On the Rio beat
By BBC News – Friday, 11 May, 2001
Copyright: BBC News
Rio de Janeiro is, after Johannesburg, the most violent city in the world. On average, seven civilians and two policemen are killed every week. But one man is trying to change things. Sue LLoyd-Roberts reports on Major Antonio Carballo’s quest to introduce community policing in areas where he and his men must put their lives at risk every day.
The police have a shoot-to-kill” policy in the shantytowns or favelas, where armed drug traffickers – the so-called men on the hill – rule the local people with terror.
To add to the already violent mayhem, many policemen collude in drugs and guns trafficking. Corruption and routine violence are part of the Rio beat.
Major Antonio Carballo is on a mission to change all this. He wants to introduce the bobby on the beat – community policing – to Rio de Janeiro. The initiative is called the GPAE – the Special Areas Policing Group – and has been introduced into one favela, Cantogallo, which overlooks the wealthy, tourist area of Rio.
If it works, the plan is to introduce the GPAE to all 500 favelas in the city.
Carballo has to persuade policemen who have been brought up to believe that their job is to protect the elite from the masses, that the masses themselves are worthy of protection. He has to persuade them that taking a cut from the drug traffickers is not the way for city employees to supplement their income.
The major says that Rio has been scarred by crime, drugs and death for too long and that the police must take the necessary risks to clear the favelas of the violent men on the hill if the city is to survive.
The people of the favelas also want change.
Julia, the mother of four sons, has seen her family destroyed by the rule of drugs and guns on the hill. Two sons have met with violent deaths and two have been involved in drug trafficking.
Speaking in the tiny shack which is home to her two surviving sons, one widowed daughter-in-law and various children, she said: “I don’t want to live here anymore, but where can we go?”
Her son, Carlos, who, even after leaving jail and the drugs trade, was blackmailed and threatened by the police, said: “Even though I have escaped the traffickers, I am still a prisoner on the hillside.”
The people of the favelas, who live without sufficient schools, hospitals and job opportunities, resent being automatically demonised as criminals by the rest of the city. Carballo calls a meeting to bring the people of the favelas together with the middle classes who live below, ‘on the asphalt’.
He asks for integration between the two communities and even business initiatives, but is met with a stony-faced response from the people who live in the smart apartment blocks on the asphalt.
Dressed in their designer denims and shades and sitting apart from the people of the favelas, their appearance and body language spell out their disinterest in social or economic reform. They want more old style policing to protect them from the bullets which threaten their homes.
Cynical about reform
It would appear that many in the new GPAE police force are similarly cynical about reform. Carballo has only been given 100 men out of a police force of 33,000 to complete the project. Already, almost half of them have been transferred or arrested for having a ‘bad attitude; – the euphemism for corruption and brutality.
The project cannot succeed unless the armed men on the hill are removed. But when patrols go into the favelas, hunting for known traffickers, they often fail because a traitor within the patrol itself has tipped off the suspects.
Carballo is aware that he does not stand a chance unless he can get rid of those he calls “criminals dressed as police officers”.
But perhaps Carballo was never meant to succeed? In the face of international criticism, Brazil needs to be seen to be doing something about police violence and corruption.
Could it be that Carballo has been cynically set up as a public relations exercise? The city government even organises tours for local diplomats to witness him at work.
The city’s Minister for Security, Jose Quintal, denies that the GPAE project is mere window dressing. He claims that what they are doing in Rio will “revolutionise police forces around the world”.
But the idea of extending Carballo’s revolution into all the favelas of Rio is clearly impractical.
There are still favelas which are no-go areas and the Correspondent team witnessed a violent shootout between police and traffickers in one of them, where the idea of introducing community policing would be a suicidal waste of time.
There is no doubt that Major Carballo is an honest, committed man, but pitted against the cynicism, corruption and violence endemic in Rio today, his dream of reform may be hopeless.