Human Rights Abuse and Criminality in Rio de Janeiro

Vol. 8, No. 2 (B), January 1996


“The problem of trafficking will only be resolved with blood. It’s the only language they understand.”

—Mario Azevedo, Chief of Police, 21st Police Precinct, Rio de Janeiro

“Police institutions are in a tragic situation for society. People have more trust in traffickers than the police.”

—General (retired) Nilton Cerqueira, Secretary of Public Security

“We’re not a battalion of social workers, and that is why it is impossible to avoid one excess or another.”

—General Roberto Jugurtha Camara Senna, commander of Operation Rio forces


One of the most beautiful cities in the hemisphere, Rio de Janeiro today is most often described as a city under siege. There is no question that violent crime has increased significantly over the past decade. The homicide rate for Rio, for example, has tripled in the last fifteen years, rising from 2,826 murders in 1980 to 8,408 in 1994. Public concern has grown apace. The press, prominent civil leaders, and politicians have focused particularly on violence related to criminal gangs and drug trafficking.

Unfortunately, law enforcement efforts to control crime have relied on flagrant and numerous human rights abuses. Despite the good intentions of some public officials, most of Rio de Janeiro’s police remain abusive, violent, and corrupt. In this report, Human Rights Watch/Americas documents instances of police brutality, including two massacres in which twenty-seven residents of one of Rio’s infamous hillside slums, or favelas, were killed. We also document the human rights violations that accompanied the largest assault to date on Rio’s drug gangs, Operation Rio, from November 1994 to mid-1995.

In recent years, Brazil has emerged as an increasingly important transit country for cocaine en route from the Andean countries to Europe and the United States and as a market for domestic consumption. Much of the Brazilian drug trade is concentrated in Rio de Janeiro, where the lower levels of trafficking hierarchy are dominated by organized crime gangs ensconced in the favelas.

Battles for turf and control among the gangs are frequent and, thanks to a thriving illegal arms trade, violent. Confrontations between the police and traffickers are often marked by indiscriminate shooting. Innocent bystanders, primarily favela residents but also including some from Rio’s middle and upper class neighborhoods, have fallen victim to the deadly gunfire. Mounting public furor over violence by the drug gangs and the police, jockeying by gubernatorial candidates, and steady pressure by the press led in late 1994 to an agreement between the state of Rio de Janeiro and the federal government to bring in federal military troops to assist the police.

The agreement launched an unprecedented joint military-police effort, dubbed Operation Rio, to sweep away Rio de Janeiro’s criminal gangs. Operation Rio forces engaged in dozens of occupations—many lasting several days—of the favelas in the city of Rio as well as outlying areas, including the Baixada Fluminense and Niter¢i. In its first two and a half months, Operation Rio’s most intense period, troops and police detained and arrested more than 500 people, seized some 300 firearms, and captured seventy-four kilos of marijuana and more than seven kilos of cocaine. Drug trafficking in the favelas was temporarily disrupted. Most observers believe, however, that drug traffickers resumed business as usual as soon as the troops withdrew from the favelas.

Operation Rio was punctuated by torture, arbitrary detentions and warrantless searches and at least one unnecessary use of lethal force. Some of these abuses, such as subjecting entire neighborhoods to house-by-house searches, were expressly authorized and, indeed, were demanded by the strategic goals adopted for the operation. Other abuses, such as torture, were not openly included in Operation Rio’s design. Nevertheless, the failure of civilian and military authorities to respond swiftly and decisively to complaints of abuse as Operation Rio unfolded, as well as public statements by officials commonly understood to condone “excesses” during the operation and the absence to date of convictions for the abuses endured by many favela residents suggest appalling indifference by Brazilian authorities to the violation of human rights. At worst, they suggest tacit acquiescence in those violations.

In Operation Rio, the army was deployed to help in the fight against drug trafficking gangs precisely because of the notorious violence and corruption of Rio’s police. Unfortunately, Operation Rio did not include any effort by state or federal authorities to address human rights violations committed by Rio de Janeiro police. As we document in this report, Rio police have continued to violate fundamental human rights in the course of their routine law enforcement duties. If the federal government of Brazil is to contribute meaningfully to the fight against crime in Rio, its focus must include the lawlessness of the police—the uniformed violence that mirrors private criminality. It must also ensure that military troops do not themselves employ the abusive methods prohibited by international human rights treaties ratified by Brazil.

The perception that violence is out of control in Rio, that the city is overrun by criminals, has fostered irresponsible public policy that tolerates aberrant police conduct and promotes further official violence. One year after the launching of Operation Rio, Human Rights Watch/Americas seeks to stimulate increased public attention to the human rights record of Rio’s law enforcement activities and of Brazil’s largest counternarcotics campaign. Drug trafficking and the violence that has accompanied it may constitute a growing threat for the citizens of Rio and other areas in Brazil. But counternarcotics efforts that do not respect human rights subvert the rule of law. Human Rights Watch/Americas calls on the Brazilian federal, state, and local governments to adhere to international human rights standards ratified by the state as they pursue their crime control policies. We urge public officials to use their institutional authority and their political and moral influence to promote respect for human rights by the police and armed forces, to unequivocally and publicly condemn illegal violence by public agents, and to ensure that those agents who violate the law are brought to justice.

Drawing on our review of Operation Rio and on our several years of research into the conduct of Rio’s police, we also offer the following recommendations:



1. Law enforcement strategies are needed to incorporate national and international standards against abusive searches and arbitrary arrests, standards which protect the rights of those in favela shacks as well as those who live in luxury apartments. House-to-house searches in broadly defined geographic areas violate residents’ rights of liberty and privacy; no home should be searched absent particularized evidence pointing to its inhabitants’ connection with criminal wrongdoing. Similarly, arrests must comply with constitutional and international requirements for warrants or for apprehension in the course of criminal conduct. Warrantless detentions should not be undertaken as a means of facilitating interrogations for evidence-gathering purposes or to intimidate neighborhood residents.

2. Serious abuses by police and by armed forces personnel assisting police in domestic law enforcement efforts should be promptly and vigorously investigated and prosecuted. Neither the importance of the law enforcement objectives, nor political considerations, nor the armed forces’ involvement should obstruct efforts to ensure that state agents who abuse civilians are brought to justice. As of this writing, investigations into numerous cases of torture and homicide by police and military personnel are stalled or have been dismissed. Human Rights Watch/Americas calls on Brazil’s political, judicial and military authorities to insist on accountability for abuses and to ensure that investigations and prosecutions proceed expeditiously and with all the necessary resources.

3. The system of military justice for crimes committed by the military police and by armed forces personnel accused of abuses against civilians facilitates impunity. Brazil’s military courts, composed of four military officers and one civilian attorney, have only rarely convicted government forces in cases of human rights violations against civilians. Civilian courts should be given jurisdiction over all cases involving murder, torture, or other serious human rights abuses of civilians by police officers or armed forces personnel.

4. The federal government should assume direct responsibility for prosecuting serious cases of human rights violations by state police as well as members of the armed forces. As this report shows, state authorities have a generally poor record of prosecuting state officials for crimes against civilians. The federal courts have proven less vulnerable to political pressures to appear tough on crime.

5. Legislation is needed to codify the crime of torture, in accordance with Brazil’s obligations under the Convention Against Torture and Other Cruel, Inhuman or Degrading Treatment or Punishment. At present, the only criminal offense applicable to torture is that of lesao corporal (bodily harm), the same offense committed when one person punches another. The crime carries minimal penalties and is subject to the statute of limitations. Codifying the crime of torture would demonstrate the nation’s firm rejection of human rights abuses as a police practice.

6. Brazilian law should be reformed to eliminate vagrancy laws and revise provisions permitting temporary detention so as to avoid arbitrary detentions in violations of international human rights norms ratified by Brazil.

Brazilian criminal law prescribes up to three months’ imprisonment for “vagrancy,” defined as “habitual idleness” by those fit to work and not sufficiently wealthy to support themselves. As demonstrated during Operation Rio, this discriminatory legislation lends itself to wide-scale abuse by providing a pretext for detaining favela residents who lack proof of employment even absent other evidence of criminal conduct. This law should be repealed.

Human Rights Watch/Americas is also concerned that a 1990 law permitting thirty-day police detention of individuals suspected of involvement in drug trafficking, along with certain violent crimes, leaves room for abuse, including arbitrary detention. The law permits thirty-day police detention without the right to provisional liberty even absent formal charges. Such detention may be ordered by a judge based on a very low standard of evidence. Human Rights Watch/Americas recommends that the Brazilian government carefully evaluate the compatibility of this legislation with international human rights standards.

7. Although Human Rights Watch/Americas recognizes the importance of protecting police and soldiers involved in anti-drug efforts, security measures must not impede accountability. All uniformed police and troops should wear name identification tags. All police officers and troops should identify themselves when requested to do so by persons they detain or by family members or attorneys seeking information about detainees.

8. Over the years, Human Rights Watch/Americas and other organizations have recommended a consistent set of measures to promote adherence to international human rights treaties by the police and to ensure accountability. An increasing number of analysts and observers of the Rio de Janeiro Civil Police believe that corruption and the use of violence have become so entrenched that nothing less than a radical overhaul of the institution is required. Human Rights Watch/Americas believes state authorities should give serious consideration to such a proposal. In the absence of a major review and restructuring of the police, we continue to urge adoption of the following measures:

Control of Deadly Force. Authorities should take decisive steps to ensure police agents use deadly force only as a last resort to protect life. It should not be used to control or eliminate persons simply because they are seen as undesirable or may be criminals nor should it be used when to do so unnecessarily endangers uninvolved third parties.

Police Investigations. Investigations into even the most serious cases of police abuse of civilians, for example, killings, are superficial, incomplete and often performed in bad faith. The investigative procedure should be reformed to ensure that members of a division or precinct are not assigned to investigate abuses allegedly committed by officers of the same division. In addition, human rights councils composed of a majority of civilian representatives from nongovernmental human rights organizations and other independent groups should be established to oversee the police and to receive civilian complaints of police abuse. The victims and their representatives should be given access to investigation records and be kept apprised of the status of criminal proceedings against police officers accused of human rights abuses, consistent with protecting the efficacy of the investigation and the rights of the accused officers.

Witness Protection. Many witnesses to police abuse are afraid to testify for fear of retaliation. A comprehensive national program to protect witnesses by permitting their geographic relocation with altered identities is essential. Special procedures, such as the use of videotaped or recorded testimony, should also be considered to speed investigations and protect witnesses from direct exposure to violent officials.

Data Gathering and Publication. As urged previously by Human Rights Watch/Americas, public authorities have begun to compile and make available data on homicides by Rio de Janeiro’s police. Oversight of the police would further benefit, however, if the data were gathered and organized in such a way as to facilitate review of police conduct within each precinct. The authorities should also periodically inform the public regarding the number of administrative and criminal investigations of alleged police abuses that are underway and the status and disposition of those cases.

Administrative discipline. In addition to formal criminal prosecution, police authorities should carry out vigorous internal reviews to identify and discipline police officers who engage in abusive conduct or who fail to take appropriate action to prevent or uncover criminal conduct by others. At a minimum, police accused of homicide should be placed on unarmed duty until the investigation is completed.








Human Rights Watch      January 1996      Vol. 8, No. 2 (B)

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