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Crossing Continents Friday, 31 March, 2000, 16:45 GMT 17:45 UK
A short ceasefire for Rio's police
The favela (shanty town) of Jacarezinho, Rio, has seen a spate of police killings
By Louise Byrne

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Vava's wife was killed by the police in Rio over two years ago, and he still can't help crying when he talks about how it happened. Vava and his wife, Maria, were standing outside their house with friends discussing the evening soap opera.

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Suddenly a group of police came running up the lane in the shantytown of Jacarezinho where they live. The police came in shooting, apparently to defend themselves against drug traffickers active in the community. But instead they hit Vava's wife. Maria staggered to the front door of their house.

Vava ran after her thinking he could take her to hospital. But it was too late: she was already dead. Maria, who leaves two children, is just one of the many innocent victims of police violence in Rio de Janeiro.

Police shootings happen most often in favelas
Over 1000 people have been killed in violent confrontation with the police in the last two years, making the state's two forces, and particular its street patrolling military police, some of the most violent in the world. Most of the victims are poor and black and live in some of the city's many shantytowns or favelas, the front line in the war against drug trafficking.

Last year, in an attempt to curb police violence, Rio's state government appointed an anthropologist to tackle the endemic problem. Luiz Eduardo Soares, an amiable bearded academic who has spent many years studying the root causes of violence in Rio, immediately went into action.

Three of his new-style police stations are already open and there are plans for more. The stations, says the anthropologist, are completely open-plan with no place for torture, extortion or corruption. University students training in the social sciences help receive members of the public before they are referred to a police officer.

Presenter Linda Pressly (left) talks to Luiz Eduardo Soares
These are important changes. For the citizens of Rio, and particularly the poor, police stations are not safe havens, but places where police can abuse their power. 'People should be welcomed. They are in trouble, they deserve our help', says Soares.

Attendance at human rights courses is also now obligatory for all police officers seeking promotion, whilst an ombudswoman has been appointed especially to hear complaints against the police. In the last year, the office of ombudswoman Julita Lemgruber's office has received 93 complaints related to homicide against police officers.

These cases are investigated, but will rarely reach court. A law of silence exists in many of Rio's favelas.

Most of the accused come from Rio's military police force. Even if they are accused of a serious crime, most continue in their jobs until proven guilty in court. This means they can exert pressure on anyone considering giving evidence against them.

'We've had a few cases of people who came here and when we tell them that they will have to go to a special place to recognise the policeman through a two-way mirror, some of them tell me they would just rather not go, they're too afraid," says Lemgruber.

Soares and his team have had some success. According to his department, they've already made an impact: in 1999 the number of people killed in violent confrontation with the police was 454 - 250 less that the year before.

The favelas' narrow, twisting streets mean innocent victims can get caught in crossfire
But Soares' initiatives have not made him a popular man amongst many of Rio's police. What he calls respect for human rights, they call treating criminals (particular drug traffickers) with kid gloves. The police see themselves as fighting a war as well as fighting crime, and for their own safety they shoot first and ask questions later.

The day we left Rio, Soares once again spoke out, as he has done many times before, against police corruption in Rio. This time he pointed the finger at high-level civil police. Within hours he was sacked by the state governor and within days his and his family fled to the United States, fearing for their safety. The ombudswoman, Julita Lemgruber, and other members of Soares' team also resigned in protest.

As a result, reform of Rio's police now hangs in the balance. There are many who fear a full-blown return to the kind of heavy-handed policing that has led to the loss of so many innocent lives.

Also in this edition of Crossing Continents: we talk to a couple of plastic surgeons about how politicians are resorting to the scalpel to impress their image-obsessed voters, and see how Brazil's fastest-growing evangelical church is scoring goals to save souls.

Universal Football Club are pioneers in the soccer field, as the first team in Brazil to be bought up by a church. The Universal Church of the Kingdom of God now hopes to power the Rio-based team out of the second division and into the premier league. The acquisition of the club adds to the controversial church's already wide portfolio of holdings, which among many other interests includes a television channel, radio stations, and a travel agency.

Linda Pressly meets Bishop Santos on the club's pitch
According to UCKG's Bishop Marcio Santos, the football team has already attracted over 60,000 supporters to friendly matches with other teams. 50,000 of those have been supporters of Universal. "We want to use the team to attract people through the sport to know that God is everywhere."

Jorge X, Jaracazinho favela, Rio, March 2000
of how he was shot and crippled by police...
Capoeira music from Brazil, live, March 2000
(Brazilian martial art) from a street children's centre in Rio
See also:

22 Mar 00 | Americas
17 Mar 00 | Americas
06 Dec 99 | Americas
22 Sep 99 | Americas
23 Jun 99 | Americas
18 Mar 00 | Americas
03 Feb 00 | Americas
18 Nov 99 | Americas
21 Aug 99 | Americas
19 Jun 99 | Americas
17 May 99 | Americas
Links to more Crossing Continents stories are at the foot of the page.

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