Covering events from January - December 2004

Levels of human rights violations continued to be extremely high, despite a number of initiatives by the federal government's Special Secretariat of Human Rights. Reports of ineffective, violent, and corrupt policing raised doubts about the effectiveness of government proposals for reform.

Hundreds, possibly thousands, of civilians were killed by police in alleged gun battles. Few if any of the cases were fully investigated. There were consistent reports of police participation in "death squads". The use of torture was widespread and systematic. The prison system was characterized by overcrowding, riots and corruption. Federal and state authorities provided limited protection for human rights defenders under threat.

Rural and indigenous activists continued to be threatened, attacked and killed. Human rights violators remained largely unpunished. Following national and international condemnation the federal government promised to begin opening files detailing violations by the former military regime.


The government maintained a tight fiscal policy ensuring payment of its foreign debt. While the country saw record growth rates for the first half of the year this came at the expense of large parts of its social spending. Combating hunger continued to be central to the government's social policy although it suffered criticism for its failure to meet promised land reform targets, among other things.

The Special Secretariat of Human Rights launched a number of projects, including a new campaign against torture. The government pushed through legislative proposals such as the reform of the judiciary, which included mechanisms for dealing with human rights crimes at federal level. Human rights groups were concerned that these proposals would not be effectively implemented due to insufficient political and financial support.

In addition to enacting gun control legislation the government launched a disarmament campaign, which included cash payments for handing in guns. However, it failed to follow up on the support, expressed by the President, for an international campaign for an arms trade treaty to control sales of small arms.

Following his visit in October the UN Special Rapporteur on the independence of judges and lawyers condemned the slowness of the judicial system, its exclusion of certain groups and the vulnerable position of children and adolescents within the system.

Public security and police killings

There were consistent reports from around the country of corrupt, violent and discriminatory policing. In shanty towns policing operations were usually seen as invasive and repressive. Military and civil police often contributed to violence and crime in poor and marginalized areas, which remained focal points for extreme levels of armed violence, often related to drug trafficking.

Official figures cited 663 killings by police in the state of São Paulo and 983 in Rio de Janeiro state. Both figures were lower than in recent years. The vast majority of the victims were young, poor, black or mixed-race men. While investigations were opened into some of these cases, few progressed very far.

Members of state police forces were attacked or killed both on and off duty. Eighty-two police officers were killed in São Paulo and Rio de Janeiro while on duty.

The government's national public security plan to reform state police forces, reportedly based on human rights principles, failed to live up to expectations. While some states began to implement elements of the plan, few adopted its fundamentals. Demands from elements of the media and public for more repressive policing in response to violent crime further hindered reform. The new national security force, created as part of the plan, was first used in the state of Espírito Santo in November, following reported attacks by drug gangs.

The Rio de Janeiro state government repeatedly failed to provide protection for marginalized communities facing invasion by drug gangs. Response by the military police to the violent invasions of two shanty towns, Rocinha in April and Vigário Geral in October, were belated and, in the case of Rocinha, violent. Following one of the invasions the state governor requested federal authorization to deploy the army on the streets. The request was effectively denied when the Rio de Janeiro government refused to adhere to stipulations requested by the federal government.

  • On 3 February, Flávio Ferreira Sant'Ana, a black dentist from São Paulo, was reportedly extrajudicially executed after being detained by military police officers searching for a shoplifter. Officers were reported to have planted a gun by his body, stating that he was killed in a shootout. There were strong indications that the killing was racially motivated. An investigation was opened.

'Death squads'

Across the country "death squads" continued to participate in the extrajudicial executions of criminal suspects in situations sometimes described as "social cleansing" as well as in the context of organized crime, often with the direct involvement of former and active police officers.

  • Between 19 and 22 August, seven homeless people were beaten to death in the centre of São Paulo. Two military police officers and a private security guard were subsequently charged with the killings. However, the charges were dropped on grounds of insufficient evidence.

There were some initiatives to curb the problem. In Bahia a state government task force dismantled several "death squads" throughout the year. In December a federal judge ordered the dissolution of Scuderie Detetive Le Cocq, a police benevolence organization with paramilitary characteristics long implicated in "death squad" activity, organized crime and corruption in Espírito Santo. In Pernambuco a military policeman, a prominent "death squad" member, was sentenced to 14 years' imprisonment for the 1999 killing of Josenildo João de Freitas Junior.

Torture and ill-treatment

Torture continued to be widespread and systematic in prisons, police stations and at point of arrest. The federal government stated that since 1997 a total of 240 people had been convicted for torture, pending further appeals.

However, there was concern at the continued failure to effectively implement recommendations made in 2000 by the UN Special Rapporteur on torture.

  • On 21 January, Rômulo Batista de Melo, a student, was arrested, accused of stealing a car that belonged to his friend. He died after suffering severe cranial injuries while in custody. The civil police alleged that the injuries were self-inflicted. Three policemen were charged with his killing.

In São Paulo's prisons, numbers of riots reportedly fell, following the introduction of new punishment systems – the Differentiated Disciplinary Regime and the Special Disciplinary Regime. Detainees informed AI that these regimes were abusive and used by prison directors. One prison director was unable to explain to AI what legal safeguards existed in such circumstances.

Severe overcrowding, insanitary conditions, riots, prisoner-on-prisoner violence and the systematic use of torture and ill-treatment pervaded the detention system. Extensive corruption and an ineffective criminal justice system added to the pressures.

  • In May, seven adolescents aged between 15 and 17 died in a fire they had started in Complexo de Defesa da Cidadania, a juvenile detention centre in Teresina, Piauí state. Police reportedly poured water over the boys through the cell window but refused to let them out. Charges were brought against the mother of one of the detainees for providing him with matches and against one military policeman for failing to find the matches during a routine search. Charges against the State Social Security Secretary, responsible for the centre, were dropped following a judicial ruling.
  • On 31 May, 30 detainees were killed when members of Rio de Janeiro's drug gangs rioted in the Casa de Custodia de Benfica, in the state capital. The riot took place following a decision to mix gang members together in the prison.
  • The Urso Branco prison, in the northern state of Rondonia, was again the scene of riots, abuse and torture. In April, 14 detainees were killed by other prisoners during a riot. This brought the number of killings in the prison to 78 since May 2001, underlining the failure of federal and state authorities to comply with measures issued by the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights in 2002. As a result of the failure to comply the case was sent before the Inter-American Court of Human Rights, the first case that Brazil has had to face there, and upheld.

Human rights defenders

Human rights defenders suffered threats, attacks, defamation and killings. Existing protection mechanisms continued to be weak. In October the federal government launched its first programme for the protection of human rights defenders, which aimed to use special units of the state police to protect those under threat. The project was welcomed as a first step, but many non-governmental organizations (NGOs) expressed concern that it transferred responsibility from federal to state authorities, often the very source of the threat.

In May the federal police appealed against orders to provide protection to Roberto Monte, Ruy dos Santos and José Veras Junior. They argued that as the three were not federal employees they should be protected by the state, not the federal authorities. Roberto Monte, an employee of the Centre for Human Rights and Collective Memory in Natal, Rio Grande do Norte, continued to receive threats for denouncing local "death squads" which included members of the state police.

In November an internal memo was made public instructing civil police in São Paulo to monitor trade unions, NGOs and social movements such as the Landless Workers' Movement. The state civil police chief reportedly stated that the order to monitor these organizations had come from the National Secretariat of Public Security in Brasília. An official investigation into the memo was launched by the state Public Prosecutor's Office.

Land and indigenous rights

The number of land activists and union leaders threatened and killed remained a serious concern. The Pastoral Land Commission (Commissão Pastoral da Terra, CPT) cited 29 killings up to November, 15 in the south of Pará state.

  • On 29 January, Ezequiel de Moraes Nascimento, president of a rural workers' association, was shot in front of his family by two men in Redenção, south of Pará. Eight days later Ribamar Francisco dos Santos, treasurer of the Rural Workers' Union, was shot in front of his house in Rondon, south of Pará. The union president, Maria Joelma da Costa, continued to receive death threats. Proposals to withdraw her police protection were discarded following intervention by the CPT.
  • On 20 November, five members of the Landless Workers' Movement were killed and 13 injured by masked gunmen in Felisburgo, Minas Gerais. Four men were later arrested, including a local landowner.

Indigenous peoples continued to face threats, attacks and violent evictions in their struggle for land rights. Failures to ensure their entitlement to their lands left them vulnerable to attacks and land invasions by illegal settlers, loggers and diamond miners among others.

  • In January settlers invaded a Catholic mission in the indigenous reserve of Raposa Serra do Sol in Roraima state, following a government announcement that indigenous land claims would finally receive presidential approval. They held three missionaries hostage for three days, reportedly subjecting them to psychological torture and humiliation. The settlers, apparently coordinated by local landowners, also blocked roads in the area and threatened further attacks against indigenous communities. The process of granting the land to the indigenous inhabitants was postponed. It was subsequently further delayed by legal appeals and at the end of 2004 attacks and threats were ongoing.
  • In April police opened an investigation into the killings of 29 men who had been illegally mining on land belonging to the Cinta Larga indigenous people in the state of Rondônia. In December 2003 an investigative commission formed by members of the Rondônia legislative assembly warned of impending violence and called for federal intervention, including the presence of the army, in order to prevent conflict and illegal mining in the region. This was not provided. In November police announced they were charging 10 members of the indigenous community with the killings.

According to reports, the problem of slave labour continued to grow. However, the government brought in important legislation which allowed for the confiscation of lands on which slave or indentured labour was used. State officials and human rights activists working to combat the problem were threatened, attacked and killed.

  • On 28 January, three Ministry of Labour inspectors and their driver were killed in Unaí, Minas Gerais, while inspecting farms in the region for slave labour. Four men, including a local landowner, were charged in relation to the killings.

Past human rights violations

Efforts to improve the human rights situation in the country continued to be undermined by the failure to punish those responsible for past violations, although some notable convictions were achieved.

  • Eight years after the killing of 19 land activists in Eldorado dos Carájas by members of the Pará state military police, the two commanding officers involved in the killings had their prison sentences upheld in November. A request for a retrial of 145 other military policemen involved in the incident was rejected. They had all been acquitted previously. Appeals were pending on all decisions.
  • Twelve years after the killing of 111 detainees in the Carandiru detention centre nobody had been imprisoned for the crimes. The military police colonel in charge of the operation, who was awaiting an appeal hearing against his conviction and sentence of 632 years, was working as a São Paulo state deputy. None of the 105 military police officers charged had yet stood trial.
  • In November a court in Pernambuco sentenced a man to 19 years' imprisonment for involvement with ordering the 1998 killing of indigenous leader Chicão Xucuru.

In response to a photograph published in a national newspaper in October, the army released a statement defending the repressive actions of the 1964-1985 military regime, stating that it had laid the foundations for a democratic Brazil. Although the statement was later withdrawn, the subsequent uproar led to the Minister of Defence resigning. No military officers resigned. In December, a federal court ordered the government to open files held on resistance against the dictatorship.

AI country visits

In July and August AI delegates visited São Paulo, Rio de Janeiro, Brasília, Espírito Santo, Minas Gerais, Mato Grosso do Sul and Pernambuco.

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