What Does the Police Killing of a Local Drug Lord Mean for Rio de Janeiro?

Taking 'Playboy' out was a significant coup for cops here, but gang culture in Rio's favelas is so deeply rooted that bringing down its most charismatic leaders isn't enough to undermine the grip of violence.

by Donna Bowater and Priscilla Moraes
Aug 18 2015, 3:00pm

The cemetery that includes Playboy's grave in Rio. Photos by Priscilla Moraes

Until two weeks ago, a man called Playboy was among Rio de Janeiro's most wanted drug lords.

Not only had he dodged a 15-year prison sentence for robbery, drug trafficking, and homicide since 2009 by taking off while on family leave from a "semi-open" prison, but the 33-year-old fugitive flaunted his escape in the face of Brazil's troubled police force. Still on the run with a roughly $15,000 bounty on his head, according to his Most Wanted police profile, Playboy masterminded narcotics sales in a favela for one of three rival factions that control Rio's notorious drug trade.

But on Saturday, August 8, Playboy was cornered at his girlfriend's home by a massive police operation that included 80 officers, armored cars, and a helicopter. Real name Celso Pinheiro Pimenta, Playboy was shot in the chest and leg, and died in the hospital. Images of his shirtless, blood-smeared body quickly emerged online.

It was a big trophy for Rio police, who claimed Playboy was shot because he resisted arrest, and said a Glock pistol and a .762 semi-automatic rifle were found nearby. The drug trafficker had taunted police for years, making cameos on stage at funk parties and posting videos online. In one stunt, he reportedly ordered his henchmen to break into a public pool where they performed a synchronized swim with their rifles.

"Hey, look, it's Playboy speaking," the voiceover says on a clip showing the prank. "I loved the pool, I loved the pool. Owned, you know? The whole complex, it's all dominated." (Playboy was also said to have ordered gang members to steal 200 motorbikes from a state facility before demanding they be returned, apparently just to flex his muscle on the street.)

Within days of his death, the often-brutal cat and mouse game between the police and drug gangs resumed. Taking Playboy out was a significant coup for cops, but gang culture in Rio's favelas is so deeply rooted that bringing down its most charismatic leaders isn't enough to undermine the grip of violence. Even as Pimenta's family was burying his body in a cemetery in downtown Rio, police were setting their sights on potential successors. Within a week, Playboy's right-hand man, Jean Piloto, was also killed in a police operation and several other gang bosses arrested.

So while Playboy may have been the most high-profile police target, he was arguably little more than a prominent pawn in the violent drug wars that have blighted Rio over the last three decades. His reign speaks to the enduring power of Rio's criminal underworld, where a never-ending army of recruits pose a constant challenge for security forces, which have struggled to contain gang violence and taken heat of their own for what critics say is a pattern of excessive force.

Pimenta's family claimed he was unarmed at the showdown two weeks ago, and said his death was essentially a police execution. A lawyer for the family indicated photographs from the scene did not show a gun near Playboy's body, while a police official told local press, "He was with four guards and tried to shoot."

"He surrendered," his uncle, 62-year-old Cosme Pinheiro, told the local press. "He chose to be arrested but he was assassinated.

"Was he a criminal? He was. But he had the right to stay alive and pay for his crime. The police went there to kill him."

According to Amnesty International, police in the state of Rio killed almost 8,500 people between 2005 and 2014. In the past five years, nearly one in six killings in the city were "homicides as a result of police intervention," the official term used by local law enforcement.

The Civil Police have indicated that Playboy's death is being investigated. "The police went out to arrest him, they don't go out to kill," a spokeswoman told VICE. "He resisted and so he was killed. The officers involved are still working, they are not being accused of anything."

Meanwhile, Amnesty has questioned the police's record of investigating these kinds of killings. According to the human rights group's report, of the 220 killings at the hands of cops in 2011, about 80 percent are still under open investigation, with only one of them resulting in charges against an officer.

"The belief that we are living a war on drugs and that killing 'traffickers' plays a part in this fight has been used as justification for police that use excessive, unnecessary and arbitrary force, acting outside of the law," Atila Roque, executive director at Amnesty in Brazil, told reporters five days before Playboy's death. "The lack of investigation in homicide cases involving police contributes to the impunity and cycle of violence." Roque was speaking earlier this month as Amnesty released its report on killings by police, focusing on the high number that came in the same neighborhood where Playboy was killed.

"A police force that kills is incompatible with the fundamental principles of human rights and the rule of law," he added.

While Rio's state secretary for security dismissed Amnesty's report as "reckless and unfair," he admitted in a recent interview that the government's war against drug trafficking was not working. "Today, police don't have the structure to fight the suppliers, whether they're on the border of their own states or at the border with neighboring countries," José Mariano Beltrame told Trip magazine in an interview published on August 10.

Playboy's gravesite in Rio. Photos by Priscilla Moraes

He added there was no doubt that some officers engaged in excessive violence, but said Rio's security forces were lucky not to be up against a single dominant criminal organization like the First Command of the Capital in São Paulo.

"We have to criticize the police, speak of their shortcomings," Beltrame said. "But we have to ask: what does the state offer a young, vulnerable person? A country where 52,000 people die in violent crimes is, forgive me, a barbaric state. But is it only through lack of policing? No." He said there were also social and judicial failings that contributed to high crime rates.

Born into a middle class family in the affluent neighborhood of Laranjeiras in south Rio, Playboy fell into crime as a teenager. With low grades in everything except sports, he began by stealing cars before joining a criminal gang led by another middle-class kid, Pedro Machado Lomba Neto, a.k.a. Pedro Dom.

His gang broke into apartments in Rio's upper class neighborhoods and robbed them for years before Pedro Dom was killed in 2005. Having been in and out of prison since 2002, Playboy said in an interview last year that he had tried to begin to earn an honest living, but faced discrimination. In a clip from a conversation with José Junior, who founded cultural group AfroReggae, Playboy said he was a "human being who tried to be a working man but life's circumstances didn't allow him." He claimed his dream was to go back to having a "normal life."

"I tried," he said. "I was arrested the first time, paid what I owed and after that I tried to work, but I was discriminated against."

His family has indicated they plan to sue the state over his killing.

In an emotional Facebook post last week, Playboy's mother, Rosa Maria Pinheiro de Araújo, wrote: "I was not part of and did not approve of his choice but I realized how much he was loved. May God calm my heart and give wisdom to move on with life and health to help in raising my grandchildren following the last wishes of their father."

In the aftermath of the killing, 400 officers flooded the Morro da Pedreira favela where school lessons for almost 6,000 children were cancelled as a security precaution. Businesses in the community reportedly remained closed as a mark of respect to Playboy.

A week after his burial, there were still streams of yellowing flowers on the unmarked tombstone in Catumbi cemetery, the most ostentatious of which came from the "Friends of Pedreira," the favela where Playboy ruled.

"Many are posting photos of him, cursing him, without even knowing him," Sarah Araújo, Playboy's cousin, wrote on Facebook in a post that has apparently since been deleted. "If you'd known him, you wouldn't think this of him. Even though he was a criminal, he didn't wrong anyone who was innocent and to the contrary, he helped them.

"Even though he didn't belong to the church, he was always faithful to God, God-fearing. Let him rest in peace...after all, he was a human being."

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