RIO DE JANEIRO (Reuters) - Barked commands and the thump of helicopter blades jolted Juliana out of bed early in the morning of April 3.
Unease turned to fear when she saw it was no ordinary police raid on her Rio de Janeiro shantytown — the hundreds of officers fanning out through the streets were clad in the black uniforms of BOPE, the city’s elite special police.
“They were shouting: ‘We’ve come to kill, men and women’,” said Juliana, who had lived in the Vila Alianca slum all her life. She did not want her real name used, for fear of reprisals.
A few hours later the bodies of 11 drug-dealer suspects, among them Juliana’s brother, were delivered to a hospital. She said her brother, killed by a bullet in his chest and several in his head as he took refuge in a neighbor’s home, had nothing to do with gangs and worked as a van driver to support his two young boys.
For many in Brazil the highly trained BOPE unit is a source of pride, with a reputation for being efficient, incorruptible and the only force able to strike fear into the drug gangs that control Rio’s violent slums, or favelas. Its profile was raised further by last year’s hit movie “The Elite Squad,” which many saw as portraying it as a violent but necessary force.
For rights activists and residents of the slums targeted by its operations, though, BOPE is a powerful symbol of the failure of policing in the city of 6 million, whose murder rate remains among the world’s highest.
Despite President Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva’s nurturing of a strong economy and social programs lifting millions out of poverty, crime remains a stubborn problem on which he has made little impact — and, critics say, little effort.
Thousands of slums, or favelas, that run through Brazil’s major cities breed crime and violence, with little or no state presence. Only Sao Paulo, the business capital, has significantly cut its murder rates, partly by cracking down on guns and spending more on law enforcement.
In Rio, where about one million people live in favelas, Gov. Sergio Cabral has opted for a policy of “confrontation” with drug gangs. That was partly responsible for a 25 percent rise in the number of suspects killed by police last year to 1,330.
The results appear depressingly familiar — drug gangs are often back in control of slums a few weeks after police raids — but polls consistently show support for the hardline tactics.
Residents said they feel BOPE troops often try to cow the whole community, accusing anyone who happens to be on the street when they arrive of being criminals and threatening to shoot them. Its use of the feared “Caveirao” (big skull) armored vehicles has been condemned by rights groups including Amnesty International, which said troops often fire randomly from inside the trucks.
“When they come, it’s not to mess around. They come to kill,” said Carol, a 22-year-old who works at a youth project in Nova Holanda slum.
“My 2-year-old baby gets scared, saying ‘Dad, don’t go out, you’ll get shot’. People who praise BOPE don’t know what it’s like here.”
People who say BOPE wrongfully killed family members have little chance of legal redress due to routine withholding of evidence and witnesses who fear to testify, said Margarida Pressburger, head of the Rio Bar Association’s Human Rights Commission.
“They are much more violent than other parts of the police, especially since the film Elite Squad,” she said. “They sing songs like ‘we have to kill, we are going to kill everyone.’ It has given them a power they are not ready to receive.”
Created in 1978, BOPE is different from other law enforcement agencies. In a country obsessed with soccer, they play rugby — because it “involves gaining territory, demands team spirit and courage just like our operations in needy communities,” according to a recent BOPE statement.
Its insignia, a skull dissected by a dagger and two pistols, looks like it belongs to a biker gang. Better paid and trained than other police and with almost daily urban combat experience, its troops have a reputation as some of the most capable soldiers in the world.
Rio state’s security office said that all police operations were based on careful investigations and carried out with the aim of minimizing innocent casualties.
“The reaction (from drug traffickers) causes confrontations and puts innocent lives at risk, but leaving power in the hands of criminals doesn’t seem a better solution,” it said in response to Reuters questions about the Vila Alianca raid.
“The solution for Rio, after decades of neglect, is difficult, long and painful.”
The success of last year’s movie has helped cement BOPE’s heroic reputation among many Brazilians. Crowds cheered them when they marched through the center of Rio last September. Groups praising BOPE and the film’s brutal, tortured anti-hero Capt. Nascimento have sprung up on social networking sites, with members in the thousands.
Rio’s police face unique challenges — criminals who are often better armed than them and who often have some support, albeit coerced, within the favelas.
For Juliana, though, the memory of BOPE the day her brother died was of violent, callous treatment. When she called his mobile phone, she said it was answered by an officer who called her a criminal whose criminal friend was “already in hell.”
Later, neighbors told her that her brother had been mistaken for a suspect who ran into the house where he was hiding. She said troops entered the house and shot him, before moving upstairs and killing the original suspect.
Reporting by Stuart Grudgings; Additional reporting by Pedro Fonseca; Editing by Eddie Evans