Bridging the Gap: Ximena Fernandez Ordonez Interviews the Man Behind Brazil's 'Elite Squad'

Article excerpt

In recent years, tourists visiting Rio de Janeiro, Brazil, have added a stop to their itinerary--the favelas, the dangerous slums that go unrecognized by the city but house more than one million of its citizens. The desperation found in the favelas of Brazil underscores a cycle of poverty, police brutality, and governmental corruption that is fully understood by few people. Luis Eduardo Soares is one of them.

Author of thirteen books and a co-writer of thirty more, Scares is currently the municipal secretary of Violence Prevention at Nova Iguacu (Rio de Janeiro) and a visiting scholar at the Harvard Kennedy School. Scares has filled multiple positions for the Brazilian government, including as the national secretary of Public Security (under President Lula da Silva), the undersecretary of Public Security of the State of Rio de Janeiro, and the coordinator of Public Security, Justice, and Citizenship of the State of Rio de Janeiro. He teaches at the State University of Rio de Janeiro and at ESPM (School of Marketing and Management). His book Elite de tropa, about the operations of police squads in the city, was recently adapted into a film, Elite Squad (Tropa de Elite), which won the top prize at the 2008 Berlin Film Festival.

He spoke with the Harvard Kennedy School Review in February 2008 about favelas, "a society of war," and the challenges of fighting corruption and crime in Rio de Janeiro.

KSR: My first impression about the situation in Brazil was very surreal. There is a part that conveys happiness, relaxation, vacations. And then there's this completely different reality-almost a war scene in the favelas. And I was wondering how the general population and politicians reconcile those two.

SOARES: My effort is to bridge a gap, so that those in the city, in the society as a whole, can understand deeply the meaning of police brutality and the suffering of people at the favelas.

I wrote a lot of books, but they were not able to bridge the gap. When life and death are at stake you have to change your behavior toward it. You have to understand the urgency of the topic and do something about it. It would be impossible just to understand it intellectually.

The police are part of the problem. There are three points that have to be addressed: corruption, brutality, and effectiveness. And they are connected, deeply connected.

When an authority, someone that represents the state or government, authorizes or gives policemen at the favela, or on the street, the power to kill arbitrarily, without paying any price on that, he or she is giving that policeman the ability to sell life, to negotiate it; to sell liberty, to negotiate it.

And, of course, that's what happens. We have this terrible history of governments that didn't respect the human rights and gave police that terrible, brutal authority. Saying, very clearly to them, "Go ahead and kill. We need to get rid of those criminals. Let's be tough on crime. So go ahead. We are amidst a war. Kill. Shoot." Those people in government imagine that perhaps they will be able to solve the problem of crime by killing, even disrespecting the rights of the Constitution. But they don't envision, probably, that they are giving us a police that is incapable of fighting crime, because it is not only ineffective, but also corrupted, because that kind of arbitrariness leads to corruption.

KSR: Would the legalization of drugs would solve some of these problems.

SOARES: I have been, for over thirty years, for the legalization of drugs. There is no way of progressing and controlling drug trafficking in Brazil. And I guess it's similar in the U.S. The war on drugs is overwhelming. Anyone who works on that would acknowledge that it is impossible to control it. So there is no real question regarding whether to put them under control or authorize the access of drugs. …