Security or danger: what awaits us in Rio?

Gym trainer exhorts man to relax. I can’t, he shouts; this is Brazil!

“This is the last dance… of the Titanic” said one of the participants at a public safety seminar last week, making indirect reference to the infamous luxurious last dance of the Ilha Fiscal, which took place in Rio just before independence, in 1889.

Português aqui

Dialogue has always been faulty between government officials and public safety experts, even in the good old days of pacification (2009-2013). Police resisted the changes experts recommended. Despite the drop in crime and violence statistics, it wasn’t easy to relinquish the “good criminal is a dead criminal” mindset; military police nicknamed pacification police “Smurfs”. The latter, initially newbies on the force, got special training and uniforms with blue shirts.

The abyss is bigger than ever now. Regardless of proof against its results, collected in dozens of cities around the world, including Rio de Janeiro, the newly-elected heads of state and the nation, persist in the belief that we need more violence to combat crime.

Information from the Observatório da Intervenção (Intervention Observatory) made available yesterday (with a full report coming in February), supports its conclusion that  the “Armed Forces’ federal intervention didn’t solve Rio’s structural public safety problems. What we saw was the reaffirmation of the armed conflict strategy, expenditures focused on large [military-style] operations and the absence of public safety structural reform.”

The data show increases in violent deaths and street theft, while the only crime that dropped significantly was cargo theft, indicating more emphasis on goods than lives.

Costs of the intervention, decreed in February of this year, set to end Dec. 31

Of even greater concern in Rio are signs of growing paramilitary power. Are milicianos in fact taking over the metropolis, as this article, published yesterday, indicates?

In it, author Washington Fajardo (former aide to former mayor Eduardo Paes and former president of the city’s Rio Humanity Heritage Institute) explains that given the “longtime incapacity of the Brazilian state to order urban territory, foment housing policy and provide public safety, a criminal, terrorist parallel power force developed. The milícias responded to people’s fears, offering order; they supplied pirated cable TV, providing information; met transportation needs, controlling mini-vans; then they sold basic consumer goods such as water and cooking gas.”

The deaths of city council member Marielle Franco and her driver Anderson Gomes nine months ago point to such forces’ power and brazenness. How can an investigation take so long? And when action is taken to seek evidence and arrest suspects, as was the case last Thursday, it results in huge confusion (and the possibility that targets were forewarned). Despite the activity we still don’t know who killed them or why. Names of alleged milicianos appear most in the media; Franco’s opposition to llegal milicia West Zone real estate development is said to be at the root of the crime.

Last week we saw the (almost chance) revelation of a miliciano plot to assassinate PSOL congressman-elect Marcelo Freixo (now a state legislator).

Governor-elect Wilson Witzel’s decision to abolish the state public safety secretariat raises enormous concern. Can the two police forces be managed without it? The job was tough enough with the secretariat, weaked as it was by corporatism, longtime feuds (even within each force) and corruption. Specialists –including the military folk with nine months here under their belts, carrying out the Federal Intervention — agree that we need more integration and cooperation between the Civil and Military Police forces, not less. Here’s why former secretary José Mariano Beltrame created RISPs, which helped reduce crime by encouraging cooperation and information sharing.

In a tweet, Witzel barely explained his management plans: “The end of the Public Safety Secretariat is a necessary measure. We will optimize activity, bring the forces, including the Federal Police, closer together, to effect deep investigation and get to the “drug barons”, the crime bosses, breaking apart these gangs.” In another tweet, he said that “cooperation between Civil and Military police will be a new page in the fight against organized crime in Rio de Janeiro.”

According to the G1 site, Witzel “is looking at the creation of a kind of security bureau connected to the governor’s office. The bureau will house the data-collecting Instituto de Segurança Pública (ISP), the Subsecretaria de Inteligência (intelligence subsecretariat) and the Corregedoria Geral Unificada (CGU, the internal police corrections office )”.

In his interview published today in Globo, interventor General Walter Braga Netto claims that the future governor himself will have to manage intra-police force issues (which lessened during the intervention, according to Braga Netto).

Corporatist feuds may end up less problematic than other issues. Who will be responsible for police behavior in favelas, now that the future governor has encouraged them to kill anyone carrying a rifle? How to ensure that each officer has adequate training to target (and hit) armed criminals only? Or that the shooting drones Witzel has proposed won’t be hacked, sold or themselves brought down, for improper use?

It’s worth remembering that, according to the Intervention Observatory, Military Police munitions rooms keep only paper records, using no security cameras.

Reducing the formal police forces’ management structure can dangerously increase their autonomy. We may see less transparency and accountability to society as a whole. Existing police problems — largely due to inadequate wage, work and equipment conditions (as reported in the blog) — led us to partial “solutions”, such as private security companies (many of which are owned by police), the mini-“Centro Presente”-type forces and milícias.

In other words, a worn patchwork of holes and mismatches, with weak results for all of society.

For now, we see few official proposals to create a public safety policy based on data and best practices. Meanwhile, specialists — facing closed government doors — propose, among other ideas, coming together as a united group and a focus on the protection of public school favela students.

It may also be time to work, somehow, for greater dialogue.


About Rio real

American journalist, writer, editor who's lived in Rio de Janeiro for 20 years.
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