Truth stranger than fiction in Rio police purge

RIO DE JANEIRO Thu Feb 17, 2011 11:41am EST

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RIO DE JANEIRO (Reuters) - In the hit sequel to the Brazilian movie "Elite Squad," Rio de Janeiro's police steal weapons, kill their own colleagues and set up a parallel state with the backing of their political bosses.

For viewers unfamiliar with Rio, it may seem a stretch to believe that a web of corruption could have spread so thickly through a city's security forces.

But the arrest of 30 police officers last week and the fall of one of the city's top security officials have proven that reality is as strange as fiction when it comes to law and order in Brazil's second-largest metropolis.

The federal operation, code-named "Guillotine," exposed deep links between the police and illegal gangs, which include militias made up of off-duty police as well as the drug traffickers who dominate many of the city's slums.

Police are accused of taking bribes from drug gangs in exchange for information, skimming money from illegal gambling and collaborating with militia groups that rule some communities through violence and extortion.

The arrests threatened to spark a police civil war over the weekend when investigative police chief Allan Turnowski ordered a raid on the anti-organized crime squad, led by his rival Claudio Ferraz, who played a leading role in Guillotine.

Turnowski, whose former right-hand man was arrested last week for taking drug bribes, quit on Tuesday and has been accused by a former informant of receiving 500,000 reais ($300,000) a month from militias. He denies the accusation.

"When all these stories come to light it may be necessary to make 'Elite Squad 3'," Fernando Gabeira, a federal deputy for Rio, wrote in a blog post.

LIFE IMITATES ART

As it happens, Ferraz, who has helped jail several high-profile militia bosses, helped write a book that formed much of the basis for "Elite Squad 2." He told an internal police inquiry on Monday that he "put all of the facts he had lived through in a fictional form," according to a copy of his statement obtained by iG, a local news Web site.

In the movie, a group of corrupt police invade a slum under false pretenses to claim the territory for their militia. Ferraz told the inquiry that police had allowed one of its helicopters and several armored cars to be used to help a militia take over a slum in the west of Rio last year.

The book details a federal police operation to catch a drug boss being called off because of an information leak. That happened in real life in 2009, prompting police to start the investigation that led to last week's arrests.

The federal raid is the latest sign that Brazilian authorities are getting serious about cleaning up Rio's police force as the beach-side city prepares to host the soccer World Cup in 2014 and the Olympics Games two years later.

The state's murder rate has fallen to its lowest level in 20 years and a new policy of occupying slums with specially trained community police has been hailed as a success.

But it also shows how far Rio, a hub of finance and Brazil's new oil wealth, has to go. Security analysts say the police are heavily involved in illegal activities ranging from brothels to abortion clinics to supplement their low salaries.

"Some militia members were jailed, but the political and economic structure of the militias hasn't been cut," said Marcelo Freixo, a Rio state deputy who travels in a bullet-proof car and has around-the-clock bodyguards because of his efforts to expose militia activities.

(Editing by Todd Benson and Philip Barbara)

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