Posted on May 3, 2007

Report: Brazilian Cities Now ‘Fiefdoms’

Michael Astor, AP, May 2, 2007

Amnesty International said the government’s inability to provide security has transformed Brazil’s largest cities into a “patchwork of violent fiefdoms” controlled by drug gangs and paramilitary militias.

The London-based rights group, in a copy of report obtained by The Associated Press and scheduled for release Thursday, said government negligence has left poor Brazilians in the crossfire between police and criminals—the victims of stray bullets, police curfews and extortion by militias and drug traffickers.

“Rio de Janeiro and Sao Paulo have reached a tragic impasse,” said the report, based largely on news reports and academic studies. “Criminal gangs . . . have rushed to fill the vacuum left by the state, Balkanizing the cities into a patchwork of violent fiefdoms.”

Amnesty said the situation came to a head in Sao Paulo a year ago when the First Capital Command gang brought South America’s largest city to a standstill, torching buses, attacking police stations and taking hostages. Police responded by killing hundreds of suspects.

More recently, drug gangs in Rio launched a wave of attacks that left 19 people dead in response to the growing power of paramilitary militias made up of former and active-duty police, firefighters and soldiers.


The report criticized the use by Rio police of special armored cars called “Caveiraos,” or Big Skulls, against drug gangs in shantytowns, saying bystanders have been injured or killed in operations using the vehicles.

Amnesty said official statistics show that in 2006 Rio police killed more than 1,000 people. Police justify the killings as acts of self-defense.


[Editor’s Note: The entire report Brazil: ‘From Burning Buses To Caveirões&#146: The Search For Human Security can be read here. The introduction is reproduced below.

“It is not the responsibility of the governor, nor the President nor the city mayor; Brazilian society is to blame”(2)

President Lula defends Governor Lembo in the wake of the outbreak of violence in São Paulo, May 2006

“We’ve reached the point when we have to ask for help. We can’t bear to lose any more friends, relatives and children to armed violence. Changing this deadly scenario is urgent.” (3)

Hércules Mendes, President of the Caracol residents association, Complexo da Penha talking in a meeting in Rio de Janeiro between the community leaders and the chief of police, Colonel Ubiratan &#195ngelo, 26, March, 2007.


In December 2005 Amnesty International launched a major new report Brazil: ‘They Come in Shooting’: Policing socially excluded communities.(4) The report looked at the high levels of violence that have long plagued Brazil’s urban centres. It showed how years of state neglect had trapped poor neighbourhoods between the violence of criminal gangs and police brutality. This “criminalisation of poverty” had not only put residents’ lives at risk, but had reinforced patterns of social exclusion that have sustained human rights abuses. A lack of long-term policy-making had put everyone at risk—including the police. Amnesty International urged the federal and state authorities to put forward detailed, long-term plans to stop the bloodshed and reverse the slide into ever greater lawlessness.

Since Amnesty’s report was launched, the issue of public security has hit the headlines with a series of shocking episodes. In May 2006 São Paulo suffered a wave of criminal violence which brought South America’s largest city to a standstill. Hundreds died as a criminal gang went on the rampage, attacking police stations, shooting police officers, torching buses, and coordinating revolts and hostage-taking in around half of the state’s prisons. The police responded in kind, killing over a hundred “suspects”. More recently, in Rio de Janeiro, a night of gang violence left 19 people dead—including 7 burnt alive inside a bus. The attacks were thought to be a response to the growing power of the “milícias“. These para-police groups—off-duty officers and firemen—now control more than 90 favelas in Rio de Janeiro through extortion. The milícias threaten to further destabilise the city, as they vie with traffickers for territory and income.

Rio de Janeiro and São Paulo have reached a tragic impasse. Criminal gangs—be they drug factions, death squads or para-police—have rushed to fill the vacuum left by the state, balkanising the cities into a patchwork of violent fiefdoms. The crumbling prison system has incubated sophisticated organised crime rings. The police themselves have been left vulnerable to attack, weakening their ability to play their part in protecting Brazilian citizens. Meanwhile, poor communities continue to suffer—hit by stray bullets, placed under effective curfew during police operations, and extorted by militias or traffickers.

The events of 2006 dramatically raised the stakes of the public security debate. After many years of public security being seen as a low priority, no politician can now afford to ignore the gravity of the situation in Brazil’s cities. The scale of the recent violence was a vivid demonstration of the price paid by successive governments’ unwillingness to address the state’s responsibility to provide security for all Brazilian citizens, be they rich or poor.

As the new administrations take office, this short report updates Amnesty International’s public security campaign. It summaries the recent shocking events and assesses the state and federal governments’ responses to them. In the light of the increasing vulnerability of the state to criminality, it looks at failures across the criminal justice system, including widespread corruption that has allowed organised crime to set down roots, and fundamentally undermined society’s trust in the justice system and the police.

In conclusion the report reiterates Amnesty International’s core concerns including:

* police forces that are poorly trained and resourced, and that have little intelligence-gathering capacity, making them inefficient as well as vulnerable to attack;

* state neglect of poorer communities which have become lawless zones, suffering disproportionately from both criminal and police violence;

* a lack of a coherent, long-term public security policy that focuses on the root causes of violence and social exclusion;

* a prison system on the verge of collapse in which overcrowding, mistreatment of inmates, corruption and organised crime have become entrenched. . ..

[Editor’s Note: The entire report Brazil: ‘From Burning Buses To Caveirões&#146: The Search For Human Security can be read here.]