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In Brazil, A Plaguing Question: Can Violence Stop Violence?

March 10, 1995

RIO DE JANEIRO, Brazil (AP) _ The television footage was chilling: state troopers pinning a young robbery suspect to the ground and, as he squirms, shooting him dead on the spot.

Public reaction to the images, shown repeatedly on TV, has been almost as chilling. While shock was widespread, many Rio residents said they saw little wrong with the killing. Some applauded it.

Human rights groups appealed for authorities to rein in vigilante justice. But the use of violence to stop violence is gaining acceptance among a citizenry that increasingly considers police helpless to contain the spread of crime in Rio.

``The only mistake the cop made was to shoot that bandit in front of the TV camera,″ said Zilda Paes, 47, a Rio housewife. ``He should have done the job out in the bush somewhere.″

On a television talk show, ``Sem Censura″ (Uncensored), eight of 10 callers spoke favorably of the troopers’ action.

The summary execution of Cristiano Mesquita took place in front of Rio’s upscale Rio Sul shopping mall, where police say he and two other men tried to hold up a pharmacy.

As dozens of people stared in shock and the TV crew filmed, the state troopers stripped the robber of his revolver and threw him to the ground.

An arrest wasn’t their plan.

One officer shouted, ``Wax him!″ Another dragged Mesquita by the collar behind the thieves’ getaway van.

A police corporal, Flavio Carneiro, swiped at the TV camera and ordered it turned off. Unaware it was still filming, he marched over behind the van.

A .38 revolver in his left hand, Carneiro pulled a second gun from his right hip holster. He pointed it at the bandit, who squirmed face down on the sidewalk, his arms pinned by the other officers.

Pop, pop, pop. The officer ran over to the camera, held up the gun and showed its empty chamber. Mesquita squirmed no more.

The scene was broadcast last week to tens of millions of viewers by the Globo TV network.

Carneiro was charged with murder and awaits trial in a military court. The 11 other officers were charged as accomplices. But they were released a day later and returned to active duty pending their trial.

In a Tuesday editorial titled ``Pulp Fiction,″ the Rio daily Jornal do Brasil noted: ``A part of the population now approves of summary executions as a temporary solution to this wave of organized crime.″

Even Rio officials minimized the slaying. Gov. Marcello Alencar said Carneiro was ``a real nut, but I believe in the police force. It handled its mission, facing down those bandits.″

Few officers charged with illegal use of force end up being punished. Since 1993, the military court has reviewed 1,684 cases and found 31 officers guilty of killing without cause. Most of the time, judges base their decisions solely on the testimony of the officers’ partners at the scene.

Even as some Brazilians show greater acceptance of illegal tactics by police, public confidence in law enforcement has been eroded by several recent scandals involving killings by officers.

The cases include the massacre of eight street boys on July 23, 1993, by off-duty troopers, the slayings of 21 residents of the Vigario Geral slum months later, and the police killing of 13 people in the Nova Brasilia slum last year.

But when state troopers in Sao Paulo killed eight people in several separate shootings last weekend, it caused barely a ripple in public opinion.

Police statistics show the public’s fears may be warranted.

In Rio, kidnappings have increased from 39 in 1989 to 141 in 1994; car thefts doubled last year to more than 40,000; and 61 murders per 100,000 residents were reported in the greater metropolitan area of 10 million. In New York, the ratio is 30 per 100,000 residents.

Exasperated with what they consider inadequate police protection, some Brazilian slum dwellers are taking the law into their own hands. Last week, Sao Paulo police arrested three vigilantes. One, Antonio Macedo de Matos, admitted killing more than 25 people since 1990.

``I killed to keep the peace in the neighborhood where I live,″ Matos, 31, told the daily Folha de Sao Paulo. ``I never took money for a killing. I was just doing the police’s job.″

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