cockroach on a pile of papers, and three broken chairs. Three of the eight cold showers didn’t work. There was no air conditioning in the stifling rooms, only ventilation slats. Recruits had to bring in their own toilet paper. The toilets were dirty and smelled. “Does it cost much to buy toilet paper and naphthalene?” an instructor barked. Every student paid one real for cleaning products.
I said goodbye to the sergeants. “Good luck, my friend, and may God protect you!” they said. “Don’t speak ill of the MP, only speak about the good things and forget the bad.” I was standing to attention. “Forget it, you’re not a soldier any more!” Out of the 2,000 places at the start of the selection process, there were only 454 students left on the course.
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