`Lawmaking' by lawlessness. Death squads have come back to Rio's Baixada slum. Suspected are police and criminals hired as vigilantes

Of every 10 people living in Rio de Janeiro's metropolitan area, four are confined to a squalid slum called the Baixada Fluminense. Portuguese for ``fluvial lowlands,'' the Baixada Fluminense sprawls across four northern suburbs, including Nova Iguacu.

A warren of narrow dirt streets traversed by highways and commuter railways, the Baixada is home to those too poor to live even in the famous shantytowns on the hills above Rio's southern beaches.

By day, these streets can hardly hold the Baixada's estimated 4 million inhabitants.

But by night, the same streets are deserted. At dusk, the transformation is like a ritual: local merchants lock the steel gates protecting their stores from vandalism and robberies, and everyone hurries home.

For decades, the Baixada has been Rio's most violent and crime-ridden area. Yet only in recent months have its residents witnessed the return of the notorious death squads that first appeared in Brazil's largest cities in the 1960s. While critics of the government accused the death squads in past decades of targeting some opponents of government, there have been no such accusations of today's death squads.

``Four people were killed a few blocks from here. Their bodies were arranged in the shape of a cross,'' Azuleicka Rodrigues, president of Nova Iguacu's neighborhood association, said. ``Sometimes they cut their ears off or their hands. They don't just shoot them, there's torture too.''

According to police statistics, more than 1,000 murders have occurred this year in the Baixada. Police attribute two-thirds of the killings to random homicides and fights between gangs of robbers, car thieves, and drug traffickers. They blame the remaining third on death squads.

But leaders of the Roman Catholic Church and various lay groups in the Baixada dispute these figures. According to Bishop Mauro Morelli, as many as 2,000 people have been murdered in the region this year. He accuses police of sponsoring much of the violence. ``The death squads are formed by policemen and criminals ... or [hired] by the owners of small businesses to protect themselves,'' he says.

Police were first implicated in death squad activity more than 20 years ago. Under the military government that seized power in 1964, they were allowed to operate practically with impunity as they fought to rid the nation's urban areas of crime. They may have killed as many as 3,000 suspected criminals in Rio and Sao Paulo by the mid-1970s.

Two investigations into the death squads - one in 1974 by the federal government and another in 1983 by Rio's state government - produced a number of convictions of uniformed policemen. By the time civilian rule returned in 1985, the death squads had disappeared.

But this year, with the economy sagging and the crime rate soaring, they have resurfaced. In late May, the state government ordered yet another investigation. Officials say nearly 300 policemen could face charges for alleged involvement in criminal activity. More than 70 have been removed from active duty.

Nonetheless, senior police officials maintain that the current death squads are formed primarily of common criminals hired by merchants and businessmen as vigilante security forces.

``Police don't belong to any death squads in my area,'' said Sergio Valenca, civil police chief of Baixada's 56th precinct. But he added that the precinct's homicide rate fell sharply - from 13 murders in April to two in July - after he warned his men that ``there would be no killing, not even of criminals.'' He denies accusations that death squads target innocent people.

Neighborhood activists say death squads frequently choose their victims on the basis of personal vendettas and racial prejudice. ``Any black citizen walking in this neighborhood at nighttime is in danger of being kidnapped and killed,'' says Bishop Morelli.

Most of the Baixada's inhabitants are descendants of African slaves, who have never enjoyed the relative prosperity of their white countrymen. With little legal or financial recourse, they are more easily caught up in petty crime than more serious offenses, often under the tutelage of local organized crime bosses.

The result is a vicious circle: As crime increases, more residents feel justified in forming vigilante groups, and general disregard for the law results.

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