In the past two weeks, police striking for higher wages have walked off the job in nine Brazilian states, allowing criminals to run rampant and forcing the federal government to call in troops to restore order.
The strikes, which are illegal, have sparked fears of anarchy. But they also may give a new federal commission justification to rein in Brazil's notoriously violent police.
Brazilian police frequently beat, torture, and even murder detainees, say human rights watchdog groups. Most abuses involve the military state police, a holdover from the 1964 to 1985 military dictatorship. The force was used to hunt suspected leftist subversives and occasionally tortured suspects or caused them to "disappear."
"Brazil is the only country in the world where soldiers are policemen," says Roberto Da Matta, a Brazilian anthropologist who teaches at the University of Notre Dame in Indiana. "It's absolutely crazy."
While official efforts to curb such brutality have failed in the past, some experts say the strikes will give the commission the public support to implement reforms, thus creating a more professional and less violent police force. Commission recommendations are expected by next month.
Called "the working group," the federal commission includes representatives from nongovernmental organizations, research centers, and police departments. It was created last spring by a new human rights department linked to the Justice Ministry after outraged Brazilians watched scenes of police brutality on the largest TV network. An amateur cameraman filmed 10 policemen extorting money, beating people with billy clubs, and killing one man in a So Paulo slum.
"We can't accept a violent police force any longer. It's an intolerable situation," says Jos Gregori, the new secretary for human rights in Brasila, the capital.
Rights groups say the commission is a milestone for using human rights as a key issue for reform. "This means police reforms at the federal government level will have as a guiding principle the need to guarantee individual human rights," says James Cavallaro, director of the Brazil office of Human Rights Watch/Americas. "That's a first for Brazil."
Mr. Gregori says there has been "no control at all" over the police since democracy was restored in 1985 and that restraint begins with judicial reform.
When police break the law, they are tried in special military tribunals. Military-police investigators almost always determine that homicides committed by police were the result of shootouts, and it is not uncommon for murder prosecutions to take up to 10 years in military courts.
In So Paulo, a city of 11 million inhabitants, 1,470 homicides - 1 out of 3 killings - were committed by the police in 1992, according to an April report by Human Rights Watch/Americas.
Not surprisingly, 1 out of 4 city residents said they fear the police more than criminals, according to a recent poll by the So Paulo-based firm Datafolha. In interviews taken in 10 states where police had either gone on strike or threatened to walk off the job, more than half those polled said they believed many policemen were corrupt and said they feared more than trusted the police.
While there has been a dramatic decrease in people killed by So Paulo police - 183 killings in 1996 - it is still high when compared with other large cities. In New York, police are responsible for about 20 deaths annually.
In Rio de Janeiro, a 240-man swat team trained to fight drug traffickers has killed 699 people in the past 29 months. Some 61 percent of the victims showed signs of being summarily executed, according to a recent investigation by the Rio daily O Dia.
To combat police impunity, the commission is studying several watchdog models, including New York's civilian review boards.
"We will establish mechanisms of control to ensure an accountability that doesn't exist today," says Paulo Mesquita, a commission member.
For Gregori, such controls can't come soon enough. At a recent press conference, he said he's tired of explaining to foreigners why violent police aren't in jail. "Every time I leave the country, I have to tell some little Englishwoman why the police involved in the Eldorado dos Carajs massacre are still free," he said. Military police last year opened fire on more than 1,000 landless peasants, who were marching to demand land in Eldorado dos Carajs in northern Par State. Nineteen protesters were killed, and 155 policemen were charged with murder.
In the meantime, Mr. Gregori says his human rights department has won several "minor victories."
In recent months, Congress has passed a law setting penalties for torture. Illegal weapons possession has been upgraded from a misdemeanor to a felony. And in an effort to educate the public, a question regarding international human rights has been added to college entrance exams.
"We are trying to create a human rights consciousness in a violent country where the concept of human rights is not well known," Gregori says. "We must change our behavior."
Push for reform
Gregori's department is initiating mandatory human rights courses for policemen, pushing for a constitutional amendment to make human rights abuses federal crimes, and working with an NGO to create a witness-protection program in six states. A lack of eyewitnesses - who are usually afraid to testify against the police - hinders prosecutors' cases.
Police themselves have mixed feelings about the commission, according to Rio police Col. Jorge da Silva. Many officers welcome it, hoping reforms will improve their plight. While senior officers earn monthly salaries between $10,000 and $30,000, starting monthly salaries for beat cops vary between $74 and $384, forcing them to live in slums.
Yet Colonel da Silva concedes that most of his colleagues are not keen on the creation of watchdog groups. "When you talk about a human rights policy, you must consider that it's not just the police but Brazilian society that has never accepted it," he says.