A Case Study in the Power of Brazil's Corrupt Cops
Monday, June 12, 2000
A Case Study in the Power of Brazil's Corrupt Cops
The official who sought to reform the force in Rio de Janeiro state is
now living in exile in New York.
By SEBASTIAN ROTELLA, Times Staff Writer
Luiz Eduardo Soares, shown in New York City, accuses Rio's governor
of dropping reform efforts in favor of political ambitions.
CARMEN MENDEZ/For The Times
NEW YORK--A cold spring rain blows through the high-rise canyons,
making Luiz Eduardo Soares feel even farther from Rio de Janeiro.
Shoulders hunched in his leather jacket, the bearded 46-year-old
Brazilian walks the streets hunting for an apartment, rebuilding his life
in the anonymity of exile. After 15 months leading Brazil's most ambitious
attempt at police reform in memory, he once again has time to read, write
Soares remains first and foremost a scholar, despite his explosive
accusations against fellow police officials in Rio and his harrowing
clandestine departure from Brazil in March. He has written eight books and
has degrees in anthropology, sociology, political science and philosophy.
When he recounts his odyssey of death threats, wiretapped phones and
30 bodyguards protecting him from his own officers, he sounds like a
philosopher-cop. He quotes Holocaust survivor and novelist Primo Levi on
"the terror of uncertainty" to explain why some inhabitants of Rio's slums
prefer drug lords to marauding police. He describes the nightmarish
station-house bureaucracy like this: "If Hegel had been a Brazilian
policeman, he would have never achieved synthesis. He would still be lost
in the endless labyrinth of procedures."
Like many left-leaning Brazilian intellectuals, Soares has dedicated
his talents to questions of crime and justice. In a region where violence
and impunity are endemic, the political challenge is reforming renegade
police forces whose power poses a threat to democracy much as the Latin
American militaries of decades past did.
"When we talk about changing the police, we are talking about the
future of democracy itself," Soares said in a recent interview in a
restaurant in Manhattan.
In late 1998, Gov. Anthony Garotinho, a charismatic young politician
with presidential aspirations, made Soares his point man on justice issues
in the state of Rio de Janeiro. Soares was to deliver on Garotinho's major
campaign promise: a law enforcement policy that would be progressive and
The moment seemed right: a popular politician, a top-notch brain
trust, a crime rate that had dipped enough to open a window for change.
In a sadly familiar denouement, however, Soares now accuses the
governor of allying himself with a gangster cabal of police commanders
known as "the Rotten Bunch." The governor, who denies the allegations,
fired Soares as state public security coordinator in March.
"At first, Garotinho wanted to support the reforms as a whole,"
Soares said. "But then he realized the best thing would be to have all the
projects in place but not go forward on them to avoid confrontations with
the police. His obsession was to be the next president. Everything would
have to be subordinate to the electoral timetable for 2003."
If that is true, the governor joined the ranks of politicians in
other Brazilian states who have capitulated to threats, police strikes and
rebellions, and even police-induced crime waves. Although Brazil is a
healthy democracy in many respects, the seeming omnipotence of police
forces in such political clashes shows that the power of civilian leaders
has alarming limits.
"The police in any given state have the power to destabilize, to
bring the state government to its knees," said independent human rights
advocate James Cavallaro, until recently the representative of Human
Rights Watch in Brazil. "It's a form of a coup."
Debate Where Once There Was None
Nonetheless, Cavallaro and others say, Soares pushed the issue to the
forefront of the political debate.
"He had an incredible year because he created an agenda for police
which was not there before in terms of very concrete institutional
changes," said Rubem Cesar Fernandes, a sociologist who founded the
influential Viva Rio civic coalition with Soares seven years ago.
The repercussions continue. A special state commission is
investigating the charges Soares filed in March against top commanders,
including current chief Rafik Louzada.
Among the alleged crimes: "selling" lucrative police districts to
aspiring commanders, taking payoffs from all-powerful drug and gambling
mafias, releasing criminals in exchange for bribes, and wiretapping.
Numerous officers have been charged, disciplined or investigated in
several ongoing probes of the investigative, or "civil," police, which in
Brazil is separate from the uniformed patrol force.
In a toughly worded editorial in April, the Jornal do Brasil
newspaper called for the chief's ouster, declaring, "The governor . . .
keeps a man in command of the police about whom doubts are accumulating."
Nonetheless, Gov. Garotinho stands by Chief Louzada. The governor
insists that the cleanup has not suffered since Soares' departure. While
giving his former aide credit for designing the reforms, Garotinho says
Soares was an inexperienced administrator who was not up to the massive
task of transforming police culture.
"It is not true that there is any kind of alliance with the so-called
Rotten Bunch--our government has always, and he knows this, insisted on
cleaning up the police," Garotinho declared in his written responses to
questions from The Times. "[Soares] did not have the patience to see the
reforms become concrete."
The governor's popularity remains an impressive 71%, down from 78% in
September. He is 40, a former champion chess player and a member of the
evangelical Christian community, whose clout is growing in Brazil. His
undeclared campaign for the presidency is progressing at full steam.
If he indeed runs for the office, however, his law enforcement woes
are likely to receive renewed national attention. Critics say the governor
and Soares failed to recognize that police corruption is integral to a
profoundly corrupt political structure in the state of Rio, which has a
population of about 12.5 million.
"All this was an electoral facade, and Luiz Eduardo allowed himself
to be the governor's propaganda boy," declared state legislator Helio Luz,
a 25-year police veteran who was a reformist chief from 1995 to 1997. "The
Rotten Bunch in the police is not autonomous. In reality, the Rotten Bunch
is the Brazilian state itself."
The problems of police in Brazil go back to the force's 19th century
origins as the palace guard of the emperor, Luz said. Its role ever since
has been to protect the elite against the masses, he said.
Recently, the special commission announced it had not turned up
evidence to implicate or exonerate the officials accused by Soares. The
probe was extended for 120 days, but complaints that commissioners lack
basic investigative powers have worsened fears of a whitewash in the
Although critics suggest Soares was a bookworm overwhelmed by gritty
realities, the man whom the police called "Professor" comes off as both
cerebral and streetwise. He has the engaging good humor of a Rio native,
or Carioca. Only the weariness of his eyes and the relentless flow of his
ideas hint at the obsessive battles he fought.
As a student in the 1970s, Soares was active in resistance against
the military dictatorship. He says his scholarly epiphany came a few years
ago when he studied with Stanford professor Richard Rorty, a noted
Soares helped fellow academic Fernandes found Viva Rio in the
bullet-riddled early '90s, bringing together intellectuals and civic
leaders who wanted to save the city from lawlessness. They felt the
political left could no longer either romanticize or ignore crime while
yearning for enlightened economic policies that would bring peace to the
The chemistry in early 1998 when Soares met Garotinho, then a
candidate, was immediate. The two wrote a book on public safety that
became the centerpiece of the campaign. It was clear from the start of the
governor's term that Soares was in charge of law enforcement matters,
though he was officially subordinate to the top official in the
secretariat of public safety. Soares said he and the governor talked on an
almost daily basis.
Crime had declined when the new team took office in January of last
year. Homicides had dropped 30% from their peak in 1994 but remained
alarmingly high at 47 per 100,000 inhabitants--about five times the rate
in Los Angeles.
The two police forces, which together total about 40,000 officers,
had veered from attempted reform to old-fashioned militarism. The previous
public safety chief, a retired army general, scoffed openly at human
rights groups and paid his officers "bravery" bonuses for shooting
suspects. Individual police knew a lot about the underworld, sometimes
because they were in cahoots with crooks, but the institution was in dire
need of information, analysis and intelligence-gathering.
The "culture of planning" that Soares introduced mixed common sense
and ideas based on reforms around the world. Copying a breakthrough in New
York City, he initiated regular meetings among commanders to analyze
trends and map strategy. He poured resources into training, technology,
internal affairs and unprecedented programs to protect women (headed by
his wife, Barbara, also an academic), blacks, street children and gays.
Making Stations Less Threatening
A major innovation was the Delegacia Legal, or "Cool Police Station,"
program. In Brazilian slang, legal also means "cool." The idea was to make
civil police stations professional and presentable and therefore less
Traditionally, a crime victim venturing into a station was likely to
encounter a hostile, lethargic, perhaps even shirtless detective working
at a typewriter in a sweaty cavern. The stations invariably echoed with
the menacing clamor of crammed lockups functioning as miniature prisons.
Investigations often began a full week after a reported crime. To use
Soares' word, the 121 stations were an "archipelago" of isolated fiefdoms
with their own arcane rules and procedures. Commanders were feudal barons
who got rich negotiating the outcome of cases with suspects and jailhouse
privileges with inmates, he says.
Soares decided to overhaul the stations one by one; 40 model stations
are scheduled to be completed by the end of this year. The 64 procedural
manuals were condensed into six. Hardened inmates were transferred to new
facilities. University students were hired as receptionists. Computer
specialists designed a computer grid to connect stations and enable
centralized monitoring of cases.
The uniformed police were generally receptive, Soares said, but the
resistance in the civil police was immediate. The governor backed Soares
in his first skirmish, dismissing a hostile public safety secretary in
April of last year.
Meanwhile, Rio experienced high-profile killings that Soares and his
advisors suspected were part of a plot to sabotage them. The eight
slayings appeared to be random, and some--such as a drive-by shooting
outside a soccer game--seemed designed to cause an uproar. Proving a
conspiracy, however, was difficult.
Soares, the father of two college-age daughters, also received
telephone death threats. In August, Garotinho got a tip that a rogue
police group was planning a campaign of bloodshed, with Soares and the
governor as the top targets. Both men beefed up their security details.
The year-end crime statistics were mixed. Officer-involved shootings
and bank robberies were down, crimes resulting in death had stayed about
the same, and street robberies and auto thefts were up.
Overall, Soares felt vindicated because crime had not worsened
dramatically amid the sometimes traumatic reorganization. And, he says,
his team was more honest about statistics, publicizing voluminous data and
junking a practice of manipulating numbers with categories such as
In December, however, the governor shocked Soares by appointing
Louzada to run the civil police over his objections that the new chief was
corrupt. The governor replied that the suspicions were unfounded and that
the veteran detective had political support and a track record of results,
Soares almost resigned, but "I thought it would be irresponsible to
quit. There was so much work invested, so much hope in the society. I
thought I could fight back. But from that moment on, the trust was gone
with the governor."
The definitive break came soon. Soares clashed publicly with
Garotinho over a curious case in which a wealthy documentary filmmaker
paid a youthful drug trafficker to abandon his violent ways and write a
book about his life. The filmmaker had consulted with Soares and the
public safety secretary, who both told him the arrangement was legal.
When the case became public, however, the police investigated the
filmmaker for aiding a fugitive. The governor announced Soares' dismissal
on television--without telling him first.
"A law enforcement authority cannot be tolerant of crime," Garotinho
told The Times. He said Soares further defied him by taking allegations of
police corruption directly to prosecutors "before talking to me or the
Former Chief Luz doesn't think much of Soares' performance or his
allegations. But the legislator also scoffs at the governor's public
justification for the firing, accusing Garotinho of trying to divert
attention from allegations of corruption linked to gambling mafias.
"The governor was vulnerable because there are strong indications
that the [gambling mafias] are involved with the government," Luz said.
"To avoid becoming more vulnerable, he got rid of Luiz Eduardo."
Garotinho denies the accusations, calling them "the discourse of
political adversaries who have no proof."
Meanwhile, Soares' world closed in on him. His phones were tapped.
His family was under constant surveillance. An aide was pulled over by
civil police, provoking an armed confrontation with his bodyguards.
Soares feared both outright violence and an attempt to smear him or
his family. He decided to move them to the United States. He left first,
taking elaborate precautions to throw off his enemies: Without luggage, he
took a domestic flight to Sao Paulo. Federal police officers dispatched by
Brazil's justice minister met him on the airport runway and guarded him
until he boarded a flight to New York.
Ironically, Soares' departure occurred decades after many of his
friends and peers had gone into exile to escape Brazil's military regime.
And his version of exile could be worse: Top Brazilian officials and
diplomats did their best to help him. The Ford Foundation has funded an
academic post for him at the Vera Institute of Justice, and he will be a
visiting scholar at Columbia University, where he will write a book about
Nonetheless, he and his family had to abandon their lives in Rio. His
real-world sabbatical from academia was a searing lesson about how power
works in his homeland.
"This is what the police do: They investigate political leaders in
order to control them. They invert the hierarchy," he said. "The only
strategy is to confront these guys quickly, radically, deeply.
"The poor people need the police, who are the most concrete
manifestation of the government. But if there is no change, the poor will
ultimately prefer the despotism of the drug lords, even while hating them.
Because at least the traffickers have a code--they have rules. The police
do not have rules or codes."
Copyright 2000 Los Angeles Times