Meet the Elite Cops Charged with Cleaning Up Rio's Favelas

By Nicole Froio

A BOPE officer in Rio de Janeiro, standing next to the battalion's logo. All black-and- white photos courtesy of the BOPE press office

A group of men dressed head to toe in black scoff down their daily serving of rice and beans, talking over one another like they’re at a family gathering. Rio de Janeiro’s Special Operations Battalion (BOPE) spend every lunch like this, the hour or so providing a brief respite from the dangers of their job.

The Caveiras (or Skulls in Portuguese, a nickname based on the battalion’s sinister logo) are the elite police force called into Rio’s favelas when conflicts become too heavy for the regular cops to handle. “We’re the last resort,” one of the commanders says.

Last month, state security officials proved him right, announcing that they were deploying BOPE to "pacify" the Alemão and Vila Cruzeiro favelas ahead of this summer’s World Cup—a result of four on-duty community police being killed since February alone. The campaign to clamp down on slum crime started in 2008 and had only witnessed eight police homicides in the five years before this recent spate of murders, so it’s clear that tensions are rising as police step up efforts before the first kick-off whistle is blown.

The problem, however, is that BOPE—trained to deal with the extremes of Brazil’s drug gangs—have been accused of extrajudicial killings, kidnappings, and torture by human rights groups. Obviously, this reputation isn’t going to go down well in the favelas they’ve been ordered to patrol; it’s unlikely you’d put a lot of trust in a group of men accused of shooting first and asking questions later. In fact, some worry that the elite police’s deployment is only going to cause more tension and, subsequently, more violence.

Lieutenant Colonel João Jacques Busnello

Of course, there are those who champion the caveiras; after all, they are ostensibly there to make the city a better place. This is what Lieutenant Colonel João Jacques Busnello is keen to impress as we talk over lunch, a sign hanging over his head that reads: “Proud to be Brazilian."

Busnello served on the ground with BOPE for 11 years, participating in hundreds of operations and taking three bullets in the process. He’s taken out kidnappers to save hostages and helped a woman in labor reach the hospital in time, but is now retired from street service and coordinates operations from the elite police force’s HQ.

Growing up the son of a doorman and a lunch lady, he says he always wanted to become a BOPE soldier. “I like serving—I always liked serving,” he tells me. “I helped old ladies, children. I always enjoyed volunteering [before joining BOPE], so that helped me a lot with this work, because being a policeman is rewarding. Today, I am very happy. I’m a happy man because I’m a policeman.”

When I ask him to recount some of his experiences in detail, he tells me that, while they’re unforgettable, they’re “kind of heavy," before switching to a story about a BOPE officer who became the unofficial HQ chef. “Our team would go everywhere and come back wanting to eat, but the food was horrible,” he begins. “The BOPE HQ has no restaurants around—it’s like a desert here. So we all took a Navy cooking class, but the food the guy cooked was still awful.”

One day, the rest of the battalion made the guy try his own food. He didn’t stick around much longer after that. “The guy ended up running away from the police,” says the Lieutenant. “He became a deserter because he was scared.”

Captain André Penha Brasil

When I ask about his time in BOPE, Captain André Penha Brasil is just as cagey as Busnello. “It’s too intimate,” he explains.

Instead, I press him on the accusations leveled at BOPE concerning all the human rights violations allegedly committed in the field. He says that Brazilians—and especially cariocas, people born in Rio—have no respect for authority, and that the heavy assault weapons he and his colleagues use are an “equalizer” to the guns in the favelas.

I tell him that doesn’t justify officers allegedly using their weapons against people instead of following a legitimate legal route and bringing them in for questioning. “If the opponent is willing to violate rights and is using [guns], you must have a a way of stopping that,” he says. “If I had an efficient way to stop someone without killing them, I would obviously use that instead. Unfortunately, lethal arms continue to be more efficient that non-lethal arms.”

He then ponders whether the news of a cop’s death in the favelas would receive as much coverage as the death of a civilian, before concluding that it would not. And he has a point; at the end of February, two policemen were ambushed and killed by two armed men, both suspected to belong to a local drug gang. One of the officers, 33-year-old Wagner Vieira da Cruz, had just graduated from the academy and hadn’t even received his first salary. Admittedly, the coverage of the murders was scarce, but I can't help wondering whether news coverage of these deaths is something he should be concerning himself with—whether, instead, he should focus more on keeping the peace than keeping murder tallies.

The BOPE headquarters in Rio de Janeiro

Captain Brasil tells me that he wasn’t made for a nine-to-five desk job; he wanted something different. Compared with Busnello, the captain comes from a pretty well-to-do background, spending his childhood in Spain, Malaysia, the Netherlands, and India thanks to his father’s job as a diplomat. His family has a long history of military service, but he decided to join the police instead because you see “more action” in Rio than you would in the Brazilian army.

“Everyone is afraid of dying,” Brasil says. “In my position of risk, I find ways to deal with that—you develop coping mechanisms. Plus, fear is important—and necessary; I don’t want to be on the street with anyone who’s fearless.”

The last last officer I speak to, Major Sandro Aguiar, has served for 15 years and joined the force for his love of dogs. He’s worked as a police dog trainer and a field officer with dogs for ten years, and says the battalion extends as much loyalty to the canine unit as it does to those holding the guns.

Boss the Labrador (on the right) after a drugs haul

“Before the pacification of [the favela] Jacarézinho, we’d done a series of operations in that community, and we always had a satellite radio,” he says. “We were monitoring the criminals’ activities, and we heard them threaten this dog, Boss, a Labrador. From that moment on, we had to change the formation to protect him.”

Many officers take old dogs home when they retire. Aguiar hasn’t done this yet for lack of space, but he brings his son to visit the dogs in the canine HQ—a different location from the BOPE HQ—whenever he can.

The impression I get during my day with these officers is that the most important characteristic to possess as a Brazilian policeman is a desire to serve the nation—the word “service” is repeated constantly by everyone I speak to. Some might argue that the accusations levelled at BOPE don’t exactly count as serving the community, but it’s important to remember—when getting uppity about the police using weapons—that they’re constantly coming up against deadly force in the situations they're assigned to.

BOPE officers during training

According to a blog focusing on Rio’s police force, 136 of the city’s cops were shot in 2012, 71 of them fatally. A report published by Folha, a newspaper based in São Paulo, states that at least 229 police officers were killed throughout the whole country in 2012—meaning one officer was killed every 32 hours—and says that the number may well be higher.

Of course, the general population has had it a lot harder than police; throughout the country, there were, on average, 128 reported homicides every day in 2012. There are no definitive statistics concerning how many of those deaths were at the hands of police, but Amnesty International claims that cops are responsible for around 2,000 deaths every year. It’s impossible to say conclusively whether all of these deaths are justified, but if I’m going to speculate, the overwhelming likelihood is that they’re not.

Rio is in a difficult place at the moment, having been thrown into chaos by the upcoming World Cup. Authorities have been evicting people from their homes in an effort to present Rio in a better light, and hundreds of thousands have taken to the streets to protest against spiralling construction costs—which they argue could have been spent on much worthier stuff than a few soccer stadiums—and government corruption. So the elite police moving in to occupy your neighbourhood at the tail end of all that is clearly going to cause some trouble.

When I ask Busnello why life in Rio has come to this, he gives me an answer that surprises me at first—one that sympathizes with the people he’s been charged with policing. “The problem with our society is that it presents social virtues with very large discrepancies—it’s unbalanced,” he says. “The police, as society’s crisis manager, are in the middle of this. And when you put an unknown agent in the middle, it’s going to be problematic.”

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