Is it time to disband Brazil’s ‘violent and archaic’ military police?


The recent news that the Brazilian government is creating a special elite force of a 10,000 riot police to handle protests and public order during the 2014 World Cup was met with great alarm. Memories of the violence that met unarmed protesters and journalists during widespread demonstrations last year are still fresh in the minds of Brazilians.

Add to that a long history of extrajudicial killings and excessive violence by Brazil’s police officers (dating back to the country’s dictatorship between 1964 and 1985), and it becomes clear why the debate about whether now is the time to disband the military arm of Brazil’s police force is gathering momentum.

“The military police dates back to the monarchy. How could I be expected to accept that an instrument conceived by the monarchy is still being used to deal with social matters?”

This is the question asked by Vanderlei Ribeiro, president of ASPRA (Associação de Praças da Polícia Militar e Corpo de Bombeiros do Río de Janeiro), which represents the lowest-ranking members of the military police and fire brigade. “We are in favour of demilitarising the police,” he insists.

In Brazil, policing is split between the civil police and the military police (Polícia Militar, or PM). Each state has its own civil and military police units: the PM is responsible for immediate crime response and maintaining public order, while the civil police carry out investigative and forensic work.

However, the country’s law enforcement agents enjoy very little public trust.
According to the latest edition of theyearly report on public safety, the Anuário Brasileiro de Segurança Pública, around 70 per cent of Brazil’s nearly 200 million-strong population have no confidence in their 523,400 active police officers.

Looking at some of the data available, it isn’t hard to see why.

In the state of Rio de Janeiro alone, police officers committed 10,000 homicides, supposedly during confrontations, between 2001 and 2011. Specialists and media investigations warn that many of the deaths were probably executions. In 2012 alone, 1,890 people died at the hands of the police in Brazil – that is an average of five deaths a day.

Murder and torture

Various cases were also brought to light last year. Witness reports revealed that a young man, Paulo Roberto Pinho Menezes, killed in the Manguinhos favela on 17 October, 2013, was beaten to death by police.

There was another case on 14 July, 2013, when bricklayer Amarildo de Souza died after being tortured by military police officers in the Rocinha favela of Rio de Janeiro.

And just a few weeks before, between 24 and 25 June, at least nine people, including a police officer, were killed in a police operation in Maré, one of the biggest favelas in the city.

It is not just civilians that are targeted. A recent incident also exposed the use of torture inside the military police. On 12 November 2013, Paulo Aparecido Santos de Lima, a recruit at the Rio de Janeiro police training centre, began feeling unwell during physical training. The training officers had forbidden recruits from drinking water and forced them to sit and crawl on hot tarmac. The ’feels like’ temperature at the time was about 50°C.

When Santos de Lima, who had burns on his hands and buttocks, finally passed out, an eyewitness reports that his superior shouted, “Get up and stop being a sissy!” One week later, the recruit was declared brain dead.

According to Ribeiro, this brutal treatment prepares the police for violent and illegal action. “The police force trains them to kill.”

Calls to demilitarise the police were stepped up in June 2013, when mass protests stretched across the country.

“Police violence didn’t bother too many people when it was confined to the outskirts, the ghettos and the favelas. But when it reached the demonstrations, it captured the public’s attention,” remarks Marcelo Freixo.

This state deputy of the left-wing Partido Socialismo e Liberdade (Socialism and Freedom Party) is known for his work in parliament against police militias which control neighbourhoods and extort money from residents.

Police repression of the protests led to a number of fatalities, such as the death of the street cleaner Cleonice Vieira de Moraes, who died in the northern city of Belém on 21 June 2013 following a tear gas attack.

Striking education workers in Rio de Janeiro were also met with brutal repression. “Police officers threw a teacher, Ercio Novaes, to the ground, kicking him and giving him electric shocks. They kept on hitting him even when he was unconscious, and later arrested him,” recounts Marta Moraes, the coordinator of the education workers’ union SEPE (Estadual dos Profissionais de Educação do Río de Janeiro).

Press freedom and police violence

According to a report presented by the Rio de Janeiro municipal journalists’ union (Sindicato dos Jornalistas Profissionais do Município do Río de Janeiro), at least 49 journalists were injured while covering public protests in the city between May and October 2013.

“Press freedom is limited at the moment,” said Paula Máiran, president of the union, emphasising that the role of journalists as witnesses of human rights violations is being compromised.

An inquiry by the Brazilian Association of Investigative Journalism (ABRAJI), covering 102 attacks on reporters during the protests, indicates that more than 75 per cent of these attacks were perpetrated by police officers. In the most serious incident, photojournalist Sérgio Silva was shot in the eye with a rubber bullet at a demonstration in São Paulo. He was left permanently blind in his left eye.

At the end of 2012, reporter André Caramante received threats from Paulo Telhada, a retired commander of the military police in São Paulo, who was standing for election as a city councillor for the Partido da Social Democracia Brasileira (the Brazilian Social Democratic Party). Caramante was forced to leave Brazil for three months, meanwhile Telhada was elected to office.

In another incident, Bira Figueiredo, a photojournalist living in Maré, was attacked in his home by the military police. His photographic equipment was tossed in a toilet.

“Covering public security is extremely difficult these days,” Máiran told Equal Times. “Not only because of the threats and the standard refusal of official sources to provide transparent information, but also because mass media outlets are notoriously loyal to the repressive model in place, which is clear from their editorial lines, and fail to question the model of armed confrontation and the death of civilians on a massive scale.”

Social movements, trade unions and other organisations warn that a democratic country, under the rule of law, is nevertheless implementing measures consistent with a state of emergency and that, more than just the police, it is the state that needs to be demilitarised.

“Our republic’s history is very much dominated by militarism,” said Freixo, “and the Brazilian state is completely militarised.” Besides its important symbolic effect, proponents of demilitarisation argue that it will reduce police violence by breaking the military culture in which an order must be obeyed and never discussed.

It will also reinforce democratic control over the overall institution they argue, making it easier for police officers to face justice in civilian courts.

“I want a police force that is professionally trained to understand its social role and fulfil its mission to protect society,” insists Ribeiro. “Public security must be transformed and we cannot throw away this great moment of public euphoria.”