In Brazil’s Favelas, Militarized Police Impose a Savage Order

In the aftermath of the brutal torture and murder of a suspect by a special police unit, Brasil de Fato interviews Margarida Pressburger, a UN special rapporteur with half a century of human rights work in Brazil. The fundamental problem, she says, is the militarization of crowd control and policing in Brazil’s slums: until the police are civilianized, nothing will change.

The cause of death was electric shocks and asphyxiation with a plastic bag, according to an inquest into the cause of death of Amarildo X., a resident of Rocinha [Rio]. The mason had been tortured by military policemen over a period of minutes or hours. A case with the “worst possible repercussions,” at the UN Committte Against Torture] according to the UN special rapporteur and lawyer Margarida Pressburger.

In this interview, Pressburger, 69, argues that the policemen accused in the case should be imprisoned like common criminals. “Why is their crime treated more leniently?” she asks. According to Pressburger, we are only going to see real reform of Brazil’s security forces when the police are no longer part of the military. “Until the police forces are demilitarized, we are just going to keep seeing police doing barbaric things like throwing grenades at teachers,” she says.

Brazil de Fato: What has been the reaction of the subcommittee to the revelation that policemen from the ‘pacifying units’ are practicing torture?

Pressburger: The repercussion was as bad as can be. We still have not met; our next meeting is in Geneva on Nov. 15. We will be holding a joint meeting with the UN special rapporteur on torture, Juan Mendez. That is when we will take a position on what is happening in Brazil.

The “Where’s Amarildo” movement is about more than this particular case. Amarildo is a person who was disappeared under a democratic regime. On the Truth Commission, we deal with people who were disappeared during the years of the dictatorship, but we rarely discuss the situation of those who were disappeared since the democratic government was established. Examples of the recently disappeared are people like Joao Antonio Carelli, a reasearcher for the Oswaldo Cruz foundation, Patricia Amieiro, an engineer for Exxon, the sister of MMA fighter Vitor Belfort, and hundreds of others.

How do you explain this violence?

The Brazilian military police are still using the same playbook that the armed forces used during the dictatorship years. There is no sentiment that their duty is to protect the public. When they face a group of demonstrators, they see the protesters as the enemy. I have been involved in this for more than fifty years now, and nothing has changed.

Nine military policemen, along with Maj. Edson Santos, all suspects in the Amarildo case, have been arrested. Are you satisfied?

They are in a rather comfortable sort of prison, actually. They are being held in a special police battalion, among their colleagues. They are living in circumstances very different from the normal Brazilian prison system.

I would like to underline that torture is considered a crime against humanity. These ten policemen, although they are indeed under arrest, should be being held in regular prison cells. Why is their crime being treated more leniently?

Amarildo was not given the opportunity for a legal defense he was tried and condemned by the Pacifying Unit policemen. What is your reaction?

What happened to Amarildo was a dreadful crime. Both his family, and the ‘witnesses’ in the case (who were all paid off by police) suffered psychological torture. They even accused Amarildo of being connected to drug traffickers. Even if the accusation had been true, he should have been arrested, given a trial, and if found guilty, sentenced to prison, rather than being tortured to death.

Both [Public Safety minister] Jose Mariano Beltrame and [Rio] governor Sergio Cabral made statements which minimized the torture suffered by Amarildo. To what extent do you think this contributed to the impunity [of police]in the case?

Such statements can only contribute to the impunity. Since Beltrame took office, we have seen mass killings in [the favelas of]Complexo do Alemao and Morro da Provincia, anda boy was machine gunned to death in the Tijuca neighborhood. It is always the same story: first, the police deny that anything happened, and eventually they fire the police chief in charge, and the replacement only makes things even worse. There is no changing a modus operandi without a change in mentality. We will not see a solution to this problem while the chiefs of police keep seeing the population as the enemy.

You have previously said that there is a ‘culture of torture’ in Brazil. What makes you say that?

The moment that the first Portuguese colonists arrive on Brazilian beaches in the year 1500, they started to torture the Indians. From 1500 until the present, everything has been achieved via torture. During the period of slavery in Brazil, it was blacks who were tortured to death. In the 1960s, it was the dictatorship who was doing it. Until we demilitarize our police, we are going to continue seeing such hrrors: military policemen throwing grenades at teachers, the very heroes who once educated these same policemen.

Vivian Virissimo