Reining in the rogue cops of Brazil and its neighbors


Brazil's police may be best known internationally for gunning down eight street children as they slept in front of a downtown Rio church in 1993. At that time, police reforms were promised by the federal government, but rampant crime and violence by rogue cops continues, human rights activists say.

Residents of one Rio slum got so fed up with police abuse that they began sticking on their doors copies of the Brazilian Constitution guaranteeing citizens the "inviolability of the home."

Last year, an amateur cameraman filmed a So Paulo patrolman, known as Rambo, stopping cars, extorting money from drivers, and then killing a passenger in cold blood. More recently, 40 policemen are under investigation for stealing cars and selling them in neighboring Bolivia, and several clandestine cemeteries were unearthed, disclosing victims of police death squads in the northeastern state of Alagoas.

Also last year, the Organization of American States branded Latin American police the region's most abusive institution and a threat to its fledgling democracies.

Some improvements have occurred:

This year some 300 police commanders were forced to retire in Argentina. The Buenos Aires department has been split into smaller units with a civilian oversight committee.

In the Central American countries of El Salvador, Honduras, and Panama, the US-backed International Criminal Investigative Training Assistance Program has helped turn corrupt military police forces into disciplined civilian agencies. In Panama, for example, a new antinarcotics squad has replaced a trafficker-dominated force.

Colombia is probably the best case of fast reforms. National Police Chief Gen. Rosso Jose Serrano has removed nearly 8 percent of his 108,000-member force for corruption or incompetence since taking over in 1994. His reforms require policemen to have a high school diploma, a measure that Rio officials had to give up since they couldn't find enough qualified candidates. (Rio police now must have at least an eighth-grade education.)

"It keeps me up at night thinking about the Brazilian police's high disregard for human rights," Jos Gregori, the nation's secretary for human rights, told reporters last month.

Low wages cause cop crime?

In Brazil, as in other Latin American countries, underpaid and undersupervised police forces routinely engage in murder, kidnappings, bribery, torture, extortion, and other crime. Experts say criminal cops flourish because of an ineffective judicial system, a lack of reform efforts, and low wages.

When beat cops are accused of abuses, they are nearly always exonerated by lenient military courts. And, in most states, police earn as little as a domestic, leading them to seek income wherever they can find it.

"To offer a policeman $300 a month and expect him to be honest is an idiot's proposition," said former Rio Police Chief Hlio Luz. President Fernando Henrique Cardoso has pledged to enact sweeping reforms of the police and the criminal justice system and to create a federal witness protection program. His government has created a human rights program, codified a law against torture, and advised the nation's 26 states each to create a civilian police review board to which residents can take their complaints and whose investigations can lead to prosecution.

To date, three states have heeded the call - Par, Minas Gerais, and So Paulo, with the latter's board punishing some 2,000 policemen in the past two years for crimes such as torture, corruption, and abuse of power, according to Benedito Domingos Mariano, the board ombudsman. Moreover, Mr. Gregori, the secretary of human rights, announced last month the creation of a special commission to improve police efficiency and review training methods. To remind police they should shoot to disable, not to kill, the So Paulo Police Department recently added arms and legs to the torsos and heads of its cardboard human cutouts used for target practice.

"The problem is not that police are unaware that they aren't supposed to torture and kill," says James Cavallaro, director of the Brazil office of Human Rights Watch. "The problem is no one prosecutes them when they commit those crimes."

Acquitted in massacre case

In the most recent court case, 10 policemen were charged in the 1993 slaying of 21 Rio slum dwellers - the worst massacre involving Brazilian police death squads. Last month they were found not guilty for lack of evidence. Only two of 52 police charged in the massacre have been convicted.

Justice officials, however, argue there has been progress and point to three other high-profile court cases this year.

On Oct. 15 a judge sentenced detective Jorge Luiz Fernandez, known as "George the Smotherer," to 42 years for killing two and injuring four innocent people in 1995 while trying to eliminate a witness to one of his previous murders.

Also in October, So Paulo policeman Otvio Loureno "Rambo" Gambra received 65 years in jail for crimes including murder of a young man in 1997 after stopping his automobile. Officer Gambra was arrested with nine other officers after a video of the episode was shown on national television.

Early this year, federal agents in northeastern Alagoas state arrested police Lt. Col. Manoel Cavalcante for heading a 50-man police gang known as the Uniformed Gang.

Currently the entire group is in jail and under federal investigation, and Colonel Cavalcante has been convicted of homicide and receiving stolen property.

Isolated convictions

Human Rights Watch's Mr. Cavallaro, however, says such convictions are isolated cases and that cops still routinely get away with murder by filing false reports describing extrajudicial executions as shootouts with dangerous criminals.

"What we are seeing now is the beginning of an effort to prosecute police, but, to date, they have been limited to cases that have either been televised like Rambo or have caused a massive public outcry like George the Smotherer [Fernandez]," Cavallaro says.

He argues that Fernandez was apprehended only because four of his victims were innocent women and several survived to testify against him.

"He stepped out of the ordinary procedure of arresting and eliminating criminal suspects, which doesn't provoke public outrage," he says.

While polls show that society disapproves of police impunity, they also show that many Brazilians living in crime-ridden cities support death-squad killings of suspected criminals.

In So Paulo, former policemen running for elective office boast of killing "bandits." State congressman Roberval Conte Lopes, a retired police captain, proudly told voters that he had killed 43 criminals.

And Ubiratan Guimares, another So Paulo elected official, led the 1992 "Carandiru massacre," a raid that killed 111 inmates after a prison riot.

Some critics fear that police killings will continue unabated as long as most victims remain poor and lack political clout.

During Brazil's 1964-1985 military dictatorship, "the middle class repudiated police torture because their sons were the victims," says Mr. Mariano, the So Paulo ombudsman for the police review board..

"Now no one cares, since the victims are mostly from the slums."

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