Rio de Janeiro’s Security Secretary Jose Mariano Beltrame talks police corruption, militia groups, and the next phase of the favela “pacification” program with blogger Julia Michaels.

Drug traffickers aren’t organized, says Beltrame; the police are getting more so

Behind a long table at the front of the Rio state public safety secretariat’s auditorium hangs an enormous black and white picture of a train rushing down a track. It gives a sense of urgency to any utterance until you remember that the secretariat is housed in a building that rises above Rio’s Central Station (yes, the one in the fabulous movie about the woman who wrote letters back home for illiterates, but kept them in a drawer).

Down the hall from the auditorium is the Secretariat’s conference room, where Public Safety Secretary Jose Mariano Beltrame lunched with 16 foreign journalists this week. The views out its dirty windows, he says, are what really give him a sense of urgency when it comes to corruption. This, police violence and manpower shortages are probably Beltrame’s three toughest challenges in the realm of pacification.

“I can’t not try to meet the needs of society,” he said, when asked about police malfeasance. “I can’t allow the people here from the Morro da Providencia — and right here where we’re having lunch today, we used to hear shooting at lunchtime — and there are kids going to school; 600,000 people pass by here every day, it’s where the Rio’s metropolitan trains come in. I can’t not present them with a solution. I can’t not create police pacification units because police are going to be corrupt. The same goes for battling the militias. You have to have supervision, try to guarantee good wages, prepare each one. There are a lot of people in this country who make a lot of money and still keep stealing, diverting funds. I can’t guarantee that a police officer isn’t going to be corrupted. The police officers here are citizens of Rio de Janeiro, they’re not from New York or Italy. Any passerby down below can take the test and become a police officer.”

Since 2007, more than 1,000 police officers have been expelled from duty; those still on the job are tracked by GPS on their radios and in their cars.

Since Beltrame took office and began revolutionizing Rio’s public safety strategy in 2007, the shooting has stopped in Morro da Providencia. That favela boasts one of 23 existing police pacification units (UPP is the Portuguese-langauge acronym), with five more coming (in Complexo da Penha and Rocinha) soon. According to Beltrame’s press officer, Paulo Henrique Noronha, the state may increase its original goal, of 40 UPPs by 2014.

Just as important as UPPs

But UPPs have a silent partner with another acronym, Planning and Operational Integration Subsecretary Roberto Sa told the journalists, whose lunch took place amid mere honking horns and screeching bus brakes: RISPs.

These, he said, will become more apparent starting in the second half of 2012, when the state’s first of seven regional police coordination buildings will open in Campos de Goytacazes, the oil-rich town in the interior of the state of Rio. These buildings — three in metropolitan Rio — will house staff who coordinate the collaboration between Rio’s civil and military police. An eighth building will open this year near the city’s new Operations Center, for overall police, fire and emergency efforts.

The two separate forces were created in 1809 when the Portuguese royal family arrived in Rio, fleeing from Napoleon. The civil police was meant to investigate while the military police did the actual policing. As the years went by, the forces competed and also communicated badly; their duties were often subsumed by partnerships with criminals. Since the 1990s, police experts have called for the unification of these two forces (and they’re not alone; CET Rio takes care of traffic, the municipal guard does the mundane orderkeeping, and the forest police are in charge of environmental work).

Beltrame has preferred to reshape the existing structure. Two hundred years after the Emperor and his family arrived, Beltrame created Public Safety Integrated Regions, or RISPs. Responsibility for the state’s seven RISPS is shared between civil and military forces, and each one breaks down into integrated areas (the size of two to four battalions’ territories) and integrated “circumscriptions” (the size of a police station’s territory).

Each unit functions on the basis of “results-oriented management”, says Sa, with crime reduction goals for the state as a whole, each region, area, and circumscription. Since 2009, RISP coordinators have worked to analyze crime statistics, understand the dynamics in their areas, and prevent crime. “This wasn’t done,” said Sa. Civil and military police meet periodically, from anything to every three months to daily, depending on the territory.

Cops are in the money

Using a point system, semi-annual bonuses of up to $4,700 equivalent are paid to officers who achieve goals to reduce violent crime. Next time, for example, police officers and administrators in most of the city of Rio will receive this bonus; an additional one of the same amount will go to those who work in Olaria, Penha and Bras de Pina, plus BOPE, the elite squad, and the Civil Police Internal Affairs staff. Many other members of the two forces will receive smaller bonuses.

Beltrame is also working to catch militia gangs and mentors, which is harder than catching drug traffickers for two reasons. Militia members, usually off-duty cops and firemen or people connected to them, have infiltrated municipal and state politics. Also, evidence is hard to come by that they’re extorting residents with fees for protection and the provision of services such as gas, alternative transportation and cable TV, in West Zone areas as yet poorly served by city or private utilities.

But investigations carried out by the civil police DRACO unit are paying off. In 2006, three militia members went to jail, the secretary noted. Now there are 692 militia members in jail, including eight city councilmen and one state representative.

Rocinha tops them all

“If there’s anything in Rio de Janeiro like organized crime it’s the militias,” he said. “We don’t [really] have organized crime.” Drug trafficking is capillary, he explained, based on territory. And, he noted, the South Zone favela of Rocinha, home to about 180,000 people and in the occupation phase since last November, was the Americas’ largest drug market. This would explain why two drug gangs have vied for power there, even under occupation.

Beltrame is earnest and humble; keen on transparency. He talks with the crisp accent of his native Rio Grande do Sul, which in cocky Rio sounds unsophisticated and naive. But here he’s widely admired and appreciated for his intelligence, his strategizing and the turnaround in public safety.

Cariocas slur their esses and like to think they are street smart, which means knowing all the right people and what to say when, where, how and to whom.

No throwing

Maybe this is why Beltrame’s boss hasn’t been lunching with journalists, foreign or domestic. Governor Sergio Cabral’s name appears daily in the media, linked to the latest national corruption scandal. Political opponent Anthony Garotinho has circulated photos of his friends (one of whom is the big construction contractor accused of mounting a nationwide scheme to win political support for bids) wearing napkins tied on their heads, pirate-style, after a dinner at an expensive Paris restaurant.

Asked what his biggest challenge is, Beltrame answered, “Rio de Janeiro,” refusing to assign priorities among the jogo do bicho (numbers game), the militias, drug trafficking, and police corruption. But if he had one wish, just one, he offered at the start of the lunch, it would be “a future for young people”.

The older folks have a long way to go, however, if they are to help open the doors to that future and act as role models. Next to a fourth-floor elevator at the Secretariat, there’s a sign on a letter-sized piece of paper. “Public servants,” it reads. “Don’t throw trash out the window. Last week, someone threw out a cigarette butt, which started a fire in a trash can.”

Reprinted with permission from Julia Michaels*, a reporter who has lived in Rio almost 30 years. See her blog, Rio Real, which is in English and Portuguese, and read the original post here.

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