New Internationalist

Armed police in Rio de Janeiro: protecting or provoking?

Armed police [Related Image]
Armed police presence at the trade union protest last month. © Laura Stacey

As I walked down my street in Rio de Janeiro last Friday morning, a van whizzed by with several heavily armed police officers hanging off the back. Although this has become somewhat of a normal sight in this city over the past couple of months, I did not expect to see it in my leafy, middle-class, middle-aged neighbourhood of Humaitá, and especially not at 9 o’clock in the morning.

Since the eruption of huge demonstrations in Rio in June, the behaviour of the military police has come under increasing scrutiny. However, the coverage in the mainstream media has fallen short of telling the full story. While the world knew about the widespread use of rubber bullets and tear gas, stories of police throwing bombs in a hospital and surrounding the public university largely failed to make the headlines. ‘It’s terrifying’ one local student explained. ‘People were trapped inside the university for hours with no electricity and were scared of being beaten if they tried to leave. What is worse, the media is controlled by the O Globo network, who are closely tied to the political sphere, so no-one really knows what’s happening.’

Thankfully, an impressive array of independent media outlets, such as Anonymous Rio and Mídia NINJA, who boast an remarkable 159,596 and 142,819 ‘likes’ respectively on Facebook, have sprung up to redress this imbalance in coverage.  Protests have continued on an almost daily basis here in Rio, and social media users such as these played an important role last week in uncovering what appears to have been police infiltration in a protest on the 22 July. As recounted in this blog from the NY Times, there is strong evidence to suggest that the two men who were filmed launching a Molotov cocktail at the police last week were in fact undercover officers.  Unfortunately for Bruno Ferreira Telles, the student accused of the act, he had already been arrested by the time the extensive video footage had been released which proved his innocence. The 25-year-old, who was tasered even after he had fallen to the ground, and was then held in prison for 22 hours, is now seeking compensation for moral and psychological damages.   

More worrying still is the apparent free rein that the Military Police’s Special Operations Battalion (BOPE) have in the poorest areas of the city. Several weeks ago, this cartoon went viral in Rio:

Cartoon Republished with author's permission

As the picture illustrates, the rubber bullets are replaced with real ones when the police work in the favelas. In the complex of Maré, 10 people were killed following a police operation in the area. Although this story was particularly shocking, residents of favelas will attest that violent clashes between police and residents are commonplace. Just two weeks ago, a resident of Rocinha, one of the city’s largest favela communities, went missing. Amarildo de Souza has not been seen since he was taken for questioning on 14 July, prompting demonstrations and campaigns across the country demanding ‘where is Amarildo?’

Given that this very same branch of the police are in charge of the ‘pacification’ project in the favelas, there are widespread concerns regarding their violent behaviour towards citizens, and, importantly, their lack of true accountability.

For now, we continue to rely on independent media outlets to monitor the actions of the city’s armed police. As one local academic pointed out, maybe it will take the police shooting a middle-class protester for things to truly change.     

Laura Stacey is studing for an MPhil in Development Studies at the University of Oxford. She is currently carrying out research for her thesis on the social impact of the Olympic Games in Rio de Janeiro.

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