Rio's poor 'terrorised' as police use 'big skull tanks' to storm slums

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The Independent US

The infamous black, tank-like vehicles emblazoned with the symbol of a skull and allegedly used by Rio de Janeiro's police force in the shooting of innocent people should be banned immediately before they bring more tragedy to some of the country's poorest communities, human rights groups say.

Amnesty International and a coalition of Brazilian human rights organisations say thecaveirão (big skull) is used endemically by the Batalhão de Operações Policiais Especiais (Bope), Rio's elite police force, to "terrorise" people in the city's favelas.

Rio police bought their first caveirão four years ago and now own 10 of the armour-plated military vehicles, which they claim are necessary to protect their officers in the fight against the drug traffickers who control many of the shanty towns.

A report launched yesterday by Amnesty contains a series of eyewitness accounts that claim the communities are suffering devastating effects from the force's military tactics.

One account says that Carlos Henrique, 11, was on his way home last July when police stormed his community of Vila do João in a caveirão, killing him with a shot to the head.

Two months later in Favela de Acari, residents reported that 17-year-old Michel Lima da Silva was also shot and killed by an officer from acaveirão. The young man's corpse was then hoisted on to the back of the vehicle and paraded around the streets. Money was demanded for the return of the body.

Between May and September last year, 11 people were killed in operations involving the vehicles, according to the report.

Despite the risk to people living in the favelas, residents claim the caveirões, which hold up to 12 armed officers each, continue regularly to enter the poor districts, firing at random on residential streets and broadcasting messages through loudspeakers fixed to the vehicle.

Some of these messages are"danger" warnings, and chilling broadcasts such as "we are here to take your souls" are routinely used, rights activists say. The sinister threat fits in with the grim-reaper imagery of the Bope logo, a skull crossed with two guns, which appears on the side of the vehicle.

The police "tank" has a turret that rotates 360 degrees as well as various shooting positions along the side. The vehicle weighs eight tons and is capable of speeds of 120mph.

Edilson Santos, the director of the arts centre in the community of Complexo da Maré, saidcaveirãos regularly arrive in the favela late at night: "Often I see mothers, children and other people running in fear. Everyone - young people, children, old people, artists - we are all so anxious about how unsafe this vehicle is."

Tim Cahill, the head Brazilian researcher for Amnesty International, said the report marked the launch of an international campaign to stop the use of the caveirão and also against other military tactics adopted by Rio's police. "By deploying a vehicle to aggressively and indiscriminately target whole communities, the authorities are using the caveirão as a tool of intimidation," he said. "The police have a legitimate right to protect themselves as they go about their work but they also have a duty to protect the communities they serve."

Mr Cahill also said that evidence collected by organisations such as the Institute of Religious Studies in Rio had suggested that the increase of police armour, was leading to an "arms race" with the drug gangs who were now looking for more and more sophisticated weaponry to use against the caveirão.

"Increasingly the community view of the police is one of terror," he added. "We hear that people are scared to leave their homes, that they are too frightened to send their children to school in case they get caught up in a shoot out."

According to Marcelo Freixo, a researcher for the Brazilian human rights organisation Global Justice, the caveirão has become a symbol of the failings of public security policies in Rio.

"It typifies the police's confrontational and divisive approach to Rio's public security crisis," he said. "Using violence to combat violence is fundamentally counter-productive. Not only does it lead to tragic deaths of innocent bystanders, but it does not solve the problems of escalating criminal violence in Rio de Janeiro."