Tuesday, June 17, 2008

Brazil Beginning to Crack Down on Police Violence in the Favelas?

I recently wrote about the police in one of Rio's favelas torturing some undercover journalists, causing outrage throughout Brazil. As I mentioned, the fact that it happened against white-collar professionals, and not that it happened at all, was the real source of outrage; such atrocities are committed against the poor frequently. And I argued that, among other things, until the government ends the culture of police impunity and begins punishing those police who use torture in any capacity, things will not improve. Yesterday, the leader of the militia turned himself in after a two-day police hunt for him. Charges haven't been filed yet, and given how the trial system in Brazil works, he may not ever be punished, but the fact that the police and the state tracked him down to force him to face charges eventually is an important step, though very small.

However, this small step was tempered by more tragic news this weekend. In an even more brutal and unforgiveable act, this weekend the military police turned three favela residents over to a drug gang; the gang then executed these residents and dumped their bodies in the garbage dump. Rio has ignited with protests against the miliarty police (who are nothing like MPs in the U.S., but rather a part of the military in the same way the army or navy are), especially in the favelas (suffice to say, the streets of Ipanema and Copacabana are probably full of tacit and overt support for the police's actions). Fortunately, in perhaps another small-but-significant step, the government is not just sitting idly by this time, as the 11 soldiers involved have all been arrested. Sergio Cabral, Rio's governor, has come out against the men, categorizing their activities as "criminal," and Lula's defense Minister, Nelson Jobim, wants the 11 officers involved punished to the fullest in the courts in order to offer an example to other militia members. Even the Brazilian Lawyers' Association (OAB) has come out (though the OAB has been a vocal opponent of these tactics for a long time). Of course, the federal police themselves are (as usual) defending themselves. The headline at O Globo at this moment (10:41 Rio time) is "Military has no regrets on deaths of the youths in Providencia [the favela]", and the story there offers an uncritical (from both O Globo's and the military's perspective) defense of the actions of the soldiers involved. Still, the level of outrage, while superficially similar to the case of torture from a few weeks ago, is important, in that politicians are becoming genuinely outraged at the continued police brutality in the favelas. It's a long journey from discursive outrage to real changes in policy, but even the outrage wasn't always there, so simply having politicians speak out against these events is an important change.

Certainly, there is a long way to go still. It remains to be seen whether these police officers will be found guilty of their crimes (I'm still rather skeptical on this front, though I'm more than willing to be proven wrong), and as I alluded to in my earlier post, government responses to police impunity are only one small step in ending the violence against Brazil's poor. The government's response is unlikely to change the more deeply ingrained classist and racist attitudes of Brazil's media or the middle- and upper-classes, and no doubt, for the few politicians we hear speakign out about it, there are many more who probably agree with the police's actions. Still, it is really good to see the government taking any kind of action in cases like these, and it does mark an important step forward, even if it is a small step. I'm far from optimistic on this issue, but these two cases and the reactions of the government at the state and national level do offer a chance for what could (but also perhaps could not) become a major shift in policy towards police brutality and militia activity.