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In violent Rio, it's police vs. the masses—both sides lose lives in vicious battles

RIO DE JANEIRO—More than two policemen are killed each week on average in the state of Rio de Janeiro, violence so common that cops have their blood type stitched into their uniform name tags.

But don't expect their plight to draw much sympathy here. Rio's cops have long been considered under-trained, trigger happy and easy to bribe. Now their reputation has hit a new low after rampaging policemen massacred 30 slum-dwelling bystanders on March 30.

"It's getting so bad that I'm getting questions on whether we should just do away with the police force and start over," said Ignacio Cano, a sociologist at Rio de Janeiro State University who specializes on the police. "It's a unique act when you have the police force committing a terrorist act against the public."

Authorities have arrested 12 current or former police officers so far in connection with the slaughter. They blame rogue police upset over the arrests of eight fellow officers who were caught on video dumping the decapitated bodies of two suspected criminals outside a police station. The video showed them tossing a head over the station gate.

All of this, of course, conflicts with the postcard version of Rio, a place that enchants visitors and residents alike with the misty sweep of the Copacabana Beach, the dominating Christ statue and the gorgeous ruggedness of the Sugarloaf Mountain.

But woven throughout the tropical city are some 600 slums, known as favelas. Even locals fear hiking up the leafy hillsides to the favelas—there's usually only one path in—because of armed teenage drug traffickers.

It all makes for a violent brew.

Cops killed 983 civilians in Rio in 2004, according to Viva Rio, a nonprofit group that tracks police violence against civilians. The Rio Police Association says 133 cops were killed in 2004, most off duty while riding the bus or working a private security job. Another 40 have been killed in the first three months of 2005.

For comparison, 161 officers were killed in Colombia in 2004; Colombia has nearly triple Rio's population of 15 million. In the United States, with nearly 300 million residents, 153 officers were killed, according to the Web site of the National Law Enforcement Officers Memorial Fund.

Most galling to police is the lack of effort to track down officers' killers.

"It's not like the United States, where the killer of a policeman will be hunted down, perhaps even to death," said Lt. Melquisedec Nascimento, president of the Rio Police Association. "A policeman was killed Friday, and another one on Saturday, and neither was even reported in the newspaper."

At the core of the violence is the battle for favelas, which police enter usually only in huge tactical strikes meant to rout drug traffickers.

"The police invade, occupy and blitz," said Luke Dowdney, a staffer with Viva Rio. "The police attitude is you go in, you do what you need to do and you leave."

That breeds an especially pointed us vs. them situation in which both sides are well armed, quick on the draw and live in the same poor neighborhoods since cops are paid barely above minimum wage.

Most Rio cops hide their profession from their neighbors—by not hanging their uniforms out to dry along with the rest of the clothes, for example.

Cops usually hide their ID cards when traveling on a public bus and never travel in uniform. Street criminals, working in pairs, like to stop the buses and rob the passengers. They typically mow down any police found on board, figuring that if they don't, the cop will kill them.

"They hate us," said a cop named Leonardo, who, like other officers, spoke on condition that only his first name be used out of fear for his safety.

"A lot of my colleagues have been killed," said another cop, Rogerio. "There have been three killed and 21 wounded in my post in the last two years."

"Last year, I went to five funerals," added a third policeman, Carlos.

He crosses himself when he departs home each morning.

"My wife is always worried," he said. "We don't know if we'll come back."

Tania Cristina das Chagas is past worrying. Her son, Jefferson, 25, was ambushed and shot to death last August.

She fainted when she learned he had died.

"When I woke up, I was at home, on drugs, lying in bed. He was my only son, my everything," she said.

Das Chagas relives her son's death every time the television news reports the death of another cop.

"I ask myself: How long are we going to have to suffer like this? How many more will be killed? Why is so little being done to protect them? And why can't they find the killers? They used to fill the streets with police to chase down the killers. But now nothing happens."


(c) 2005, Knight Ridder/Tribune Information Services.

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