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“Where is Amarildo?” Policing the police in Rio.

interior-amarildo1Published in The Age on October 22, 2013.

Amarildo de Souza liked to spend his Sundays fishing. At his favourite spot on the coastal road between Leblon and Sao Conrado, regulars knew him as Bull, for his bricklayer’s shoulders. The view from Niemeyer Avenue is nothing special by the standards of Rio de Janeiro, just a cluster of islands and the Atlantic Ocean, but he enjoyed the company and rarely went home without dinner for his wife and six children.

On July 14, he packed up before sunset and crossed the highway into the alleys of Rocinha. The largest favela in Latin America is a city in itself, and the climb to his three-room brick house was long and sweaty. He dropped off the fish for his wife to prepare, watched a few minutes of a televised football match at a nearby bar and was on his way home when he was picked up by a police patrol. At 19:25 a closed circuit camera recorded him being led into Rocinha’s Pacifying Police Unit. He was never seen again.

One of the arresting officers, Douglas Roberto Vital Machado, also had a nickname, Monkey Face, and a local reputation for roughness. Amarildo’s niece, Michelle Lacerda, claimed Machado once planted drugs on her cousins, held a gun to their heads and suffocated them with plastic bags before letting them go. “My uncle never beat his kids,” she told me, “so when police came for them, he said ‘if you’re going to jail them, that’s one thing, but if you’re just going to beat them, then you’re going over my head.’ They didn’t like that.”

According to Rocinha’s military police commander, Major Edson Santos, Amarildo was questioned for a few minutes and released, but the two cameras that would have shown him leaving weren’t working. After a witness reported seeing a man being tortured by officers that evening, with a bag over his face, police released a taped phone call in which a known gang member boasted that “the Bull fell” – the implication being that Amarildo was killed for being a suspected informer. On social media and at street protests, he soon became the most famous missing person in Brazil.

This was partly a matter of timing. A wave of demonstrations was sweeping across the country. Hundreds of thousands of people, of all classes, had marched together for the first time in June. The protesters had a long list of grievances – the high cost of living, inadequate public services, corruption, political impunity and the huge sums being spent on hosting the World Cup and Olympic Games – but they were galvanised by the aggressive police response they encountered.

On countless mobile phone videos, a public safety system that protects property and treats ordinary citizens like criminals was stripped bare. Images of people being beaten with truncheons for protesting peacefully, elderly women choking on teargas and teenagers being handcuffed and slammed to the ground for filming the police were shared so often on social media that the national news could no longer ignore them.

In ordinary circumstances, the disappearance of a construction worker from the slums would barely warrant filling in a form. More than 35,000 people have been registered missing in the last seven years in Rio state. Although many of these men and women have abandoned their families or fallen off the grid, by any reckoning there are thousands of violent deaths in the margins each year. In the favela, people know not to make a fuss when their neighbour vanishes.

“The practice of executing people and disposing of the body is common, among both criminal gangs and the police,” Antonio Carlos Costa, from pressure group Rio de Paz, told me. “Their bodies are buried in secret cemeteries, in rivers and lakes, in the forest, and in Guanabara Bay. They have been burned, or given to crocodiles or pigs. The true number will never be known.”

De Souza became a martyr for the protest movement, his image carried on banners from Sao Paulo to Brasilia that bore a simple question: “Where is Amarildo?” In particular, his case was seized on by critics of the police “pacification” project that has done so much to improve Rio’s international image. Here was evidence that security is still as unevenly distributed as everything else in this city where the rich shop in luxury malls and a million people live in poverty.

interior-amarildo2Governor Sergio Cabral was also a prime target of the demonstrations. He had recently been filmed behaving badly in an exclusive Parisian restaurant with his ministers, and caught treating the helicopter of a construction magnate, fat on public contracts, as if it was his own. The pacification programme is the crowning achievement of his two terms, and in Amarildo’s disappearance, opponents spotted an opportunity to frustrate Cabral’s efforts to anoint a successor to preside over the Olympics in 2016.

The UPP project – Unidade de Policia Pacificadora – involves sending in an overwhelming force to drive drug traffickers out of a favela, then installing a permanent Pacifying Police Unit to patrol the alleys. There are currently thirty-four units, served by 8,592 police officers. Most are concentrated around the city’s prosperous south zone, where the perception of relative security, even more than the winning Olympic bid and the discovery of offshore oil reserves, has driven property prices to unprecedented highs. Half as many bullet-proof cars were sold last year as in the year before pacification.

Although sceptics sometimes refer to the programme as a “maquillada” – the city putting on make-up, for the world, and for itself – it has had a dramatic impact on the city’s homicide rate. There are now twenty-four murders per 100,000 residents per year, as opposed to forty-two before the programme. This is a slippery statistic that does not include the disappeared, but the reduction in violence is tangible. Kids in Los Angeles do earthquake drills. In Rio, they know where to lie flat during a shootout. Taking guns off the streets has cut the number of people wounded by stray bullets by 80%.

“The state is protecting a specific parcel of the city, to prepare it for these huge events and to attract international capital,” said Jailson de Souza, from Observatorio de Favelas, an NGO based in an unpacified shanty town. The latest statistics partially bear him out: violent crime has begun to increase again across the state, while continuing to decline where the money and tourists are. Security Secretary Jose Mariano Beltrame has promised another six UPPs by 2018. Communities at the periphery are clamouring to be next.

In affluent barrios, pacification means not worrying so much about being mugged, or your children being kidnapped. In the favela, it means the men carrying machine guns now wear police uniforms. “Life is totally different for people who live in pacified areas,” Pricilla de Oliveira Azevedo, the new commander of Rocinha’s UPP, told me. “Imagine a place where crime was very strong, very violent, with lots of weapons. We’ve managed to change this in two years. Now we have to change the mentality of people who have lived for fifty years under the control of armed gangs. It’s not easy.”

Even the scheme’s harshest critics accept that it has had a positive impact. “The UPPs are the best public safety measure implanted by the government in recent years,” said Costa. “But they’re built on two foundations: a reduction in social inequality and reform of the police. Without these, it’s very unlikely that the project will succeed and endure. The question that Rio needs to ask itself is ‘who polices the police?’ Because at the moment, they act autonomously, and it results in constant abuses of power.”

Rocinha, from the Sao Conrado side.

Rocinha, from the Sao Conrado side.

From 2008-2010, while the first UPPs were rolled out in smaller favelas, police studied the drug trade in Rocinha, which was controlled by the Amigos dos Amigos (ADA), the least paramilitary of Rio’s three main gangs and the first to refine coca paste. The day before police invaded, in November 2011, druglord Antonio Francisco Bonfim Lopes, known as Nem, was captured trying to escape in the boot of a car with diplomatic plates.

Commissioner Alexandre Estelita, who led the investigation in Rocinha, told me pacification is the only effective public safety programme Rio has ever had. “I’ve been a policeman for thirty-one years and I never imagined it could be like this.” But he cautioned that winning the trust of ordinary people remains a huge challenge. “Generations of people have seen the police as their enemy. They come in, break down doors, kill innocent people, extort money, torture, commit every atrocity you can think of. The child who grows up seeing this is a man now. What’s he supposed to think about the police?”

I visited a friend’s housekeeper who lives in Rocinha. On our way up the hill, we passed a new public health clinic and a gravel lot with shiny exercise machines, but the alleys were dank and strewn with several layers of accumulated rubbish. A rat scampered away as we approached, towards an open sewer running alongside the stairwell.

We stopped at a kiosk. I asked the owner what impact the UPP had made. “In Syria, there’s two powers: the government and the rebels. It’s the same thing here,” he volunteered, but wouldn’t say more. “In the old days, we used to… see things,” the chef at the next restaurant told me. “There were shootouts, invasions, one faction against another. Nowadays I’m not scared of getting hit in the crossfire.” When I asked his name, his wife rushed over to tell him off: “You’re putting our family at risk. We don’t see anything and we don’t say anything.” Although I had been warned that nobody would discuss Amarildo, I was disappointed to find people so guarded.

After picking up my guide’s husband, Antonio, we went to meet Seu Manuel, born in Rocinha sixty years ago. “I love this place. I wouldn’t swap it for anywhere,” he told me. I asked him why. “There’s someone in charge. There’s respect.” He gestured around his shop, which offered a typically odd selection of items, from beer and cachaça to home-bottled bleach and leftover plumbing joints. “From here to there, I say what goes, but that’s it. I’ve walked right past three or four dead bodies – that was the real Rocinha – but I’ve never been scared. I’ve never been disrespectful to them and they’ve never disrespected me.”

Did he mean Nem and the ADA? “Yes, he’s still in control, from prison. Try doing something against him here. You wouldn’t last a week. He’s still taking care of Rocinha and if you break the rules, you’re dead. And it will never end, because if he dies, tomorrow there will be ten in his place.” We were on our third litre bottle of Itaipava and Antonio’s tongue had loosened a little, too. “You’ve seen the way we live: the rats running in the alleys, the inadequate sanitation. Is it any surprise that people don’t trust the state? If you need something from the boss, he’ll see you.”

We kept on up the hill. Nobody misses the old days or the teenagers with assault rifles, but no-one seemed enthusiastic about pacification either. The most common verdict is that things are “a bit better” than before and the police still cannot be trusted. “It’s the same way that a rotten orange ruins the whole box,” suggested Michelle Lacerda, when we spoke later. “Yes, there are better, more educated cops, but as long as you have the old, bad cops too, no-one will go near them.” To succeed, Rio’s new system of community policing must reset a relationship characterised by deep resentment and mistrust on both sides.

On August 27, police commander Edson Santos was relieved of his duties and replaced by Azevedo, ostensibly as part of a larger shake-up of UPP personnel. Azevedo was the first ever UPP commander, working in the favela of Santa Marta, and she has remained a key public face of the pacification programme. She would not comment on the Amarildo case, but did acknowledge that it makes her job more difficult. “Something happened, but I think the way that people have received me here shows that trust in the institution hasn’t been broken,” she says.

"Bricklayer. Father of six. From Rocinha. Where is Amarildo?"

“Bricklayer. Father of six. From Rocinha. Where is Amarildo?”

Ten police officers from Rocinha’s UPP, including Machado and Santos, have since been charged in connection with Amarildo’s death. The report submitted to prosecutor Homero Freitas accuses them of torturing Amarildo with electric shocks, suffocating him with a plastic bag, then conspiring to dispose of his body. They deny all charges. Two key witnesses who initially told detectives that Amarildo worked for the drug traffickers now say Santos offered them a flat outside Rocinha in return for lying. After signing new statements, they were flown out of Rio, under the protection of federal agents.

The case has become a high-profile test of whether the public safety system can police itself. “Pacification is a mask that hides what is happening in Rio,” Lacerda told me. “The city is selling itself as a safe place, for the World Cup and for the Olympics, but in the favela, we know how it really is. Putting these officers in prison would show that the people who live in our community are human beings who deserve to be treated with respect.”