BRAZIL'S KILLER COPS
The Olympic Games are set to begin in Rio de Janeiro in a matter of months. They could turn out to be the most dangerous Games of all time. Because a civil war is raging on Sugarloaf Mountain, and right in the middle of it all is a military police force w
The police don’t go on patrol– they go on the prowl...
More than 50,000 soldiers serve in Rio de Janeiro’s military police force. While they’re on duty they usually represent the law. But after hours, many of them collect kickbacks, traffic in drugs, and even work as contract killers. But if any of the police officers gets killed, the retaliation is immediate: Dozens of residents living near the crime scene are arbitrarily “questioned,” tortured, and in the end— shot. In the last year alone more than 100 murdered police officers have been avenged in this way.
Warning via text message: “Stay off the streets… There will be a purge and no one to protect us.”
About 1.4 million of Rio’s 6.3 million residents live in favelas (slums), with the vast majority living below the poverty line. At the same time Rio has one of the world’s highest murder rates. Every day fierce clashes flare up in the favelas between rival gangs and corrupt police. If uniformed officers are spotted in a district, neighbors immediately send around a mass text message: “Get out of the area as fast as you can. Or go inside and take cover— don’t be seen on the streets. There will be a purge, and there is no one to protect us.”
The first bullet of the night pierces a dealer’s left eye. The 14-year- old is instantly killed, and the shooter can’t be identified. For a moment the five police officers and seven gangsters face one another, totally motionless. They had been negotiating protection money—which is business as usual. But then a high-strung police sniper perched atop one of the roofs in the background accidentally pressed his finger against the trigger—and the battle had begun…
“Everyone run for cover!” But four of the dealers are not fast enough. The remaining dealers call for backup on their radios and proceed to empty their machine guns in the direction of their opponents. Children serving as lookouts set off signal flares on the surrounding hills: “Enemies are in the Alemão—and the battle is intense!” Amid the muffled staccato bursts of gunfire the fighters flee deeper into the winding alleyways of the favela. Because they know the enemy: the military soldiers—killers in uniform. Some dealers pray breathlessly as they run away…
More than 50,000 military soldiers are stationed in Rio de Janeiro. Their equipment is comparable to what U.S. units in Afghanistan work with: machine guns, helicopters, armored vehicles, and heavy weapons. Their mission is also formidable: somehow pacify the seething megacity around Sugarloaf Mountain. Despite all their efforts, helicopters have repeatedly been shot down over the favelas.
“That’s because in the slums a civil war is raging—a war that no one can stop, and that no one wants to stop,”
says Enio Bastos of the city’s military police force. Gangs are fighting for control of the drugs and arms trade, and they are at least as heavily armed as the soldiers sent to subdue them.
So are military police powerless? “Not at all. The authorities join in too,” observes Samira Bueno, head of the security think tank Fórum Brasileiro de Segurança Pública. The police collect bribe money, enter the drug trade themselves, or join up with one of the innumerable death squads. Cost per contract killing: 200 reais ($ 50) and up—depending on how difficult it is to find the victim. In the past year 580 people have been killed by a .40- caliber police bullet, according to official statistics. “But these fatality figures are significantly understated,” says Bueno. Each year more than 5,000 additional victims enter the official files with an “unclear cause of death,” and they will remain buried there forever. Investigations? Obviated by one word: self-defense.
However, Brazilian president Dilma Rousseff expresses a considerably more positive view of the city—not surprising, since the Olympic Games are due to be held there this summer. That’s why the 68-year- old focuses on things like the heavenly beaches and the progress on construction of the Olympic stadiums—and haven’t David Beckham and Madonna just bought houses in the Vidigal favela? “Yes, for about 300,000 dollars each,” confirms Señor Bastos. “But Vidigal is considered a peaceful area.”
Even so, the rest of the more than 700 favelas are not—although the 39 most dangerous slums have officially been “governed” by military police and the army for more than a year. More than 1,600 troops are stationed in the Maré favela alone. It’s a kind of military dictatorship in the middle of Rio. Nevertheless, firefights are the order of the day here…
“Caveirão! Caveirão!” The shouts echo through the alleys of the Alemão favela—until targeted shots abruptly stop them. A caveirão is an armored combat vehicle used by the police; its name means “giant skull,” which refers to the huge skull emblem on each side of it. An M2 machine gun is mounted to the top—the cartridges it uses are as long as a child’s hand. Team 19 has arrived. Men in combat
The price of a murder starts at just $ 50
gear get out and get into position in groups of two, weapons at the ready. They are the reinforcements for their comrades in the battle.
“All spread out!” Every movement, every glance, every command is pure precision. “Secure the sector! Fire at will!” Those who want to keep living should lay down their weapon now. With laser-like accuracy the soldiers shoot their way through the district. Each bullet hits its mark. Resistance lasts less than a minute. Anyone still able to run has fled—with a shameful exception: three prisoners wearing police uniforms. “Zero One, Team 19 here. We have three colleagues…” Captain Butragenio reports to his headquarters. He already knows the response: “Let them go and get out of there.” Arresting police officers for drug trafficking would be pointless. Even if a complaint were to be filed, where should the paperwork be sent?