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Brazilians Are Unmasking Police Killings in Favelas With Videos and WhatsApp

A video of police officers dragging a teenager's lifeless body into a pickup, which was sent anonymously to a specially-designed website, highlights a new drive to expose abuse, seek justice in individual cases, and push for wider police reform.

by Anna Sophie Gross
Jun 10 2016, 5:25pm

Photo by Antonio Lacerda/EPA

Earlier this year, police in Rio de Janeiro's Maré favela shot dead a 19-year-old called Igor Silva. Then they dragged his lifeless body into a police van and drove away.

And that, activists say, would probably have been that, had an anonymous source not sent a video of what happened to a new website and dedicated WhatsApp number called DefeZap.

Designed to uncover abuses of power, as well as drive reform of security policy, DefeZap builds on the frustration that often follows the posting of photographs and videos of police aggression on social media. These shocking images tend to cause sharp but short bursts of public outrage that quickly dissipate as the incidents disappear from people's personal newsfeeds.

The NGO Meu Rio created DefeZap in an effort to harness the power of these images more effectively. The name is a blend of the term Zap, which is used by young Brazilians to refer to WhatsApp, and defesa that means defense in Portuguese.

"We want to move reactions to incidents of police brutality away from sensationalized viral footage which has a transitory impact and desensitizes people to the problem," said Guilherme Pimentel, the project's coordinator.

Once it has collected the videos, Meu Rio disseminates them to the relevant bodies responsible for investigating, and responding to, violations of power by public agents. This is what the group did with the video of Silva, and the case is now the subject of a special inquiry by the city's Criminal Justice Prosecutor.

Related: 'Pacified' Favelas Rise Up in Fatal Protests Over Alleged Police Killings

Members of Meu Rio say the strategy is designed to both help them get beyond the administrative brick wall in specific cases and combat the tendency of the authorities to treat police misconduct as a matter of individual transgressions. They plan to use the footage they collect as evidence of underlying institutional problems in an effort to force broader reform.

A wide range of activists and experts in Brazil currently advocate for demilitarizing the police force. A survey of police opinion carried out by an NGO dedicated to evaluating security policies called the Brazilian Security Policy Forum, found this is also supported by 74 percent of police officers. Other popular recommendations include increasing police salaries, strengthening oversight, a more rigorous control of police weapons, and the use of cameras in police vehicles.

Meu Rio officially launched the DefeZap site and WhatsApp number earlier last month across the Rio de Janeiro metropolitan area, but activists claim it already proved its use during a pilot period that began in February.

According to Brazilian law, whenever a death takes place in front of a policeman, the corpse and all evidence from the crime scene must remain untouched so that it can be examined by specialists from a unit known as CORE.

The footage of Silva provided an apparently perfect example of the need for oversight as it not only showed a flagrant violation — officials from CORE dragging the young man's body from the crime scene — it also directly contradicted the police version of events that the young man died while being transported to hospital. Officials said he was wounded during a "conflict" with the police.

Related: Meet the Elite Cops Cleaning Up Rio's Favelas

Press reports from the day of Silva's death stressed the official version that the victim was found in possession of a 40 calibre pistol, a radio, and a bulletproof vest. Locals and relatives denied these claims, which were also deeply at odds with Silva's Facebook page that depicts a young pharmacy employee with a wide smile and a penchant for mirror selfies. But it was the video that brought them crashing down.

Armed conflicts are a near daily occurrence in some favelas in Brazilian cities, with a frightening number of the deaths attributed to the police. A report by the Brazilian Public Security Forum claimed police killed 3,009 people in 2014 — a staggering 8 killings a day.

Activists blame much of the brutality on the so-called "pacification" security strategy of recent years, focused on heavily armed police units setting up in big city favelas and setting out to reclaim territory from drug gangs by force. These operations have reportedly intensified in the run-up to the Rio Olympic and Paralympic Games due to start in early August.

According to Amnesty International police killed 580 people in the city during 2014, when Brazil hosted the World Cup. This was 40 percent more than during the previous year. Police killings in Rio then went up to 645 in 2015 and, some fear, appear set to rise again with many of the victims falling simply because they were in the wrong place at the wrong time. Incidents reported in April alone include the death of a five-year-old boy, and five men killed during a police operation to locate a drug trafficker who got away.

Related: The Olympics Are Screwing Rio de Janeiro's Poorest Citizens Out of Housing

Activists also highlight that killing criminal targets is a flagrant violation of the right to the presumption of innocence.

"Accepting in advance that someone who has committed, or is suspected of committing, a crime can be executed at close range is to embrace barbarism and abandon the rule of law", commented Renata Neder, Human Rights advisor for Amnesty.

The London-based group also highlights the way the violence disproportionately affects young black men. A study focused predominantly in northern Rio found that 99.5 percent of the victims of police violence between 2010 and 2013 were male. The same study found that 80 percent were black, and 75 percent were aged between 15 and 29.

"State violence is justified by Brazilians when it's practiced against specific social groups, seen as disturbers of an abstract 'order' into which society should be organized by the state," said Pedro Geraldo, a professor of public security at the Fluminense Federal University. The Brazilian Public Security Forum found that 50 percent of the residents of Brazil's big cities agree with the commonplace Brazilian expression, "a good criminal is a dead criminal."

Activists say that the mainstream media fuels the situation by uncritically reporting police accounts of civilian deaths in which victims are invariably said to be armed traffickers, as in Silva's case.

Warning: Graphic content bellow.

Video via Contato DefeZap on Youtube

Most victims don't even consider reporting police abuse, and those who do often encounter deep-rooted institutional prejudice that can make things worse.

Most reports made by victims or witnesses go to an administrative branch of the police force, known as the "corrective" unit, which is staffed by officers on rotation who have little incentive to investigate colleagues they will soon be working with again.

Bira Carvalho, a 45 year-old photographer from the Maré favela, recently reported a burglary at his home which he claims was conducted by the infamous BOPE, a special unit of the military police trained to perform high-risk operations. He was told that his was the first investigation into police activity that had taken place in his community.

"People don't report incidents because they don't think it's going to lead anywhere. There's so much bureaucracy and in the end it's the police investigating themselves," Carvalho said. "People are afraid of what the police might do to them in response, and of what the drug traffickers might do if the police start getting involved in the neighborhood."

The story is the same when it comes to police murders. Amnesty International analyzed 220 investigation into deaths attributed to police officers in 2011. It found only one formal complaint made in the following four years. Only 16 percent of all the cases had been "resolved" in 2015.

Even so, many activists insist on the need to avoid putting too much emphasis on the brutality of individual officers who also suffer from the violence themselves. According to the Brazilian Public Security Forum, 398 police officers were killed on and off duty in 2014.

"The police are victims too, their lives are just as dispensable as those of victims," said Pimentel, the coordinator of the new drive to get videos of abuses via DefeZap, who pointed out that the police also tend to be young, black, and poor. "Stress amongst police is enormous and many experience intense psychological suffering. It's always good to remember that the Brazilian police kill the most in the world, but they also die the most."

Related: The Cops Trying to 'Pacify' Rio's Favelas Are Psychologically Scarred

Follow Anna Sophie Gross on Twitter: @AnnaSophieGross

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