The Military Police Department of São Paulo has a long history of brutality and racial profiling. An Amnesty International report points out that in São Paulo, “serious human rights violations continue to be denounced, such as homicides committed by the police, as well as torture and mistreatment of people in custody. Young black men living in slums and poor areas on the outskirts of cities are more in danger.” No other episode, however, was as shocking as the Carandiru Massacre that took place in a São Paulo prison on October 2, 1992. On this now-infamous day, at least 111 inmates were slaughtered over the span of half an hour by police agents.
The bloodiest episode in Brazilian penitentiary history began at 10 am, when two inmates housed at the Carandiru Prison started a fight during a football match in the prison yard. The brawl quickly escalated into a general rebellion. By 2pm, prisoners were burning mattresses and blocking entrances to the cellblocks. State authorities attempted negotiations for about an hour, after which police troops stormed the prison and killed 111 inmates over the span of thirty minutes. Each was shot an average of five times, and not a single agent lost his life.
This brutal massacre went onto not only become a symbol São Paulo’s police violence, but also of impunity in Brazil. Twenty-four years after the massacre, not a single law enforcement agent has been arrested. Although 74 agents were convicted for murder and human rights violations – with a combined sentence of nearly 700 years of imprisonment – the verdict was appealed and the agents never served jail time. To make matters worse, São Paulo’s State Court suspended their trial on Wednesday, which has brought the case against them back to square one.
State judges based their decision on a technicality. One judge even denied that the massacre took place, pushing for the dismissal of the charges. According to Judge Ivan Sartori, the event “wasn’t a massacre, but self-defense.” Let’s not forget the fact that the prisoners didn’t have firearms, and that many bodies were found with bullet marks in the back of their heads, in classic execution style.
According to the court’s decision, it is illegal to convict the 74 law enforcement agents involved in the raid since no analysis was performed on the ballistics. It is impossible, the judges insist, to determine which officer killed which inmate. Because of this technicality, the judges maintain that the convictions of the agents were unsupported by evidence.
The brutality of the Carandiru Massacre was a defining moment of the 1990s in Brazil. The episode served as material for musicians, such as Caetano Veloso and Gilberto Gil, and the director Hector Babenco, who directed the 2003 movie Carandiru.
Impunity Is The Norm
Even more disgraceful was the leniency displayed at the time towards state authorities. Colonel Ubiratan Guimarães, for example, who coordinated the blood bath, was elected to Congress in 2002. Candidates in Brazil are identified by numbers, and Guimarães chose a number that ended in 111 – a nasty reference to the number of inmates murdered. He was murdered in 2006 without ever facing formal punishment for his actions. Then-Governor Luiz Antônio Fleury Filho, to whom the Military Police answered, is currently a member of the PMDB’s National Committee, Brazil’s largest political party.
This flagrant disregard for justice ultimately encourages police brutality, according to Sandra Jardim, who prosecuted the officers involved in the Carandiru Massacre. According to Jardim, Judge Ivo Sartori’s ruling “tears down the Brazilian Constitution” in choosing to not punish violent excesses in police actions. This is particularly disturbing if we recall the recent episodes of police violence directed towards black and low-income populations. A March report by plus55 shows outraging data on the topic.
In August 2015, two massacres took place in violent parts of the São Paulo Metropolitan Area. It is believed that seven policemen and guards acted to avenge the death of a coworker, resulting in a bloodbath that killed 19 people – and among the victims, a 15-year-old.
Cases involving police brutality frequently end in an acquittal for the officers involved. This occurs even when victims have been shot from close range or execution-style, in the back of the head. Impunity is the rule when it comes to murder cases, and not just for cases involving law enforcement officers. According to Amnesty International, only 8 percent of all murder cases result in an actual prosecution. Multiple factors contribute to this statistic, including flawed investigations and forensic work, as well as a slow-moving justice system.
Despite the arguments presented by those who defend “vigorous action” by the police, massacres don’t protect law-abiding citizens. The outcome of the Carandiru Massacre was instead the union of several criminal actions, which came together to form a major drug cartel called the “Capital’s First Command” (Primeiro Comando da Capital, PCC in Portuguese). Now, drug lords rule many state prisons in Brazil, and control organized crime both inside and outside of the penitentiary system.
The Structure of the Police Must Change
There are three main police forces in Brazil: Federal Police, Civil Police and Military Police. The first is our equivalent to the FBI, and it is attached to the Ministry of Justice. The remaining two are state forces. To simplify the distinction between them: the Civil Police are the detectives, and the Military Police function more like beat cops. The former investigates crimes, while the latter is supposed to prevent them from happening by monitoring specific areas. Not only do the Military Police fail greatly in crime prevention, but they are also thought to contribute to criminal activity; 15 percent of all murders in Brazil are attributed to these cops.
The daily reality endured by policemen is not an easy one, either. Salaries are notoriously bad, especially for a job like theirs: they survive on under $600 a month. They also must work with outdated equipment, if they have it at all.
Many experts argue for the demilitarization of the police and a major overhaul of Brazil’s law enforcement structure. Defenders of the current system, however, maintain that the police militarization is specified by our Constitution. At least this was what the Brazilian government told the UN back in 2012. Sure, it’s constitutional – but that doesn’t mean it should stay that way.