Rio 2016: Police crackdown raises rights concerns

Brazilian police accused of applying a heavy hand in targeting security threats one month before the Olympic Games.

Brazil security
Members of the Canine Military Police Brigade Unit of Rio de Janeiro train their dogs in explosives searches [EPA]

Rio de Janeiro, Brazil – Close to Rio de Janeiro’s international airport – where thousands of Olympic athletes will arrive this month – a little girl missed her first ballet lesson because an armed police manhunt sent her community into lockdown.

About 80 children were trapped in an NGO building where they were taking part in activities last Wednesday as the search for a fugitive drug lord went into the evening.

With one month until the start of Rio 2016, a judge has warned that the city’s population is being “held hostage” during heavy-handed security operations, as the death toll rises before the Olympic Games.

The number of people killed by police in Rio more than doubled, reaching 40 in May compared with 17 during the same month last year, according to figures from the Institute of Public Security. Across the whole state, police killings rose from 44 to 84.

“The soaring death count ahead of this major sporting event represents an epic failure on the part of the authorities to protect the most fundamental human right – the right to life,” said Atila Roque, executive director of Amnesty International in Brazil.

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In the most recent operation in the shanty town complex of Mare, which lies beside the main road out of the international airport to the north of Rio, there were reports that at least two people were shot, including a community health worker.

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Police denied any casualties in the bust as part of their search for gang boss Nicolas Labre, known as Fat Family, who was broken out of a hospital last month.

But there has been a trail of bloodshed and fear following the high-profile hunt with reports of at least nine deaths in the first 10 days of the operation.

And, in an unprecedented move, a judge intervened to suspend nighttime house searches and ordered security authorities to explain Wednesday’s operation.

“It is unacceptable that the police in the 21st century do not find a way to address crime without exposing the law-abiding citizen,” said Judge Angelica dos Santos Costa in her decision. “It is often said that during the Olympics, Rio de Janeiro will be safe, however, society needs public security before, during and after that event.”

She said there was no question that police needed to carry out search-and-arrest warrants, especially in the recapture of fugitives such as Fat Family.

“On the other hand, public security bodies should take the necessary steps to preserve lives and people’s right to come and go,” she added.

“The local population cannot be held hostage by unplanned and hasty operations, much less the police justify them with the flimsy argument of catching criminals. This is not the police that society needs and wants.”

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A study by community network Redes da Mare late last year found that one in four residents in the favela complex, home to more than 130,000 people, had suffered an abuse of their rights, most because of police activity.

On Saturday, the organisation launched a campaign – “We are Mare. We have rights” – to provide households with information about their legal protections.

“You cannot use the pretext of battling drug trafficking to criminalise the population as a whole and create victims,” said Alberto Aleixo, of Redes da Mare.

Meanwhile, policing standards and resources have been badly hit by the state of Rio’s financial crisis, which was declared a “calamity” by Francisco Dornelles, the acting governor,  last month.

Dornelles warned of the possible collapse of key services, including public security, before the federal government promised a 2.9bn real ($850m) emergency loan to ensure the state could fulfil its commitments to host the Olympics.

Officers, like other public servants, have not received their salaries, while the number of police killed on duty in Rio this year alone has reached 50.

Union leaders have not ruled out strikes during the Games.


Andrei Rodrigues, extraordinary secretary for major events security, said he had “absolute confidence” that Rio was doing everything it could to guarantee the safety of the Olympics.

He said Rio’s police force would be supported by 38,000 troops as well as an international police support centre with 250 officers from 55 countries.

“Rio’s reality is different. I don’t know if it’s better or worse, if going forward, it will worsen or improve,” he told foreign media last week.

“What we have to do is provide the security for the Games. We’re planning contemporaneously for the situation that we are facing.”

But while security authorities in Rio are dealing with the challenges of political and economic uncertainty, critics have suggested police operations are following a similar pattern of violence that has accompanied other major events, focusing on marginalised areas such as favelas.

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“These police operations are nothing new,” said Mauro Amoroso, a historian specialising in the city’s favelas. “Rio never was an inclusive city, much to the contrary. It was always a prejudicial city within its own spaces.

“We’re a month away from the Games, and when there were other events here in Rio, there were also police operations in Mare and in other favelas, which resulted in deaths. It’s a public security policy based on the idea of war.

“We had a preview of this during the World Cup. We had the military occupation of spaces and this is a country that recently lived through a military dictatorship. Mare was once again an example.

“At the same time, it’s all for show. It’s a big hypocrisy. It’s not guaranteed that it will even be safe for the tourists.”

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Source: Al Jazeera