After Brazil's massive 2013 protests, the government got to work on some of the demands that arose from the demonstrations: importing doctors, passing a law to funnel oil revenues to education and health, vowing political reforms, sending a congressman to jail for the first time in decades. But one area that remains untouched could have the most explosive consequences in the short term: the matter of the military police.
The violence witnessed at the hands of the military police during the protests exacerbated long-standing tensions with these law enforcement officials. In a country where the police are often viewed as yet another criminal element rather than keepers of the peace; where urban crime is a major problem; and where people still recall abuses by the military during the dictatorship, the protests deepened public discontent with police. Unless a major reform or overhaul takes place, those tensions will likely increase. And one place that currently exemplifies the major issues with the military police is Mangueira, an impoverished area close to Maracanã Stadium, where the World Cup finals will take place. The favelas there are something of a perfect storm when it comes to police, between the failure to eliminate organized crime, violence against residents by police, forced evictions, proximity to the soccer stadium, and repression of protests.
Mangueira is a "pacified" favela, one frequented by Cariocas and tourists due to its popular samba school. But just because pacification police have an established presence in the community doesn't mean the drug traffickers have been flushed out. And it's not just organized crime that's a continuing challenge: a community next door, called Metrô-Mangueira, is being demolished to make way for a new commercial center.
Police brutality and ongoing problems with traffickers were evidenced last week. On January 4, police allege they engaged in a shoot-out with drug traffickers, and in the process, police shot and killed 20-year-old Wellington Sabino Vieira. The police say he was an armed drug trafficker; his mother says he worked as a vendor in downtown Rio, and other community members say he was innocent. In response to the murder, there were protests the following day, and a bus was set on fire. The police responded, and favela residents heard shots fired during the operation.
It's an example of a common incident in Rio known as an "auto de resistência," when an alleged suspect is killed during a confrontation with police. However, some of these supposed justified killings turn out to be murders of innocent people. The shooting also comes on the heels of a high-profile case of a favela resident who was tortured and killed by military police last year, at a time when disappearances are on the rise in pacified favelas.
Meanwhile, violence flared in Metrô-Mangueira this week due to another issue Rio has long faced: forced removals of favela residents. This community saw a previous round of forced removals in 2011. Around 630 families were forced to leave, and the government says they relocated to new homes.
This week, residents are protesting a new round of evictions. The city views them as squatters, since some of the homes have been marked for demolition since 2011, when the original residents left, and new residents have since moved in.
Protesters were met aggressively by police and shock troops, who used tear gas, pepper spray, and smoke grenades. Some residents threw rocks, eggs, and bottles at police. Protests and police action continued January 8 and 9, covered live by citizen journalists.*
Rio has seen one important change regarding police since the protests: the creation of a new military police unit just for protests and mega-events. The 500-member force was officially announced last week. In addition, the federal government plans to deploy a 10,000-strong elite security force throughout the country to control protests during the World Cup. But for now, the military police remain the major public security force in Rio, tasked with pacification and operating in favelas along with public security throughout the city. It's the same poorly paid, oft poorly trained force with some members tied to drug traffickers or paramilitary militias in the city. With elections in October, will the state's next governor dare attempt systemic police reforms?
*Updated January 9 to reflect continuation of protests.
Image: Rio's military police. Andre Gustavo Stumpf/Flickr.