Amnesty demands crackdown on police death squads in Brazil

Brazil's police force needs urgent reform to tackle endemic human rights abuses that potentially constitute thousands of executions in the country's poorest communities every year, Amnesty International says.

A report released yesterday claims that "death squads" - groups of rogue military police who have been accused of the mass murder of people living in favelas (slums) - are on the rise across the country.

It includes accounts from victims and relatives of routine extortion, theft and police brutality that sometimes results in death. According to official figures, more than 2,000 people were killed in Sao Paulo and Rio de Janeiro in 2003 in cases labelled "resistance followed by death". Amnesty believes the true figures are far higher.

Working with grassroots organisations in Brazil's largest cities, Amnesty has compiled a dossier of claims that police repeatedly cover up shootings before a forensic investigation can take place. Witnesses and relatives are intimidated by police, with many too scared to speak out, even in the rare cases where investigations are conducted, according to community human rights groups. Groups also claim that there has been a rise in reports of police sexually abusing and beating young people in the favelas.

Amnesty, which accuses Brazil's government of "betrayal" of its poorest citizens, is calling for an immediate national action plan to be implemented to overhaul the system.

Launching the report, They Come in Shooting, in Sao Paulo, Tim Cahill, Amnesty International's lead researcher on Brazil, claimed that police were putting lives at risk.

"Despite the fact that people living in Brazil's poorest communities are more likely to be victims of violent crime, authorities invest little to nothing in their protection," he said.

"The poor of Brazil's main urban centres are crying out for state protection and what they often receive, if anything, is violent and corrupt police officers. Security based on repression will not bring the peace that the population demands."

A number of high-profile police "invasions" of the favelas have shocked the world in recent years.

On 31 March 2005, 29 people were killed in the Baixada Fluminense district of Rio by a group believed to be police officers, who drove through the area shooting randomly. A 14-year-old schoolboy playing pinball in a local bar, a 17-year-old cycling home, and people sitting outside their homes, were among the victims.

The Baixada Fluminense massacre, which was immediately condemned by authorities, was the worst in the city's history, but far from unique. In 1992, 111 unarmed detainees in Sao Paulo's Carandiru detention centre were killed indiscriminately. A year later a group of military police turned on children sleeping on the steps of the Candelaria Cathedral in Rio, while in the same year, death squads descended on the Vigário Geral favela . In 1997, a group of land activists in Eldorado dos Carajas were also massacred.

Yet, according to Mr Cahill, these cases obscure the day-to-day violence experienced by the poorest communities at the hands of the police. "We are potentially talking about thousands of executions every year," he said. "In eight months we have reports that 600 people were shot by police in Bahia [a northern state]. That figure shows that this in not just a problem in Brazil's cities.

"The history of death squads is that they started as some kind of ethnic cleansing. Now we find that they are becoming increasingly involved in organised crime and the violence which accompanies criminal activity."

Mr Cahill said Amnesty welcomed promises made by President Lula de Silva's government to address the problem, but he said action was needed to implement and finance change. "There has been a failure to treat this as a political issue," he added. "There is not an interest in addressing the roots of violence."

Amnesty is calling for an independent police ombudsman, stricter punitive measures for police and abolition of the bureaucratic category that allows them to record "resistance followed by death" as the reason for a fatality. Police, currently paid a pittance, must receive fair wages in an attempt to stamp out corruption, as well as comprehensive retraining, it adds.

According to Elisabete Silveiro, of the Centro de Direitos Humanos de Sapopemba, a human rights group working in the east of Sao Paulo, the problem is a total lack of respect from the police for communities living in the favelas. Describing a 5am raid on the Jardim Elba favela, where her organisation operates, on 28 August this year, Ms Silveiro said: "When the police came in, it was like war. People ran into the streets as they came in shooting."

Elizabete Maria Souza, head of Rede de Comunidades Contra a Violencia, a group working with the mothers of victims in Rio, added: "People who live in favelas are branded as bandits and they suffer. The reality is, if you have money in Rio, you are given protection. If you don't have money, you have none.

"This is why we are calling for justice."

'We need to be strong. Now we need to fight back'

Màrcia de Oliver Silva unbuttons her jacket to reveal her T-shirt underneath which reads: "Meu Filho Hanry [my son Hanry]." The image shows a young boy smiling into the camera. On 21 November 2002, 16-year-old Hanry Silva Tomes said goodbye to his mother and left for college. He never returned to his home in Gàmba, Rio. Though the military policeman he encountered shot him several times, it was a single bullet in the heart that killed him. Police claim he was a drug trafficker, resisting arrest, despite four testaments to the contrary from members of the community. Investigators removed three bullets from the scene, which were never matched to police guns, authorities claim. Ms Silva believes she knows the policeman who shot her son, but is made powerless by a system inundated with thousands of similar cases every year.

"He was strong and healthy," she says. "Life was just beginning for him." The question on her lips is that of every grieving mother in the city and beyond - why? "I am always thinking of him," she says. "I have suffered depression and when I am in my house I cry and cry. But we need to be strong. Now we need to fight back."

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