Are Rio's police public enemy No. 1?

A Rio de Janeiro policeman takes cover under attack from drug dealers in the violent suburb of Complexo do Alemão.
A Rio de Janeiro policeman takes cover under attack from drug dealers in the violent suburb of Complexo do Alemão. André Vieira / MCT

RIO DE JANEIRO, Brazil — Although he knew the risks he was running, Jorge da Silva Siqueira Neto, a father of six, refused to keep his mouth shut when police officers from a nearby battalion overran the slum where he lived and began terrorizing his neighbors.

Siqueira, 35, who headed the slum's residents association, sought out journalists, public prosecutors and anyone else who'd listen as he told horrific tales of extortion, torture and executions waged by out-of-control police.

Then on Sept. 7, he disappeared. He's presumed dead, and his friends are convinced he was killed by the police he blew the whistle on.

For many of the 12 million people who live in this metropolis, Siqueira's brave truth-telling revealed the moral crisis facing this state's 50,000-strong police force as it battles heavily armed drug gangs for control of the city's hundreds of slums.

Public trust in the police has reached dismal lows, as accounts of police abuse and corruption multiply daily. Many say that the police have become indistinguishable from the drug gangs they're fighting.

"Jorge didn't die because there was no knowledge of the danger he was in," said Rossino Diniz, a friend who's the president of a federation of slum residents associations. "There was no will to listen to him. He was saying things no one wanted to hear, and no one did anything. No one wanted to touch the power that police have in this city."

Over the past year, hundreds of state police officers, including whole battalions, have been linked to a shocking range of crimes, from drug dealing to indiscriminate killings to even arming the drug gangs they're fighting.

Police have formed illegal militias that have seized dozens of slums from gangs only to practice the same violent power over residents' daily lives. Siqueira was denouncing one such police-led militia when he disappeared.

The crisis has reached such dimensions that the state built a jail just for police officers. The facility, designed to house 420 prisoners, already is nearly out of space. State police records show that more than 5,000 officers are being disciplined for a range of conduct violations.

The moral crisis in the police force was the theme of this year's hit movie in Brazil, an action thriller called "Elite Squad." It's also spawned calls for major reforms and even a wholesale disbanding of the police force.

Alessandro Molon, a Rio de Janeiro state legislator who heads the assembly's human rights commission, said everything from the training to the background screening of state police candidates needs to be rethought.

"We have a very serious problem here, a problem of values," Molon said. "A good part of society doubts it's possible anymore to do anything about corrupt police."

Critics trace the genesis of the crisis to earlier this year, when Gov. Sergio Cabral ordered the police to reclaim, at all costs, whole neighborhoods from drug gangs.

The police moved aggressively, invading slum after slum in pitched battles that shut down parts of the city for days.

At first, the operations won popular support from residents weary of constant battles between drug gangs. But public opinion began to turn as evidence mounted that many of those killed by police had been shot at close range, meaning they'd likely been executed.

Cabral defends the police, saying the vast majority of officers are "honest workers" who shouldn't be lumped in with the few caught breaking laws.

But the public uproar was so great that Brazil's federal government invited a special U.N. human rights rapporteur to visit the city's slums and investigate the charges. After an 11-day visit, the rapporteur, Philip Alston, concluded that the country's police are allowed to "kill with impunity in the name of security."

There's no doubt that Rio police use deadly force more than almost any other police force in the world. In the first 10 months of this year, they killed 1,072 people in confrontations. For comparison, police in the city of Chicago, with 8 million people, killed 17 people in all of 2006.

Five state police officers interviewed by McClatchy blamed a range of problems, from low pay to poor equipment, for the violence. They noted, for example, that while the average police wage of $800 is on par with the median pay in Brazil, most officers must work second jobs to survive. Officers also often must buy their own ammunition and bulletproof vests.

As a result, more than two dozen state police officers were killed in the first 10 months of this year. That's more than half the number of police killed in the line of duty in the United States all of last year.

"In Rio, police work on the line that separates good and evil," said officer Lidia Celina dos Santos. "But he's being constantly pulled to the other side."

Compounding the problem, police are sent into poor neighborhoods long abandoned by governments, where drug gangs are often the only authorities, said police Lt. Melquisedec Nascimento, president of the state police union. About a fifth of state residents live in such slums, called favelas.

"The only body that should exercise power is the state," Nascimento said. "When the state is not doing its job, these other groups, such as gangs and militias, will appear."

Responding to the crisis, Brazilian President Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva has launched a five-year, $3.7 billion public-safety plan that, among other measures, brings more social services to slums and gives police officers and their families more education and support.

But those who live on Rio's mean streets said they doubt that they'll ever trust their state's police force to protect them.

An acquaintance of Siqueira who asked not to be identified for fear of retribution noted that although the four police officers whom Siqueira denounced remain in jail on suspicion of leading the militia, Siqueira's disappearance remains unsolved.

"Unlike the residents who suffered quietly, Jorge spoke the truth," the acquaintance said. "And look where it got him."