Wednesday, June 04, 2008

In Brazil, Torture Didn't Go Away with the Dictatorship

Several scholars (most notably, Thomas Skidmore) have pointed out that the Brazilian military dictatorship's use of torture was far from being a sudden shift in the politico-criminal landscape, pointing out that torture had been used against criminal suspects and the (Afro-descendant) poor since at least the late-19th century. (Skidmore suggests that the use of torture against darker-skinned "criminals" is a direct legacy of slavery, abolished in Brazil only in 1888; while it's difficult to quantitatively prove this, it makes a lot of sense).

And just as the dictatorship didn't initiate torture in Brazil (though it certainly did escalate it), torture didn't end with the military governments in 1985, either, and continues to be a problem today, as evidenced by this story:

The O Dia newspaper said a reporter and photographer for the paper were abducted with their driver May 14 and held for nearly eight hours in a western Rio de Janeiro shantytown where they had been working undercover.

They said they were taken to a "private prison" and beaten, given electric shocks and had plastic bags placed over their heads. The journalists suffered no lasting injuries and were released with orders not to identify their captors, O Dia reported.

Rio state security chief Jose Mariano Beltrame said active-duty police had been linked to paramilitaries who control the Batan slum where the journalists said they were tortured.

On Monday he said it was possible police were part of the group that tortured the journalists.

Sadly, the only thing that makes this news is the fact that the tortured were journalists operating undercover in a favela, rather than favelados themselves. The continued torture of favelados is common enough that children in the favelas who play "cops and robbers" often put plastic bags over the heads of the "robbers," mimicking what they see regularly. Yet these cases of police torture rarely make news either in Brazil or in the international community. Human Rights Watch has monitored the situation, but little has been done in spite of over 1300 complaints between October 2001 and July 2003:
There have been credible reports of police and prison guards torturing people in their custody as a form of punishment, intimidation, and extortion. Police have also allegedly used torture as a means of obtaining information or coercing confessions from criminal suspects. Abusive police officers are rarely sanctioned, and abuses are sometimes justified by authorities as an inevitable by-product of efforts to combat Brazil’s very high crime rates.

I've said this before too many times to even cross-post, and I'll say it again. Until the Brazilian state does something to aid the poor, give them legal recourse, guarantee their basic human rights, and crack down on police who act like greater criminals than the "criminals" themselves; until society gets rid of the attitude that being poor is itself a criminal act, stripping you of any basic guarantees of human rights or the state's protection; and until the media stops treating all murders in the favelas as the deaths of "traficantes", Brazil has a long way to go. And such changes are so deep and counterintuitive to the way things work now, there really isn't much hope for change right now.