Missing in Rio on the rise; Brazil police accused

RIO DE JANEIRO (AP) — Anderson de Souza turned back after bounding down a dark maze of passageways in Rio de Janeiro’s sprawling Rocinha slum, incandescent light illuminating his face.

It was right here, he said, pointing to a spot near his family’s shack, that the police led his father away to a brutal torture and death. And it was in the same place he said he lost all hope that Rio’s ambitious security program to pacify and permanently occupy slums ahead of the 2016 Olympics would make his city safer.

“We’re not going to get my father back alive. All I want now is justice, that’s it,” Souza said. “Things have only gotten worse since the police came here. At least when the drug gangs had control, we knew the rules. Now, there is only fear. Police are snatching people up randomly, just like my dad.”

Human rights activists and police watchdogs say the case of Amarildo de Souza, a 42-year-old construction worker who an internal police investigation found was tortured, killed and “disappeared” by officers in July, is emblematic of deeper problems with Rio’s plan to clear slums of gangs who have held sway over most of the city’s thousand shantytowns for decades.

Homicides in Rio are down, but an Associated Press analysis of official police statistics shows that since 2007, a year before the security push into the city’s slums, the number of missing person cases in the city and its impoverished outskirts has shot up 33 percent, to 4,090 reports last year.

It’s not clear who’s behind the increase, but heavy-handed police tactics raise suspicions among those living in slums that authorities are involved. During the investigation into Souza’s disappearance, more than 20 other Rocinha residents told authorities they were tortured during police interrogations.

Watchdog groups say it’s reasonable to think police themselves are disappearing people as they struggle to tame slums, given the long track record of officers carrying out extrajudicial killings. Security experts, however, blame drug gangs for hiding the bodies of rival traffickers they’ve killed to avoid drawing police attention.

Police declined numerous requests for an official comment. But Rio Gov. Sergio Cabral insisted Sunday that the Souza case “is not the trademark” of the police pacification units, known as UPPs.

“The method used by these police was an abomination, but we have 8,600 police in UPPs and the overwhelming majority are beloved by the population,” he told reporters.

Regardless of who is responsible, the disappearances are a blow to authorities trying to show the world that Rio is shedding its violent image ahead of the coming sporting events, which also include next year’s World Cup soccer tournament.

“These are missing people who are never coming home,” said Antonio Carlos Costa, a pastor who has worked for years in Rio’s slums and runs the anti-violence group Rio de Paz. “We’re talking about numbers far higher than the number killed or disappeared under Brazil’s military dictatorship. These are the disappeared of democracy.”

For years now, police throughout Brazil have come under withering criticism for extra-judicial “resistance” killings, or summary executions of suspects. In a 2009 report, the U.S.-based watchdog group Human Rights Watch estimated that some 11,000 people were killed by police between 2003 and 2009 in the country’s two largest metropolises, Rio and Sao Paulo. A 2008 United Nations report found that that Brazilian police were responsible for a significant portion of the country’s 48,000 slayings the year before.

Costa said the worry is that police, in an effort to improve those grim statistics, have taken to disappearing the bodies of the people they kill, similar to what investigators say happened in the Souza case.

Reports provided by the Rio state Public Security Institute show that the number of resistance killings by police in metropolitan Rio dropped by 71 percent since 2007, while overall homicides are down 37 percent.

“These statistics are strange,” Costa said. “How can we have falling homicides and police resistance killings, presumably showing that the city is safer, yet have disappearances spiking? Something isn’t right.

“So then, one has to ask the question: Could it be that some statistics are falling because the disappearances are rising? The suspicion is that they’re using the tactics seen in the Amarildo case to artificially lower those numbers.”

He noted, however that he didn’t think police were behind all the recent disappearances.

Paulo Storani, a Rio-based security consultant who was a captain in an elite unit that used to take on gangs, said it was wrong to presume officers are to blame for the increase in missing person cases. He said the responsibility lies with drug gangs and other criminals, and with residents being more comfortable to report cases as they see a stronger police presence.

In Rocinha, residents said they didn’t think the pacification units will bring security anytime soon.

“There was great hope for change when the UPP came, we thought the state was finally arriving, that its presence would improve lives,” said Carlos Eduardo Duda, a community leader in Rocinha who has filed a complaint with state officials about police torturing his 16-year-old brother while questioning him about gang activity.

“But it’s turned out this is just the oppressive arm of the state apparatus, it feels like little else has been done to help us,” he said.

That sentiment is a blow to Jose Beltrame, the top security official for Rio de Janeiro state, who oversees police and was the creator of the slum pacification program. He said the Souza case was in the hands of the justice system, and “what’s important now is to maintain the integrity of the Rocinha UPP.”

He added: “I won’t peddle the illusion that that all the problems will be resolved soon. These areas have suffered from 30 years of (government) abandonment.”

Last week, police investigators handed over their report on Souza to prosecutors and recommended that charges be brought against 10 officers from the slum’s unit for his abduction, torture, death and disappearance. The accused officers deny hurting or killing Souza.

In interviews, Souza’s family said the still missing man had no involvement with gangs and said the police picked him up because he repeatedly complained about officers roughing up his sons.

Some 20 members of the extended Souza family now live in a small house in Rocinha for fear of police reprisals against them for demanding justice.

Souza’s sister, Maria Lacerda, 52, stood in her cramped kitchen and looked over her late brother’s six children.

“When you’re poor, you’re easy to kill. It’s been like that forever in our Brazil and it’s going to happen to others if they stay quiet,” she said. “But by God, not this time! We won’t shut up. An animal doesn’t deserve the end my brother had, and the guilty will pay.”

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Bradley Brooks on Twitter: http://www.twitter.com/bradleybrooks

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