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Someone Dies Violently Every 10 Minutes in Brazil — and Police Are Part of the Problem

Brazilian police officers have killed more civilians than their American counterparts in the last 30 years, despite the United States having roughly 115 million more people.
Photo via Flickr

In war-torn Afghanistan in 2013, 2,959 civilians lost their lives to conflict. A total of 8,868 people, including 7,818 civilians, died as a result of violent attacks that year in Iraq.

Within the same span in Brazil, no fewer than 50,806 people met their deaths in violent circumstances, outstripping the figures in Afghanistan and Iraq to an appalling degree.

The Brazilian Public Security Forum, a non-governmental organization, published the calculation this week in its Brazilian Yearbook of Public Safety, using statistics provided from Brazil's Institute for Applied Economic Research, its Public Security Secretariat, and various other sources. It is equivalent to one death every 10 minutes, reflecting an epidemic of violence the forum's executive director, Samira Bueno described as "perverse."


Perhaps most disturbing, police officers caused a large number of deaths: at least 2,212 people died at the hands of Brazilian police in 2013, among a total of 11,197 such deaths since 2009. That's more civilians than American police officers have killed in the last 30 years, despite the United States having roughly 115 million more people.

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"The empirical evidence is that the Brazilian police maintain an absolutely abusive pattern of lethal force as public responses to crime and violence," the report says.

The suspected underreporting and concealment of police killings in Brazil suggests that the figure could in fact be even higher, with rogue officers having allegedly become adept at "disappearing" people.

"Official logs relating to police activity — I'm referring to data on police officers killed, and to people killed by the actions of police officers — are still kept in an inadequate manner in Brazil," Bueno, one of the report's authors, told VICE News. "With the exception of a few states, we believe that much of the data demonstrates underreporting. For that reason, we point out that at least six people die as a result of police action each day. The number is certainly higher."

As the report's results show, the easiest way to be murdered in Brazil is to be young, black, and poor: a disproportionate 68 percent of last year's 50,806 recorded deaths were black. As Black Consciousness Day, a national public holiday, approaches on 20 November, Amnesty International has launched a campaign in Brazil called "Jovem Negro Vivo" ("Black Youth Alive"). A video released last week shows a black teenager encountering disembodied, invisible youngsters over the course of his day.


According to Amnesty International's Alexandre Ciconello, the campaign coordinator, many of those killed by the police each year are black, largely because police actions focus on poorer areas.

"The military police sees the favela both as the territory of criminals and as a territory of exception, where violence and abuses of power are tolerated," Ciconello told VICE News. "Whereas the role of the police should and could be to protect people — to strive to keep people alive — that's simply not the case. If you talk to young black people in the favelas, they see police officers far more as threats than as protective figures."

The report's findings on lethal actions by the authorities have received close attention in Brazil because police violence is a persistent issue. In À Queima Roupa (Point Blank), a documentary on police abuse released last month, a victim of indiscriminate police violence describes how her mother, father, five siblings, and a sister-in-law were shot dead in what became known as the Vigário Geral massacre of 1993, when 21 residents of the poor Rio de Janeiro neighborhood were executed by police in retaliation for the killing of four of their colleagues the previous night by drug traffickers.

Suspected vengeance killings that are often wholly unrelated to the incidents that set them off are believed to compound Brazil's epidemic of violence.

Meet the elite cops cleaning up Rio's favelas. Read more here.


A textbook example occurred last week in Belém, in the northern Brazilian state of Pará, when nine civilians were murdered on November 4 in apparent retaliation for the killing earlier that evening of a military policeman in the neighborhood of Guamá. Brazil's feared military police is responsible for public order and street policing, while the civil police force focuses on criminal investigations — a distinction in functions that the public has increasingly questioned.

As fireworks crackled in the sky over Belém in celebration of the death of Antônio Figueiredo — an officer known informally as 'Pet' who community members believed worked with a police death squad — one of his colleagues, Sgt. Rossicley Silva, posted a message on Facebook: "Friends our little brother Pet (Corporal Figueiredo) has just been murdered in Guamá I am going out I hope to count on the maximum number of friends let's give the response Sgt Rossicley."

Silva later denied that he was referring to anything other than legitimate police work, but the following morning found families mourning relatives who had been gunned down by unknown gunmen on motorbikes and in cars, seemingly at random. Messages had circulated on social media that night, warning residents to stay indoors.

Footage taken during the shootings in Belem.

As one might expect, Brazilians generally distrust the police. The Brazilian Yearbook of Public Safety put the country's overall rate of confidence in the police at just 33 per cent.


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Blogger and Belém resident Thiane Barros Neves told of being warned by family members to stay away from Guamá following the massacre because military police were operating in the area.

"And we've seen how the MPs help black women, haven't we? In the trunk," she wrote, referring to an incident in March in which Claudia Silva Ferreira, a resident of Rio's Morro da Congonha favela, was injured in an alleged crossfire between police and criminals. The mother of four was thrown by police into the trunk of their car, apparently to be taken to hospital, but fell from the vehicle and was dragged for roughly 1,000 feet — a horrific scene that was filmed on a cellphone by an incredulous witness. Ferreira died at the hospital.

Convictions of police officers involved in executions and massacres are staggeringly low, as they are for civilians as well — according to Alexandre Ciconello, very few murder cases are even prosecuted in court. The Brazilian public generally has little faith in the justice system: the forum's report shows that only 32 percent of respondents think the judiciary is trustworthy.

Just this week, a judge in Itu, a city about 63 miles from Sao Paulo, dismissed a case against 50 military police officers who were accused of improperly killing 12 alleged members of the PCC ("First Command of the Capital"), São Paulo's powerful criminal mafia, in 2002. The victims were killed in an apparent police ambush at a toll while they were on their way to a robbery planned by two undercover officers who had infiltrated the gang. Police claimed that gunfire had been exchanged, but no officers were wounded.


While public confidence in the police and in the judiciary's ability to punish wrongdoing is low, officers themselves have doubts about the situation. In a survey published by the Brazilian Public Security Forum in July, an overwhelming majority of the 21,101 officers polled expressed serious concerns over corruption, insufficient staffing, substandard training, and a lack of necessary equipment and arms.

They were also unnerved by the frighteningly high rate of deaths among police — 490 officers were killed in 2013, mostly while off-duty — and didn't appreciate what they regarded as public indifference in Brazilian society to their likelihood of dying on the job.

Surprisingly, 77 per cent of the police officers surveyed believed that the demilitarization of the military police, which was advocated by progressive candidates during the recent elections, is necessary.

'Pacified' favelas rise up in fatal protests over alleged police killings. Read more here.

Popular unrest responding to police violence erupted on several occasions over the past year, including during the run-up to this year's World Cup. In September, the police shooting of a street vendor point blank in the head in broad daylight in the São Paulo neighborhood of Lapa prompted street protests and rioting.

Though the state of affairs seems undeniably grave, Brazil has yet to reach a level of sustained outrage commensurate to the situation. But if the level of violence demonstrated by disquieting news reports on any given day persists, that could soon change.

Follow Claire Rigby on Twitter: @claire_rigby

Photo via Flickr