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Police responsible for many of Brazil’s homicides, says UN expert

15 September 2008

The Special Rapporteur on extrajudicial, summary or arbitrary executions of the United Nations Human Rights Council issued the following statement today:

Brazil’s police are responsible for a significant proportion of the more than 48,000 homicides that take place every year, the UN’s independent expert on unlawful killings said in a new report released today. The report finds that on-duty police routinely resort to deadly force, and that a large number of off-duty police take part in death squads and other forms of organized crime.

“In Rio de Janeiro, the police kill three people every day,” Alston said. “They are responsible for one out of every five killings.”

Philip Alston is the United Nations Special Rapporteur on extrajudicial, summary or arbitrary executions as well as a professor at the New York University School of Law. His report is based on a fact-finding mission in Brazil during which he met with government officials — including local police commanders as well as senior ministers — many local NGOs, and more than forty witnesses to human rights abuses.

There has been little public outcry at police violence in Brazil, in part because there is widespread skepticism that normal law enforcement measures will work against the powerful drug gangs.

In Rio de Janeiro, in particular, the government has increasingly resorted to “mega-operations” in which hundreds of police will sweep through a gang-controlled neighborhood en masse. Based on interviews with police officers, witnesses, and victims, Alston harshly criticized this approach.

“Local officials claim that these impressive sounding ‘mega-operations’ are protecting residents from drug gangs, but the operations have hurt ordinary people far more than they have hurt the drug gangs,” Alston said. “This is policing by public relations stunt.”

The report focuses especially on one large-scale operation that took place in the Complexo do Alemão favela – one of the impoverished neighborhoods surrounding Rio de Janeiro city – in June 2007. That operation involved over 1,450 police, but only resulted in the capture of 2 machine guns, 6 handguns, 1 sub-machine gun, 2,000 cartridges, and 300 kilograms of drugs. During the operation, the police killed 19 people, and independent experts concluded that a number of these had most likely been summarily executed.

Alston’s report also finds that off-duty police participate in death squads, extermination groups, and the so-called “militias” that run extortion rackets in poor neighborhoods.

“A remarkable number of police lead double lives,” Alston said. “While on duty, they fight the drug gangs, but on their days off, they work as foot soldiers of organized crime.”

It has been estimated that nearly one in five of Rio de Janeiro’s favelas is controlled by such a “militia”. The report finds that, for residents, life under the control of a militia is often just as violent and insecure as life under the control of a drug gang.

In the state of Pernambuco, in the country’s northeast, Alston concluded that a reliable estimate is that 70% of all homicides are committed by death squads and that many of these are made up of policemen and former policemen. The death squads are typically contracted to kill off business, political or personal rivals, and to suppress indigenous and landworker activism. Alston credited the new governor with taking steps against these death squads, but he concluded that the hundreds of people who had been arrested for involvement in death squads during his term “represent only the tip of an iceberg.”

The report finds that multiple factors lead off-duty police to take part in organized crime. One factor is that police are poorly paid and often feel the need to develop additional sources of income. Another factor is a shift structure in which police may work for 12 to 24 hours and then take 24 hours to several days off.

But one of the most important factors contributing to police killings may be a criminal justice system that seldom achieves convictions even in ordinary murder cases. The report found that, in São Paulo, only about 10% of homicides are tried in the courts, and only about half of these result in convictions.

However, Alston remains cautiously optimistic and praised the professionalism of the country’s public prosecution service and the innovative features of its witness protection program. “Clearly, the institutions for holding police accountable are broken, but they are not beyond repair,” he said. “My hope is that the detailed recommendations in my report will provide a starting point for undertaking the necessary reforms.”

NOTE: The report is available at http://www2.ohchr.org/english/issues/executions/index.htm