Wednesday, September 12, 2007

Police Violence against the Poor Hits a New Low

I've written repeatedly before about the out-of-control police violence against the urban poor in Brazil, with the poor often deprived of their most basic rights in a "democratic" society and the police's ability to occupy favelas, attack, and kill innocents with virtually complete impunity (see here, here, and here, for just the recent examples). Yet events in the last two weeks have gotten extremely ugly.

José da Silva Siqueira Neto, president of the Kelson's Favela Residents' Association (Associação de Moradores da Favela Kelson's - Kelson's is the name of his particular favela, in the North Zone of Rio) had recently come out in the media against police violence and corruption. Neto refused to pay the police the "cover" to make sure "nothing would happen" to him (straight out of a mafia movie - "pay us the money, and we won't hurt you"), and so the police kicked him out of his home. Neto went to the media, proclaiming that not only do the police rely heavily on such tactics in the favelas. They also apparently will illegally provide the favelas with illegal cable connections, and then charge the favelados themselves for said connection, basically serving as the ad-hoc cable network (while basically stealing the cable directly from the network). As a result, four policemen were arrested two weeks ago.

However, as should come as little surprise, "justice" for police here is radically different than for the poor (a case proven in the last few months when it became public that two police officers had first punched in the face and then shot dead a motorcyclist who was unarmed and did nothing to provoke the police. The cops were arrested in February, but released soon thereafter. Charges still haven't made their way to the courts yet). Thus, last Monday, the four cops arrested after Neto's charges were released.

By Friday, Neto was missing.

On Monday, they found what officials believe to be Neto's remains. They believe it to be his remains because, after he was killed, he was cut up into so many pieces they are going to have to do DNA testing to make sure it was him.

It's not hard to figure out exactly what happened here - a civic leader from a favela makes a public denunciation of police, followed by their very brief arrest, followed by their release, followed by Neto's disappearance, murder, and extreme and gruesome dismemberment. Sergio Cabral, Rio's governor, has spoken out against this type of violence, saying it won't go unpunished (and two policeman do await charges), but again, I'll believe it when I see it (especially given the release of the other two murdering cops in February).

And of course, while this story was national news Monday morning, by Monday afternoon it disappeared when, in the North Zone, somebody opened fire on a passing train that was carrying several ministers going to inspect the favelas. The gunner did not know that the ministers were on the train, but that hasn't stopped the media from being all over the story. It should come as no surprise to anybody that a story of police violence against an innocent leader in a favela who is killed and dismembered is far less important than the story of somebody shooting at a train with ministers, where nobody was killed, or even hurt.

It may seem harsh, but given the widespread corruption (the case of the cable in Kelson's is not an isolated incident among a few "rogue elements"), the perverse violation of basic rights (randomly strip-searching favelados, including children and the elderly, when they leave the favelas) and the sheer system of violence wherein favelados are criminals yet police can kill "traficantes" without any questions, there really seems no solution forthcoming to this problem. Obviously, we could actually try things like oversight, but given Brazil's general antipathy towards the poverty question, that's not likely. Nor is the fact of anybody suddenly firing any and every police officer who may be involved in corruption, extortion, or murder in the favelas - the police force would doubtlessly be decimated in numbers. And a straight-up dismantling of the entire police system and starting over from scratch, while perhaps is the most effective solution, is also the most unrealistic. Thus, favelados and civic leaders of the favelas (not the traficantes - innocent civilians) remain at grave risk of daily extortion, murder, and even dismemberment, while the police will probably continue to be unpunished. Justice and democracy in Brazil, in many ways, are simply dead.