Outgoing Rio public safety czar: good guy or sucker?

In Todo dia é segunda-feira, a memoir, José Mariano Beltrame tells an inside story of pacification, and much more worth reading

Fez a parte dele, diz

Not a carioca, he’s from the Rio Grande do Sul town where the 2013 nightclub fire took place, killing 242 young people

Politics in Rio de Janeiro are so riddled with disappointments and betrayals that all many cariocas can say about the state public safety secretary whose record-setting seven-plus years in office outstrip his predecessors by four years is that he at least seems honest.

And then they sourly point out that his boss (who just left office a few months early to give his vice-governor a better chance at the polls this October), Sérgio Cabral, hasn’t the most sparkling record. So how could someone truly be honest…???

The mood is black as we near the World Cup (particularly in the anti-Dilma O Globo headlines), and could get much worse as we approach the October presidential and gubernatorial elections. Especially if Brazil loses and Rio crime continues to spike. Or not, if Brazil, an increasingly bipolar nation, wins the championship, which would fully and uncritically redeem us all.

In the face of what remains to be done, of all that is still wrong, we tend to forget how life was before Beltrame took office and we belittle how much he and his team actually accomplished:

The Military Police of the State of Rio de Janeiro, the first in the country, created in the early nineteenth century by King John VI and known at the time as the Royal Police Guard, was in frank decline. Carrying the weight of two centuries, with longtime  serious flaws. I asked myself: have the results been satisfactory, allowing us to repeat old formulas? If I were to reproduce what was carried out for last two hundred years, I’d get the same results for another two hundred.

Until 2008, public safety policy, basically, was to react to media reports, moving into favelas sporadically, then retreating. Battalion commanders were political appointees. Crime statistics still take two months to tabulate (and are instantaneous in Los Angeles, as Beltrame came to learn).

The challenge of the cops in the first Elite Squad movie, who have to scramble for auto parts in order to do their job, was the pure truth. Beltrame reports that sometimes three cars were tapped to make one function.

Not only did he move on the issue of auto parts — and computers, and a whole lot else in terms of equipment and personnel. He and a team of strategists came up with pacification.

Interestingly, despite the avowed objective of reducing violence, not drug trafficking, the secretary speaks in his memoir of territory as a strategy for weakening drug gangs:

Early on, I thought that that the logic to implode the trafficker’s power consisted of shaking up his territorial structure. If you apprehend drugs, the trafficker buys more. If he goes to jail, a substitute pops up fast. On the other hand, if he loses the territory, which is protected by weapons, he becomes vulnerable. That’s what came to mind: do away with the sustenance of the gangs and their business — their sway over territory, imposed by weapons of war.

It would be crucial, for the future of pacification, to discover just how much the loss of territory has indeed weakened the business of drug trafficking. Asked about this recently in an interview with RioRealblog, Roberto Sá, public safety subsecretary, noted that arrests of drug traffickers for other crimes have increased, indicating a move away from the business. Rifle prices have also risen, he added. Not much is known, apparently, about drug prices.

Beltrame does write that traffickers adjust product to demand, selling a smaller dose of cocaine or reverting to crack, when necessary. He believes that rifles really will disappear from the trade, gradually.

Some observers note that territory adds cost to the business of drug trafficking. It could be that some savvy narcos have downsized in response to pacification — and are making more money than ever from an apartment in Botafogo.

Many cariocas believe that nothing is being done about the paramilitary gangs, milícias, which date to the 1990s and have come to dominate much of local political life.

It’s hard enough to discern the real impact of Beltrame’s cops on crime, given the early drop and then the recent spike; and on drug trafficking, given its nebulous nature and the fact that favela occupations and shootouts are more dramatic and newsworthy than criminal arrests, trials, jailings (and releases).  But the impact of the public safety secretariat on milícias is even less clear.

The work isn’t about moving in with tanks and helicopters; it involves long investigations, performed by the civil police. Beltrame discusses the difficulties involved and tells of how federal legislation had to be changed in order to target off-duty cops who extort residents and shopkeepers. He describes the development of the milícias, their involvement in politics and the arrest of key figures since 2008. And he’s honest, yes:

The largest milícia group in Rio belongs to Jerominho, Natalino and the former police officer, Ricardo “Batman” Teixeira da Cruz, all arrested since 2008. This gang calls itself the Justice League and it continues to operate in the West Zone, although the three chiefs are out of circulation. Before their imprisonment, they held sway over 1.2 million people in Campo Grande. I can only classify the existence of this parallel State, imposed by former or current public servants, as an aberration. The biggest rival group belonged to the former military police officer Fabrício Fernandes Mirra, also arrested and convicted in 2010, sentenced to more than 13 years of detention.

It would be helpful to know more about the apparently headless dynamics of continued paramilitary gang operations in Rio. These may have something to do with one item in a proposal made to Congress today by southwest state security chiefs: effective cell phone blocking systems in all penitentiaries. Why this still hasn’t happened is a question yet unanswered.

That proposal covers another area which Beltrame discusses in his book, the lack of alignment between police and Brazil’s justice system. Pacification has grown shaky in several favelas, such as Cantagalo and Chapéu Mangueira, where drug traffickers released from prison have returned to criminal activity:

In 2012, 26,000 people entered Rio penitentiaries; in the same period, the courts released 22,000. Is this good or bad? 

Subsecretary Roberto Sá also spoke of this issue with RioRealblog, noting that communication between judges and the police is sometimes faulty, lacking focus on the greater good for society. The proposal being made today would also lengthen sentences and speed up trials, with the use of videoconferencing.

Beltrame describes some of his most exhilarating moments in the last seven years, such as the 2010 invasion of the Complexo do Alemão, and some of the most difficult, such as the apparent police torture and killing of Amarildo, a Rocinha construction worker. Seen in hindsight, some of the secretary’s prose may seem overly positive. But he avoids no topic and provides key context and background to the period now coming to a close. The 190-page book, which ought to be translated into English and Spanish and published abroad, for its valuable information and insights, is a must-read for anyone who follows public safety policy in Rio and is thinking about what ought to come next.

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About Rio real

American journalist, writer, editor who's lived in Rio de Janeiro for 20 years.
This entry was posted in Brazil, Transformation of Rio de Janeiro / Transformação do Rio de Janeiro and tagged , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

4 Responses to Outgoing Rio public safety czar: good guy or sucker?

  1. PTRio says:

    Good guy, but with too few other good guys to make the difference he has been trying to make. A major component of what I understood Beltrame’s plan to be included bringing various social services into the PP occupied favelas. He appears to have met resistance on that component of his plan, or has simply been unable to achieve that. In any event, I am looking forward to reading his book.

    • Rio real says:

      Yes, he talks about the issue of social services in it. And yes, there is resistance. But it’s the only way, in the long term. Glad you’ll read it!!

  2. Carolina says:

    Julia, are you planning to translate it?

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