The Unsecure City: Police and Protesters in Rio de Janeiro

By Celina Myrann Sørbøe and Einar Braathen

The massive June protests in Brazil were sparked by an indignation over the excessive force used by the police. This has spurred a debate over reform and demilitarization of the main police force, Policia Militar (the Military Police). The debate is, however, polarized. An increasing focus on the acts of vandalism committed by some protesters is being used to justify the authoritarian police in order to uphold law and order.

June protests

Violent confrontations between protesters and the riot police have been an everyday affair the last months, damaging the already blemished reputation of the police institution. International media have published photos of unarmed and unprotected protesters being sprayed in the face with pepper spray and shot at with rubber bullets. Journalists, lawyers and human rights observers claim to have been targeted by the police.

These protests have been an awakening for the average Brazilian citizen. For the first time, middle class residents were confronted with the brutality of the police that favela residents have lived with for decades. The difference is that in the favelas, the bullets of the police are not made of rubber. Could this lead to a police reform?

One of the slogans that have been heard during the demonstrations in Rio has gone something like “What a coincidence! Where there’s no police, there’s no violence! ”

Ten thousand dead in ten years

According to a recent study conducted by sociologist Michel Misse, more than ten thousand people were killed by the Rio de Janeiro police between the years 2001 and 2011. Almost all of the deaths were registered as acts of resistance; meaning as a consequence of the victim putting officers’ or others’ lives at risk. Research done in 2003 however shows that 65% of those killings had unmistakable signs of execution (Soares 2009). Between 2005 and 2007, there were 707 registered deaths by the police with a known perpetrator. Of these cases 355 were investigated, and merely one resulted in a conviction. Reflecting on this data, Misse states “I don’t use the word impunity; that would be an exaggeration”.

The majority of these deaths have occurred in the city’s favelas, where police operations have been characterized by a military logic. The police have entered the favelas with the mentality of an occupying army, engaged in a “war” with the drug gangs controlling these territories. The police would seek confrontation with the drug traffickers rather than avoiding it, often leading to shoot-outs. Many innocent lives have been lost as a result of so-called “lost bullets” striking random victims caught in the crossfire during such operations.

The logo of the Bope special force. The skull symbolizes death, the sward signifies combat and its position through the skull indicates war. The black background represents mourning and the pistols the emblem of the military police.

New logic in the favelas?

The hard-hand policies of the police have not only proved incapable of reducing the levels of violence and crime in the favelas. In addition, they have been losing political legitimacy because of the many human right abuses reported. In order to improve the sense of security and the reputation of Rio as a violent city, a new police program called UPP, Unidade de Policia Pacificadora (“Pacifying Police Units”) has been developed. UPP is a new branch within the Military Police. The UPP project of “pacifying” strategically located favelas in front of the Olympic Games has been a prestige project of the governor Sérgio Cabral (elected in 2006 and re-elected in 2010). Recent accusations of rape, extortions, and disappearances have however tarnished the image of the UPP. Two recent incidents in favelas show how there is still a long way to go before the residents of favelas are recognized the same protection of the legal framework as other inhabitants of Rio de Janeiro.


On June 24th, a few hundred people attended peaceful demonstration against rising prices for public transport on Avenida Brasil, which escalated into armed conflict between the police and a group of men who apparently took advantage of the confusion surrounding the demonstration to rob stores in the area. A policeman was killed, and the police entered the favela Nova Holanda in Maré in what residents have characterized as a bloody vendetta by the police. June 25th was a “night of terror” with intense shooting exchanges between the police and “criminals,” which left nine dead and as many wounded. Tear gas bombs were fired at the office of the civil society organization Observatorio das Favelas, and the electricity in the area was cut off for almost two days.Observatorio das Favelas was quick to condemn the police operation for various violations, such as illegal invasions of the homes of several residents followed by vandalism, looting, intimidation and confiscation of money and documents. The second in command of the Police Special Forces, João Jacques Busnello, claimed that the operation was within the legal framework and that it was a timely and compliant response to the attack the police had suffered in a comment to the news channel O Globo. In the same statement, Busnello stated that six of those killed were “bandits” or “suspects”, as if this justifies the deaths. Brazil is, after all, supposedly a rule-of-law state where one is innocent until proven guilty. The Civil Police has stated that the three remaining dead were innocent residents.

Where is Amarildo?

On July 14th, 42 year old Amarildo de Souza was taken in for questioning by the UPP police in the largest favela of Rio de Janeiro, Rocinha. The bricklayer and a father of six had apparently been mistaken for a drug dealer. The family of Amarildo was told that he would be released the same evening. Since then, no one has seen him.

The Maré and Amarildo cases are not the first of their kind. However, in light of the recent protests, they have become symbolic cases that have challenged the police institution and demanded responses. Rather than joining the ranks of unresolved and forgotten cases of arbitrary police operations in the favelas, these two cases have heated up the debate on police reform. Tens of thousands have demonstrated demanding justice for Maré and the truth about what happened to Amarildo.


Some responses have come after the massive denouncements against the police in Rio. In August, the Chief Commander of the Military Police in Rio, Costa Filho, was forced to leave his position after it became known that he had given amnesty to police officers who had committed undefined “administrative” infractions. This was a small step towards combating police impunity. On August 14th the civil police opened up an inquiry to investigate possible police abuse of power during the protests. The same week, governor Cabral also suspended the so-called Resolution 013. This resolution has been centralizing power in the hands of the UPP commanders, who have had full authority to veto the happening of any social, cultural or sports event at his or her will. This gave ground for corruption and abuse of authority. Finally, Rocinha got a new UPP commander in the beginning of September because of the Amarildo scandal.

However, these shifts of commanders do not reflect a shift of security policy. To the contrary, the elected politicians whose legitimacy and representativeness were deeply questioned by the mass protesters in June, have taken on a counter offensive.

Legitimate protesters or vandals?

Brazil’s Independence Day on the 7th of September is traditionally characterized by military parades. This year very few civilians showed up to watch and applaud the military troops. In most cities there were activists demonstrating against the military monopoly of the Independence Day. The Military Police was well prepared and beat up hundreds of people and arrested dozens, supposedly because they were masked.

The State Assembly of Rio de Janeiro has recently sanctioned a new law forbidding people to use masks in mass demonstrations, thus giving the police even more powers to oppress and pre-empt street demonstrators. The use of masks was at first one of the measures that protesters used to protect themselves against the tear gas, later on to remain anonymous to protect themselves from being targeted by the police. Only a very few young people with masks are actually part of the so-called Black Block with anarchist militant affiliation.

While initially supporting the protesters as legitimate, the mainstream media has for the last month or so overwhelmingly focused the on acts of vandalism committed by some people during the protests. The political nature of the demands of the protesters is ignored. The governor and the police are helped by conservative mass media such as O Globo in portraying the people who continue street demonstrations as Black Blocks and mere ‘vandals’. This is contributing to delegitimizing the protests in the eyes of the general public whose main source of information is the largest media corporations, and justifying the measures outside of the legal order taken by the police to combat vandalism.

Hope of reform?

The overwhelming popular support of the street demonstrators in June changed Brazilian politics. All of a sudden, president Dilma and all the leaders of the political parties promised to listen to ‘the voice of the streets’. Several speedy reform initiatives were taken. However, there is one demand from the street demonstrators that seems to be filtered away by the political elites: the call for a profound reform and demilitarization of the police. To the contrary, the politicians in power want to strengthen the iron fist of the police and use of force against civilians. They try to demobilize and demoralize those younger people who want to continue the struggle. Criminalization of radical, but at the outset peaceful, demonstrators is part of a strategy to isolate them from the people. This strategy has been employed by state authorities with great success many times before in the history of Brazil (and other countries). It remains to be seen if the final outcome of the June protests is more authoritarianism or a deeper democracy.


Soares, Luiz Eduardo. 2009. “Refundar as Polícias”. Le Monde Diplomatique Brazil.

Leite, Márcia Pereira. 2000. “Entre o individualismo ea solidariedade: dilemas da política e da cidadania no Rio de Janeiro”. Revista Brasileira de Ciências Sociais 14 (44): 73-90.

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