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English Report

Human rights violations are a part of every day life for most people who live in low-income neighborhoods. In the communities of Sapopemba, there is a feeling of isolation, fear, and insecurity. From January to May 2003, São Paulo's Military Police killed 435 people, an average of 3 persons per day, and 51% more than in the same period of 2002. The Police Attorney Fermino Fecchio, who denounced these killings, was recently removed from his position under pressure from the Secretary of Security.

Sapopemba: killing policies in the periphery
of São Paulo

Ana Facundes*

"It was on April 24th around 10 am. They knocked on the door and I answered. 'Are you the owner of this house?' 'I am'-I barely had time to respond before I got punched in the eye. They came in and continued to hit me. They also hit my husband, who tried to defend me, and called me a whore, a bitch, and other names which they also called my 11 year old daughter. My younger children cried watching that scene, their parents getting beaten up, and the police threatening them and telling them that they would go to juvenile hall. While they beat us, they said that we were to sign everything, but I didn't even know what crime we had committed. After a half hour beating us up, they handcuffed us, took us out of our home, and put us in a vehicle."

After a long time in the vehicle, without anyone explaining what was going on, one of the policemen opened the car so that a TV camera team from "Cidade Alerta" (a police show) could show them on national TV as a dangerous couple of kidnappers.

"On the way to the police station, the officers told us that they were going to give us electric shocks. We arrived at the police station at 2:30pm; they ordered us to stand up against the wall and every policeman that walked by hit my husband with their guns. After a while, we were photographed and frisked. A policeman called me a whore and said that I wasn't going to be put in the same cell as my husband because then he would come back and find us having sex. I was put in a cell with a man I had never seen before. Only afterwards I found out that he was a victim like us, arrested under the same conditions. After they left us in the cell, the police turned off the lights twice and released some kind of gas, which we later found out was pepper spray. When they released the gas, they made noises, imitating ghosts. This was around 3pm. We stayed there for hours, feeling sick, suffocated with nausea and headaches. I had to go to the bathroom but nobody came near the cell. Only around 8:30pm did two police appear, asking us who we were and for the first time my husband and I were heard. After we answered their questions, my husband asked if I could use the bathroom. The police said they were going to send someone to go with me. At this point we found out that there were two attorneys to accompany us. (Only later did we find out that they had been there since 3pm but only managed to speak with us at 11pm.) At 9:15 the police showed up to accompany me to the bathroom. They asked me about a strong smell, and I said that it was some kind of gas, and that's when I found out from them that it was pepper spray. At around 10:30 the three of us (my husband, the man in the cell with me, and I) were taken to the police chief. We answered his questions. In the end, he apologized and said we could leave because we weren't the people he was looking for. 2"

This couple lives in the Sapopemba district, the East zone in the city of São Paulo. According to their report, they were victims of a police mega-operation in this region on April 23 and 24, 2003. The police used the pretext of having collective warrants (which were never presented) to invade several houses without the owners' authorization. They broke their furniture, took photos and personal documents, exposing people to uncomfortable, degrading, and intolerable situations. Furthermore, several people were victims of torture. A pregnant woman had a spontaneous abortion after suffering verbal abuse and watching her neighbors get beaten up.

Criminal Police Practices

This was not an isolated case. In this region, with high rates of violence and unemployment, community members are more afraid of the police than of the drug traffickers that run the favelas (shantytowns). Several human rights organizations have denounced criminal police practices in this region. Besides making deals with the drug traffickers, the police put on very loud music while harassing people in the community. They invade houses at any time of the day or night without any judicial order. Using the need to search as a pretext, they break objects, rip up personal documents, and take the residents' photos and documents, always accusing them of being drug dealers. According to the residents, even after identifying themselves, they are treated as criminals. The police officers break the lights and fire gun shots at their houses. People who study at night often cannot return home because the police won't let anyone come in or leave while they are in a certain place. In addition, there have been many cases of sexual abuse by the police.

When Poverty Becomes a Crime

Human rights violations are a part of every day life for most people who live in low-income neighborhoods. In the communities of Sapopemba, there is a feeling of isolation, fear, and insecurity.

The presence of the State, which is already precarious, is harmed even more when these police operations occur. It is not uncommon for the few existing public services to close due to a lack of employees who do not feel safe.

When there are police operations, a large number of students and teachers miss school. Several teachers and principals require to be transferred due to regular demands by the police to provide personal information about the students. When they refuse to provide this information, they are threatened with legal sanctions.

Within the public health system, which is already unstable, people miss appointments made months in advance because they are afraid to leave their homes. There have also been an increased number of transfer requests by employees in the health care system. This climate of fear caused a growing number of cases of depression and suicide attempts, especially by women in the community.

At work, residents also suffer the consequences. There are many cases of people who, when looking for a job, give the address of a relative in a different region, to avoid the stigma of living in a place that appears daily in the media as a "lair of criminals and drug dealers." Many people are forced to change their daily lives, while others have to move elsewhere.

National Impact

Human rights organizations in the region promoted a public hearing on June 7, 2003 to denounce this situation. After that, Valdênia Paulino, the attorney for the Center for the Defense of Civil Rights in Sapopemba, received several death threats from police officers.

This case received national press coverage and, on August 12th, the Special Secretary of Human Rights, Minister Nilmário Miranda, visited the region to implement a program to protect human rights workers. The Minister was also informed of a plan the police had to kill father Júlio Lancellotti, another human rights activist in Sapopemba. This priest intervened in a homicide case in which the police had apprehended a scapegoat, in order to protect drug dealers.

Killing Policies

From January to May 2003, São Paulo's Military Police killed 435 people, an average of 3 persons per day, and 51% more than in the same period in 2002. The Police Attorney Fermino Fecchio, who denounced these cases, was recently removed from his position, under pressure from the Secretary of Security. Tim Cahill, a researcher from Amnesty International in Brazil, confirmed Fecchio's position: "there is only an increase in police violence when they have political support from a government that authorizes it," he affirmed.3


A large portion of police groups who have this practice is made up of men at the beginning of their careers with little experience and without a standard level of education. Police officers are sent to serve in the periphery as a punitive measure, when they are unable to serve in a different location because of a lack of schooling or of support from a superior officer.

In order to prevent criminal police actions, we need to transform their relations with the community. According to local human rights organizations, we need to implement the following measures:

1. To create better dialog between the military and the civil police.
2. The police needs to maintain a dialog with the Youth Council.
3. The police needs to organize lectures for the communities, informing them about police activities.
4. Changes in the criteria for police training about working in low-income regions.
5. Investigation and treatment of police officers who use drugs.
6. Training of other professionals who work in the region.
7. To remove police officers who are under investigation.
8. To create a Community Police Office for the whole Sapopemba region.
9. To establish a dialog between the police and local human rights organizations.

The community hopes that the government will implement these policies, as well as guarantee their economic, social, and cultural rights.

Source: Human Rights Center of Sapopemba.

* Ana Facundes is a translator and communications advisor for the cabinet of town councilor Flavia Pereira (Workers Party/Sao Paulo)

2. Affadavit given at the Center for the Defense of Human Rights in Sapopemba