A shakeup for Rio de Janeiro state police

The Rio de Janeiro state police's top officer resigned last week after saying he was responsible for the nomination of the police chief arrested with other officers in the killing of a judge.

Felipe Dana/AP
People carry the coffin of Judge Patricia Acioli during her funeral in Niteroi, Brazil, on Aug. 12, 2011. Judge Acioli, known for being tough on corrupt police, especially against rogue police who have formed illegal vigilante gangs, was gunned down outside her home in August. Police chief Mário Sérgio Duarte recently stepped down after it was discovered that he had appointed the police officer allegedly responsible for planning Acioli's assassination.

There’s consensus in Rio de Janeiro that police corruption and criminality must be reduced. What we don’t know is if it’s possible to achieve this to a significant degree in an environment where politicians tomam posse (take possession [of office]) and then bring in trusted people to occupy cargos de confiança (posts of confidence).

Widespread corruption and scant trust in society at large mean that every deed and every word, especially on the part of public figures, requires the interpretation of a Torah scholar. Even the media, with needs that don’t always match those of readers and viewers, cannot be trusted.

Thus we get tweets such as this one, from former State Public Safety Secretary Marcelo Itagiba: “New commander changes everything once again. One dum-dum steps down and another one takes his place. Institutional instability. There’s no line of action. Only a changing of the guard.” Mr. Itagiba served under Governor Anthony Garotinho, accused of corruption and recently found guilty of illegal media usage for electoral purposes.

Because reading between the lines is a time-consuming process, most people either mistrust all information unless it comes from a close friend or relative – or they turn to conspiracy theory. Like gossip, theories are easy to invent and spread. And a conspiracy theory is occasionally correct.

So it could well be that, as Itagiba and many other observers posit, the new public safety policy is mere window-dressing for Governor $érgio (this is how Itagiba writes his name) Cabral’s money-grubbing. After all, his dubious connections, long suspected, came to light just a few months ago.

In his tweets, Itagiba suggests that current Public Safety Secretary José Mariano Beltrame is in on both arms of the theory. Others believe he’s trying to do his job, but is at odds with the governor. Thus Thursday’s change in police chiefs brought speculation about whose man is or was whose, the secretary’s or the governor’s.

Then, recent news that new police chief Erir Ribeiro Costa Filho is changing the occupants of more than thirteen top positions in the Rio state military police force, including the key post of police pacification commander, sparked new doubts and provided new information. If this is window-dressing, it’s pretty fancy stuff. Or, as the O Globo headline reads, it’s a crisis.

Or part of a long-term process?

Colonel Mário Sérgio Duarte was police chief for so long – two years! – that it’s easy to forget that Mr. Beltrame has changed chiefs several times. In January 2008, he traded in a chief who made the mistake of joining a wage protest march, for an intelligence specialist. This is probably when the police pacification strategy was being drafted. In July 2009, out went the intelligence specialist and in came Colonel Mário Sérgio Duarte.

Mr. Duarte would most likely have lasted longer, if he hadn’t chosen a battalion commander who ended up allegedly masterminding the assassination of a judge who took a strong anti-militia stance in his São Gonçalo territory. Also, if, unlike many other public officials, he hadn’t perceived himself as being responsible for the choice and all that it implied.

Colonel Ribeiro Costa Filho, Beltrame’s fourth police chief (and one also forgets that Beltrame himself has steadfastly been in office since January 2007, when Governor Cabral first took office), lives in a lower-middle-class house in the Baixada Fluminense, part of greater Rio de Janeiro. He was pulled off his job as São Cristóvão battalion commander in 2003, after accusing the then State Sports Secretary of having asked him to go easy on Mangueira favela drug traffickers. That year he won a “Faz Diferença” (Making a Difference) award from O Globo newspaper, for his whistle-blowing.

Interestingly, that same secretary, who goes by the personalist moniker of Chiquinho da Mangueira (Mangueira Frankie), is about to be reappointed to his previous post. So Ribeiro da Costa Filho may be bumping into his nemesis in halls of state. But rivalries and enmity are nothing new in those parts.

At any rate, the new chief’s personnel decisions indicate that he and Beltrame are making the most of this unforeseen opportunity to choose their associates in the tasks of reducing police corruption and criminality, as well as reducing crime committed by those outside the force.

An Oct. 2 page 23 O Globo article, not available online, by seasoned police reporter Vera Araújo, describes the selection process: “It was from a business administration course … that Beltrame drew management concepts in choosing the new military police czars… recruitment, selection, leadership, and motivation.”

See what you want to

It’s impossible to be sure what all these changes mean, and it will be especially interesting to see what the switch in command of the police pacification program will portend. A police specialist says that the new commander, Colonel Rogério Seabra, has ”a community police profile, believes in a dialogue with society, and is good at public relations”.

As the earth turns, it will be helpful to keep in mind that whatever it is that Rio’s police are doing, for better or worse, is in large part a reflection of the rest of society. As the police change their values and behavior, as Beltrame says he wants them to do (as do we), all of us may be called on to review our own.

We don’t see things as they are. We see them as we are.

— Talmud

Here is an analysis of the new police personnel, by O Globo blogger Jorge Antonio Barros.

--- Julia Michaels, a long-time resident of Brazil, writes the blog Rio Real, which she describes as a constructive and critical view of Rio de Janeiro’s ongoing transformation.

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