Rio’s Security Crisis

Mac Margolis on Rio’s security crisis.

Just a few weeks ago, the name Amarildo de Souza meant nothing to Brazilians. The 42-year-old bricklayer and father of six might have been any working man, trying to make a living, and to keep his footing, in times as tricky and steep as the sloped, crime-infested Rio de Janeiro slum he called home.

Perhaps this also was what the Rio cops thought when they picked up Souza in mid-June, apparently on the suspicion he was in league with local drug traffickers who once ruled the slum of Rocinha. But then Souza disappeared. Alarmed, his wife and children spoke up. Civic groups joined the fray. At the time, hundreds of thousands of protesters were pouring into city streets across Brazil to clamor against corruption, shabby public services, and a spike in violent crime, and they took up the call as well. Soon the missing construction laborer had become a national cause célèbre. From T-shirts to placards to hash tags, “Where is Amarildo?” became the question that wouldn’t go away.

Police claim they released Souza unharmed. But why weren’t the security cameras working the day that Souza was taken to the police station? Who switched off the GPS in the patrol car of the team that arrested him? Questions mounted and soon what began as accusations of a cover-up by police had become a full-blown political crisis.

Though Brazilian police have celebrated record gains in halting street crime and reclaiming dozens of neighborhoods from drug bandits, Rio’s finest have lately come under fire. Non-governmental organizations such as Human Rights Watch, academics, lawmakers, and much of the media have accused the 46,000 strong military police force of using excessive force during the wave of protests that shook the city last month.

While the majority of protests were non-violent, small bands of young men took cover among the marchers to vandalize shops, banks, and public buildings. In one incident, hooligans trashed Rio’s colonial-era assembly. The police answered with tear gas and stun grenades and rubber bullets, injuring several demonstrators and bystanders in the process. Then, police took their offensive to the Internet, using the official Twitter account to upbraid protesters and critics in the legislature.

And it got worse. The commander of military police, Col. Erir da Costa Filho, pardoned a number of officers for “minor offenses,” on the argument that the police force was badly overstretched. “My blanket was short,” Costa Filho told the Rio daily, O Globo. “This [pardon] was a way of putting more troops on the street.”

With the cops on the defensive and the cries of “Where’s Amarildo?” becoming shrill, the top security official stepped in. This week, with politicos fearing that the crisis was spinning out of control, and in danger of reaching the presidential palace, José Mariano Beltrame, Rio’s respected secretary of public safety, sacked Costa Filho and announced a shakeup in the police command structure.

For Brazil, just now rising to claim its place on the global stage, much is at stake. As the nation prepares to host global headline events, including the 2014 World Cup and the 2016 Olympics, all eyes are on this emerging market juggernaut. Shrugging decades of authoritarian rule and a dysfunctional economy, Brazil has become a stable, prosperous country.

Just as remarkable has been the resurgence of Rio de Janeiro. Once caught in a downward spiral of economic blight and crime, the city was in danger of being lost. Favelas grew, exposing the inequality of the rapidly growing city. Today, one in five Cariocas, as Rio residents are known, live in shantytowns, piled high with raw brick and cinder-block homes.

In 2008, state authorities, who also command the city’s police, struck back, sending in thousands of police, backed by soldiers, to pacify the slums. After some clashes, street violence plunged, and the homicide rate fell to a 20-year low. Between 2000 and 2010, Rio’s murder rate fell 53 percent. Though homicides have risen since, Rio is no longer the candidate for the failed city it seemed in danger of becoming 15 or 20 years ago. Police have reclaimed 33 slum communities once dominated by drug traffickers. But holding the line at these Units of Police Pacification (UPP) has been a challenge. Last month, after serial attacks by drug traffickers, a cultural and musical-education group, Afro Reggae, closed its doors in the Complexo do Alemão, a major favela complex in Rio’s west end that police “pacified” to fanfare just three years ago. What made the setback worse was that Afro Reggae is dedicated to reaching out to youngsters, many of whom might otherwise be lured away by the drug trade.

The police crisis has been a blow to the recovery of Brazil’s fairest city. And yet, no one in Rio is calling for the end of the campaign to reclaim the outlaw zones of the city. But as even the popular public-safety secretary Beltrame might be the first to admit, pacifying the police may take a lot longer.