Being a Brazilian Policeman Sucks
Jan 15 2013
On May 12, 2006, a wave of violence was sparked in Sao Paulo. Over the span of four days the city saw 299 attacks against public establishments (police stations, justice forums, buses), over 20 uprisings in prisons, and just under 150 murders. It was a major buzzkill for anyone living in the city. The official reasoning behind the violence was that seven main leaders of the criminal organization PCC were being moved to maximum security prisons, where it would be harder for them to exercise their influence on the outside crime world. The PCC and the Sao Paulo police department have been at war ever since.
Six years in, and 2012 saw the death of at least a hundred police officers before November. The number of criminal and civilian deaths also rose, while a curfew was placed on certain favelas and particularly dangerous areas of the city, both by the state and the PCC. We tracked down a policeman—who wanted to remain anonymous, because he's not insane—who gave us a testimony that makes A Prophet sound like a lullaby.
I’m a military police soldier in Sao Paulo, Brazil, and if I disclose my identity, I'll lose my job. I work downtown, in the heart of the city. It’s one of the areas controlled by the criminal organization PCC. I've been in the force for eight years and previously worked in the southern part of the city in a favela called Heliópolis. I’ve been a part of the tactical force unit for most of that time.
The situation we're experiencing as police officers at the moment is worse than ever. In 2006, we knew who the enemy was. We had all sorts of communication media at our disposal, as well as the possibility for backup in the form of helicopters or the ROTA (Rondas Ostensivas Tobias de Aguiar, or Ostensive Rounds—the most violent of the Brazilian special forces). It's different these days. Keeping your family away from danger is a real and basic concern.
The largest violent outbreak yet happened in September. At first, we'd have one death every week, or one every two weeks, then it became a daily occurence. A police officer would die every night. We'd known something was going on since August, but the governor was quick to dismiss the deaths as unrelated events, as did the Department of Public Security, while officials completely denied the attacks.
After the second round of elections, we found out that the Civil Police and the Public Ministry had wiretapped phone calls in August. On August 5, Piauí—one of the heads of PCC—was arrested. The Civil Police knew there had been orders to kill police officers, but we did not. They reported it to the state administration and that information was passed to higher-ranking officers. The head of the police department was aware of it, as was the governor, but no one told us anything.
Many people died in 2006. Not just officers on the ground, but people who belonged to administrative and internal affairs offices too. That war wasn't specific to any battalion. The PCC figurehead's orders called for widespread attacks to hit all kinds of ranks and units. Sao Paulo governor Geraldo Alckmin is set to replace the head of the department, but he’s not going to solve the problem.
Police officers are afraid and we've had to change our way of thinking, as well as our routines. Before all that, we'd go to work wearing our uniform so we wouldn’t have to pay the bus fare. (We aren't paid any transportation benefits, so we can only commute free of charge in public transportation if we’re wearing a uniform.) Now we're too afraid to do that. We’ve had a 20 percent drop in our wages. So 70,000 officers—almost 100 percent of our active workforce—lost ten to 20 percent of their salaries.
Working hours increased. We don’t have enough cars and, when we finally have one at our disposal, we usually have to spend 12 hours a day inside it with no air-conditioning. The base I work at has one bathroom for the officials and the civilians, and a separate one for the policemen, situated in the basement of the station. Compared to others in my corps, I'm in a pretty good situation on that front—at least I don't have to go out in the streets.
We answer 15 to 20 calls every night. Most of them aren't situations that require any police action—they’re mostly cases of disturbance of public order, therefore the responsibility of the city government. Administration issues are not the responsibility of the police, so this situation is a massive overburden. There are no human rights for police officers. Because of our hectic schedule, we never find time to study, have trouble finding time to eat, and have completely forgotten about having any kind of opportunity for physical exercise. Meaning, if you look around Sao Paulo, you'll notice that most of the policemen are fat and getting fatter, which isn't particularly helpful when you're trying to chase someone down.
You're not allowed to let your uniform wrinkle. If a thief is arrested, they have the right to be freed on parole. If my boots are dirty, I can get up to two days in jail. We wear a belt that's bad for our backs. Our weapons are worse than the criminals' weapons.
Of course, there are also criminals operating within the police force. I don’t have any evidence of that, nor do I personally know of any cops who are taking part in any criminal operations. But these deaths can only be explained as also having something to do with the police. If the state turns its back on you, and your family is being threatened, the concept of betrayal loses some of its meaning.
My partner was killed in the recent conflicts. A group of people broke into his house, but he managed to run away and ask to be transferred to another battalion. He was shot on his way home from work soon after. He wasn't given a new name, ID, or lawyer, so finding his whereabouts would have been easy. Information is for sale and there are undoubtedly PCC involved in the police force. Anyone with a clean criminal record can apply and take a test, get the job and proceed to sell information. But no one seems particularly bothered about this or has made any effort to investigate it.
The “good cop”—the guy who doesn't comply with the way things are operating—gets bullied. If he steps up, he dies. If he doesn’t, he's immediately considered a criminal himself. It's a messy, highly frustrating state of affairs.
I recently read an interview with a prosecutor who claimed that the PCC are running Fundação Casa, the state juvenile hall. I guess it makes sense to start working with children when they’re young and raise them to become faithful criminals. I mean, everything in the drug cartel world is now controlled completely within the favelas—coordination, distribution... even justice. No one's going to call the police to settle disputes; the trial takes place on the gang's home soil.
Officers who take it upon themselves to make arrests are harassed by the rest of the corps. They'll mess with your schedule and your evidence, leave you with no car and play with your statistics. The captains are happy when nobody does any work. No reports, no problems.
Think about a zit: if you squeeze it from both sides, it will explode in a stream of pus and blood. That’s exactly what’s happening with corruption in Sao Paulo—the police are squeezing from one side, the PCC from the other, leaving a trail of dead cops as its bloody discharge. The PCC is threatening to kill whoever does their job properly, claiming that for every PCC life, two police officers have to go. You get promoted within their ranks if you kill a policeman, and apparently the state is fine with that.
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