WORLD REPORT 1999 - Brazil

Human Rights Developments
In contrast to previous years, no single horrific event constituted the principal human rights development in 1998 in Brazil. Instead, the year was characterized by a series of incidents of police abuse, continued disturbances in Brazil’s overcrowded prisons and police lockups, the ongoing failure to prosecute vigorously prior incidents of gross abuse by state agents, and the government’s failure to implement the ideals embodied in the National Human Rights Program, released in May.

The issue of police violence continued to seize headlines as officers throughout Brazil killed suspects in incidents that they classified as instances of legitimate use of deadly force. The police in the greater São Paulo area killed 405 civilians in 1997 and 197 in the first five months of 1998. In Rio de Janeiro, State Secretary of Public Security Col. Noaldo Alves Silva, appointed in April, continued to promote the suspect policies of his predecessor Gen. Nilton Cerqueira, including pay raises and promotions for “acts of bravery” which Human Rights Watch had demonstrated were awarded to police for killing suspects, despite the existence, in many cases, of evidence contradicting official accounts of the circumstances. Since 1995, more than 3,000 military police and another 1,000 civil police had received pay bonuses for bravery; more than 950 officers had been promoted for bravery in the same period. An October 1997 study by the Institute of Religious Studies (Instituto de Estudos Religiosos, ISER), a leading Rio-based research institute, demonstrated that during this period, the number of civilians killed by police in the city of Rio soared from sixteen to thirty-two per month. In June, following two years of pressure from human rights groups and the media, the Rio de Janeiro State Legislative Assembly took the promising step of voting to suspend both the pay raises and promotions for bravery, overriding Gov. Marcello Alencar’s veto of the legislation. Although its impact would take time to evaluate, the vote represented a strong protest to the governor and state secretary of security regarding the stunning homicide record of Rio’s police. According to official figures released in September, in the first forty weeks of the year the police in the state of Rio killed 511 civilians, roughly sixty per month and nearly twice as many, per capita, as their São Paulo counterparts. Though less severe than in Rio, the problem of police violence in São Paulo was demonstrated to have been underreported by roughly 30 percent for the decade in official figures which São Paulo authorities recognized in April had systematically failed to include certain types of killings by officers.

São Paulo police continued to be subject to the control of the Police Ombudsman’s office (Ouvidoria), which received and processed complaints of police violence, and a separate program, which required those officers involved in homicides to be removed from street duty for three months and subjected to psychological evaluation before returning. No similar programs existed in Rio. In this regard, the appointment in August of long-time human rights activist José Roberto Rezende to initiate the work of the newly created police oversight body (Ouvidoria) in neighboring Minas Gerais constituted an important advance.

The northeastern state of Alagoas made national and international news in January when dozens of police officers were found to be involved in contract killings, bank robberies, and car theft rings. To their credit, state and federal authorities took the unprecedented step of arresting more than thirty police involved in the so-called “uniformed gang,” including its reputed leader, Lt. Col. Manoel Francisco Cavalcante, on January 16. Around the time of the arrests, investigations led to the discovery of the remains of thirty-two bodies, presumably victims of the gang’s homicides. After the arrests, however, the investigations stalled. A surprise visit to the state morgue in May by Human Rights Watch and local human rights groups exposed the burial of the remains of ten to twelve victims before they could be identified by DNA and other expert examinations. Meanwhile, dozens of crimes attributed to the police in recent years in Alagoas continued without convictions or even judicial proceedings.

Death squad violence, marked by police involvement, continued in the northwestern state of Acre and along Brazil’s border with Paraguay in the state of Mato Grosso do Sul. According to Acre State Supreme Court President Gercino José da Silva Filho, whohas received death threats and is under Federal Police protection, three death squads composed of civil police, military police and taxi drivers continued to operate in the state of Acre and have been responsible for the executions of at least thirty people in the past eleven years and possibly others among another 110 whose homicides remained unsolved. Recent crimes attributed to these death squads were the killings of Sérgio Rodrigues Soares, eighteen, executed with fifteen shots on March 28, and the early March shooting death of Francisco dos Santos Rocha.

The Marçal de Souza Human Rights Center reported that in 1997, 129 homicides with indicia of executions had been committed in the Grande Dourados Region of Mato Grosso do Sul, along the Brazilian border with Paraguay. Local human rights groups and state authorities suspected the involvement of the special border operations division of the state police in many of these killings.

Police continued to practice torture as a routine method of investigation throughout Brazil. The propriety and effectiveness of the use of torture became issues of national debate in light of a series of high-profile cases in which the police extracted confessions from defendants who were later shown to be innocent. Most prominent among these was the case of eighteen-year-old student Ana Carolina da Costa Lino, brutally murdered in an affluent section of Rio, some 200 meters from the governor’s mansion on April 14. Public pressure to resolve the crime—as well as the governor’s irresponsible statements to the press that no police investigation would be opened should the police kill the perpetrators in a shootout—led five teams of police to investigate the crime. Days after the event, a group of detectives presented Deílson Santana, a twenty-three-year-old technician, as one of the assailants. According to his statement, shortly after his arrest Santana had been taken to a deserted area where police threatened him, fired shots nearby to terrorize him, beat him and placed a plastic bag over his head repeatedly, to the point of near-asphyxiation. On May 21, a day after announcing that the crime had been clarified, the police publicly admitted that Santana had not been involved in it, and subsequently released him after their dubious efforts to establish his involvement in another robbery produced no evidence. In July, Willian Rosa Cinelli, one of those subsequently arrested in connection with the crime, escaped from his cell at the 26th precinct, reportedly after paying police nearly U.S.$90,000.

In the course of research conducted in late 1997 and 1998, Human Rights Watch took scores of credible statements of torture from detainees in police lockups, jails and prisons in seven Brazilian states. Particularly notable were the police lockups in Belo Horizonte, Minas Gerais. In that city’s Thefts and Robberies Precinct, detainees provided detailed accounts of daily torture sessions with electric shock and near-drowning in a special room adjacent to, and within earshot of, the holding cells. Not surprisingly, police authorities initially blocked access to the precinct for a delegation composed of state deputies, a member of the State Human Rights Council, and Human Rights Watch; they permitted the visit three days later pursuant to a state prosecutorial order.

On May 27, Alcioni Serafim de Santana, a Federal Police precinct chief in the internal affairs division, was gunned down in front of his house in São Paulo by hired killers, allegedly contracted by Federal Police officers whom Santana was investigating for involvement in contraband and narcotics trafficking. Santana’s killing prompted investigations into the Federal Police force—considered Brazil’s most professional—that demonstrated that 106 Federal Police officers in Rio and forty-six others in São Paulo were facing criminal charges but had not been dismissed. An undisclosed number had already been convicted yet continued on the force.

On August 31, Carlos Antônio Ruff, a forty-three-year-old former drug trafficker, was murdered shortly after agreeing to provide information to federal authorities about thirty-three state and Federal Police officers from Rio and São Paulo involved in drug trafficking. Investigations subsequent to Ruff’s death confirmed the veracity of his allegations. The utter failure of authorities to guarantee Ruff’s security underscored the need to create an effective witness protection program at the federal level and in the state of Rio de Janeiro.

In high-profile cases of police brutality, impunity continued to be the rule, with a few notable exceptions. More than six years after the 1992 massacre at Carandiru prison, in which 111 inmates were killed, no one had been brought to trial, although in March, the ordinary courts ordered eighty-five of the police officers accused to stand trial. The prosecution of the some fifty police officers responsible for the August 1993 massacre of twenty-one residents of the Vigário Geral favela (shantytown) failed to advance in 1998, after the November 1997 conviction of Military Police Officer Arlindo Maginário Filho. On December 28, 1997, Sirley Alves Ferreira, one of the defendants in the case, escaped from Ari Franco prison in Rio de Janeiro state. In April, a technical error forced the nullification of the trial of ten others.

One positive note was the August 25 conviction and stiff sentence (204 years’ imprisonment) imposed on former military policeman Marcos Aurélio Alcântara, the final defendant to be tried for his role in the July 1993 killing of eight street children in the Candelária plaza in downtown Rio de Janeiro. Another important advance in the battle against impunity was the May conviction and forty-seven-year sentence to Rio Grande do Norte police officer Jorge “the smotherer” Fernandes, for the killings of two and injuries to four others in a March 1995 incident known as the massacre of the Mãe Luiza favela in Natal, the state capital. Fernandes was suspected of involvement in at least a dozen other killings for which he still faced trial.

In July a military court in São Paulo convicted seven of the police officer defendants involved in the March 1997 videotaped scenes of beatings, extortion and murder in the Naval favela in Diadema, São Paulo. In August, the same court convicted an eighth defendant, Otávio Gambra, the officer who fired the shot that killed Mário José Josino in the videotaped incidents. All the defendants received relatively light sentences (between one year and eight months and three years and nine months) in the military tribunal but still faced prosecution, along with two others, in the ordinary courts for the crimes of murder, attempted murder and abuse of authority.

Severe overcrowding, official violence and appalling conditions in Brazil’s prisons, jails and police holding centers continued to provoke riots and rebellions, several of which resulted in the loss of life. After a record year of riots (195 in São Paulo’s lockups and jails alone in 1997), the national prison census for 1997—released and then recalled in early 1998—demonstrated a significantgrowth in inmate numbers and a prison capacity deficit of 96,010. This deficit (2.3 persons were maintained in detention for every space in the prison system) forced many states to intensify their use of temporary police holding cells as long-term detention centers. The lack of infrastructure, extreme overcrowding and endemic violence in both police lockups and the regular prison system triggered riots throughout the year, several of which were controlled with excessive, often deadly force.

On December 24, 1997, a group of twenty-three prisoners at the Paulo Sarasate prison ( Instituto Penal Paulo Sarasate , IPPS) in Ceará took three representatives of nongovernmental organizations (NGOs) and one police lieutenant hostage and initiated a standoff that lasted some twenty-five hours. After much negotiation—including the release of the police lieutenant but not the civilians—the prisoners and hostages were allowed to flee in four vehicles provided by the police. Shortly after the cars exited the prison, the police opened fire on them, killing seven prisoners and wounding two hostages with gunfire. Surviving prisoners and hostages told Human Rights Watch that the police summarily executed at least two prisoners after they had surrendered.

On February 5, a group of approximately thirty prisoners attempted to escape from the João Chaves prison in Natal, Rio Grande do Norte. The police responded to the escape by gunning down six apparently unarmed prisoners, some of whom received as many as fourteen shots, all from behind. Three days later, police recaptured escapee Moisaniel Oliveira da Silva, killing him with a single shot to the temple at point-blank range.

The João Chaves prison had been the subject of reports of extreme prisoner-on-prisoner violence, allegedly promoted or at least tolerated by authorities. Between March 1997 and January 1998, ten prisoners were killed by other inmates. In at least two of these cases, authorities were made aware of the threats facing the endangered prisoners yet failed to take steps to prevent the killings. Prisoner-on-prisoner abuse claimed the lives of dozens of others in 1998. A two-day rebellion at the São José prison in Belém, Pará state ended with the death of three prisoners, whom authorities contended had been killed by other detainees. On May 29, at least twenty-two prisoners died during fights in the Barreto Campelo prison in the northeastern state of Pernambuco.

Detention conditions for minors, generally separated from adults in Brazil, fell well below minimum standards. In April, some 370 juveniles held in the Moniz Sodré detention center in Rio de Janeiro took three staff members hostage and began a riot that lasted just over an hour. During that time, the youths set fire to mattresses and destroyed part of the facility. A visit by the State Bar Association’s Human Rights Commission the following month showed that repairs had not been made, hundreds of minors had been sleeping on the floor of a gymnasium and many of them bore signs of recent beatings.

Violent disputes over land continued to be widespread. According to the Pastoral Land Commission (Comissão Pastoral da Terra, CPT), in 1997 land conflicts numbered 658, a slight increase from the 653 registered in 1996 and a significant rise from the 440 in 1995 or the 379 of 1994. Figures for 1998 were not available at this writing, but press reports suggested that this trend continued throughout the year. On March 26, two landless labor leaders who had survived the April 17, 1996 massacre of nineteen landless squatters in Eldorado dos Carajás, Onalício Araújo Barros and Valentin da Silva Serra, were shot to death in an apparent execution shortly after they were evicted along with 520 families from the Goiás II ranch in southern Pará state. Subsequent investigations established that eleven police officers had participated in the expulsion and the subsequent shooting. Several of these officers had also participated in the Eldorado dos Carajás massacre but continued to serve on active duty, pending trial in that case.

Through August 1998, at least nineteen persons had been killed in rural conflicts, including several leaders of the landless movement. In February, a group of eighty hooded gunmen and landowners attacked a group of landless laborers involved in an occupation in Paraná state, killing sixty-five year-old Sebastião Camargo Filho and injuring two others. In March, the body of Adelson Brito, a landless leader in Barra Mansa, Rio de Janeiro state was found on the side of a road near the fazenda (plantation) whose occupation he had organized, riddled with five bullets.

The number of instances and persons involved in the practice of forced labor fell dramatically (from twenty-one cases involving 26,047 persons in 1995 to nineteen cases involving 2,487 persons in 1996 and to seventeen cases involving 872 persons in 1997), due largely to the efforts of federal labor investigation teams in conjunction with civil society. Nonetheless, the CPT registered sixty-six cases of extreme abuse of worker rights in 1997, including forced labor and hyper-exploitation involving 25,660 people.

Indigenous peoples continued to suffer invasions on their traditional lands by loggers, miners and others, often violent. On May 20, Xucuru indian leader Francisco de Assis Araújo was shot by a hired gunman in Pesqueira, in the northeastern state of Pernambuco, in what appeared to be a targeted assassination. Araújo had led a campaign to increase the area demarcated as Xucuru land. Some 181 fazendas had occupied the areas claimed by the tribe.

In March, Federal Police authorities took steps to expel Dutch missionary Winifridus Overbeek from Brazil on unfounded charges that Overbeek encouraged indigenous tribes to invade private lands. The response of NGOs dedicated to indigenous rights and civil society forced the government to reconsider and allow Overbeek to continue his work with the Tupiniquim and Guarani indians in Espírito Santo state.

The issue of grave human rights violations committed during the military dictatorship continued to provoke revelations and reaction by civil society in 1998. In February it became known that Ricardo Fayad, a doctor who oversaw torture sessions of political dissidents during the dictatorship, had been promoted to health director for the Army. In April, President Cardoso ceded to the pressure of human rights groups, including Human Rights Watch, and reversed Fayad’s promotion. The Special Commission on Deaths and Disappearances, a governmental body established by a December 1995 law, continued to hold state agents responsible for custodial deaths previously mischaracterized as shootouts, resistance to arrest or otherwise, and authorized compensation to victims’ survivors in a total of 148 of the 234 cases decided from its creation in December 1995 through May 1998. In April, the Rio daily O Globo ran a special series of articles based on security force documents from 1970 to 1981 released by the family of Army Gen. Antônio Bandeira. The documents provided details about the conduct of the military campaign to eliminate the Araguaiaguerrilla movement in the 1970s, demonstrating state responsibility for the detention and death of persons whose whereabouts the military had consistently denied knowing. In the cases of leftist leaders Carlos Danielli and Joaquim Câmara Ferreira, for example, the documents established that both men had been arrested and were thus killed after detention, not while resisting arrest as authorities had contended at the time. The revelations prompted renewed calls for the release of all documents held by governmental authorities concerning the abuses of security forces and the military during the dictatorship (1964-1985).

Throughout 1998, important measures set forth in the National Human Rights Program failed to gain approval from the federal Congress or state authorities. At this writing, measures to limit the jurisdiction of military courts, to grant Federal Police and courts jurisdiction over certain human rights violations, to create a federal witness protection plan, to revise the penal code (particularly sex offenses), to establish a statute to govern indigenous areas and dozens of others remained stalled in Congress. Almost all Brazilian states failed to establish mechanisms of external control of the police or to reduce prison overcrowding, as recommended by the program.

Brazil continued to seek a permanent seat on the United Nations Security Council, adopting initial measures to demonstrate a commitment to international human rights standards. In December 1997, the Brazilian government signed the Convention on the Prohibition of the Use, Stockpiling, Production and Transfer of Anti-Personnel Mines and On their Destruction (1997 Mine Ban Treaty). At this writing, however, it had not yet ratified the treaty. In July, Brazil voted to support the Rome treaty to establish an International Criminal Court (ICC). Although press reports indicated the government’s intent to recognize the jurisdiction of the Inter-American Court of Human Rights in San José, Costa Rica, at this writing authorities had not deposited an instrument to that effect. Throughout 1998, the government showed an increased willingness to negotiate friendly settlements in cases pending before the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights (IACHR) and recognized the existence of grave human rights violations as reported by that body in a special report released in December 1997. In September 1998, President Cardoso issued a decree granting amnesty to thousands of foreigners residing illegally in Brazil.

Defending Human Rights
Brazil was fortunate to have a broad range of human rights organizations, religious groups, civic associations and unions that worked in the documentation, defense and promotion of human rights without legal impediments. These groups were responsible for a series of campaigns related to individual cases of rights violations and regarding state policies that facilitated abuse. These efforts effectively prodded the federal and state governments to take concrete actions on a number of fronts.

Federal authorities were expected to reopen the investigation of the October 1996 murder of Rio Grande do Norte human rights attorney Gilson Nogueira. The decision was the result of new evidence indicating police responsibility in the killing, as well as pressure from local and international groups which filed a petition admitted by the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights of the OAS.

As recommended in the National Human Rights Program, legislative bodies at the municipal and state level either created or strengthened existing human rights commissions. These human rights commissions, though governmental by definition, acted with notable independence, receiving complaints of abuse from citizens, overseeing police, prisons and other state agents, and denouncing abuses to prosecutors and the media. In many cities and states, these human rights bodies coordinated efforts to draft municipal or state-level human rights programs, patterned on the National Human Rights Program. The continued growth of this sector in 1998 constituted perhaps the most positive development in this area.

At the same time, nongovernmental organizations continued to create working ties with the federal and state governments, particularly with regard to witness protection. The Office of Legal Assistance for Grassroots Organizations (Gabinete de Assessoria Jurídica às Organizações Populares, GAJOP), a leading NGO based in Recife, worked with the Ministry of Justice and the United Nations Development Program to establish joint government-NGO witness protection programs in the states of Rio Grande do Norte, Espírito Santo, and Bahia, based on a successful program in Pernambuco state. Authorities planned to establish similar plans in four more states, including São Paulo in 1999.

European Union
The European Union (E.U.) financed numerous nongovernmental organizations dedicated to the defense of human rights in Brazil in 1998. Member states of the E.U., both individually and collectively, encouraged Brazil to comply with international human rights norms through regular meetings with federal officials in Brazil and on official government trips to Europe.

In June, the E.U. established new guidelines for import tariffs for products from Asia and Latin America intended to create financial incentives for developing nations to fully respect labor rights and to curb child labor. Through the measures, which would authorize reductions from 15 percent to 35 percent for products from countries that comply fully with International Labour Organisation (ILO) norms relating to the rights of unions, collective bargaining and minimum work age, the E.U. hoped to press Brazilian, and other, authorities to take concrete measures in these areas. The Brazilian government objected to the application of the new measures.

In September, the Brazilian government announced the creation of a program to train police officers run by the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) with support from the Dutch and Swedish governments. The ICRC program builds on a pilot program implemented in 1997 and seeks to train officers in professional policing techniques that include safeguards for suspects’ fundamental rights.

United States
In 1998, the U.S. gave relatively little direct assistance to Brazil, but took some measures to promote human rights training and education. For fiscal year 1999, the Clinton administration requested U.S.$1.2 million in counternarcotics assistance. For fiscal year 1998, Congress approved U.S.$1.4 million in counternarcotics assistance, including U.S.$850,000 for Drug Enforcement Agency operations and an additional U.S.$207,000 in direct programming and spending. An additional U.S.$2 million to equip anti-drug police operations was expected to be disbursed as part of fiscal year 1998 expenditures. For fiscal year 1999, the administration requested U.S.$225,000 for Brazil through the International Military Education and Training program.

During the year, the U.S. government sponsored numerous visits for human rights activists, attorneys, and community organizers to the United States through the administration of justice and United States Information Services programs, as well as visits to Brazil by experts on human and civil rights, particularly in the area of diversity. The State Department’s chapter on Brazil in its Country Reports on Human Rights Practices for 1997 accurately portrayed the human rights situation in Brazil, highlighting police violence, torture, and the abuses suffered by women, minorities, and prisoners.