September 15, 2008 / 9:32 PM / 11 years ago

U.N. watchdog denounces police killings in Brazil

SAO PAULO (Reuters) - Police frequently kill criminal suspects and ordinary citizens in Brazil, driving up the homicide rate in what is already one of the world’s most violent countries, the United Nations said on Monday.

Armed police carry out an operation against rival bands of drug traffickers in the Mineira slum of Rio de Janeiro April 17, 2007. REUTERS/Bruno Domingos

In a 49-page report, the U.N. Human Rights Council also concluded that a sizable portion of the Brazilian population in high-crime areas supports extrajudicial killings and vigilante justice in the absence of an efficient criminal justice system.

While police killings are commonplace all across the South American country, the problem is most pronounced in the tourist mecca of Rio de Janeiro, according to Philip Alston, the U.N.’s special rapporteur on unlawful killings, who visited Brazil at the invitation of the government.

“In Rio de Janeiro, the police kill three people every day. They are responsible for one out of every five killings,” Alston said in the report, which was based on a 10-day fact-finding mission to Brazil last November.

The report found that on-duty police officers using deadly force are only part of the problem. A large number of off-duty officers routinely moonlight as members of death squads and take part in other forms of organized crime, it said.

The report singled out the proliferation of so-called militias as especially worrisome. These groups, mostly made up of off-duty and retired police officers, originated as private security providers in Rio’s violent slums but evolved into extortion rackets that frequently mete out summary justice.

“A remarkable number of police lead double lives,” Alston said. “While on duty, they fight the drug gangs, but on their days off, they work as foot soldiers of organized crime.”

Another hot spot for police violence is the northeastern state of Pernambuco, where Alston estimated that 70 percent of all homicides are committed by death squads made up of off-duty and retired officers.

The report identified a handful of factors that may drive police to take part in organized crime, such as poor salaries and a shift structure with long hours that is followed by several consecutive days off.

But the most important factor contributing to police killings may be Brazil’s shabby criminal justice system, which seldom achieves convictions even in ordinary murder cases. The report found that, in Sao Paulo, only 10 percent of homicides ever go to trial.

Alston also offered some recommendations on how to reduce police violence. They included higher salaries for police, better forensics, an improved witness protection program and a series of measures aimed at holding officers accountable for unlawful behavior and the use of excessive force.

Reporting by Todd Benson; Editing by Cynthia Osterman

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