From Corespondent Debra Daugherty
RIO DE JANEIRO, Brazil (CNN) -- As Brazil celebrates its 500th anniversary,
with the economy opening up and the military stepping back, it is experiencing
a surge in crime.
The country has the second highest homicide rate in the world. In Rio de
alone there were 6,000 murders last year and more than 45,000 cars were stolen.
The police say they are defending society and themselves in an urban war,
is a war in which the police have killed 371 civilians.
Rights groups say excessive force used
Brazilian police face life and death situations in their daily duty. One
danger lies in
the fact that drug dealers have taken over hundreds of neighborhoods in Brazil's
In defense of their aggressive tactics, police patrolling Rio de Janeiro's
say they are outgunned by the criminals they face. But human rights groups say the
police sometimes use excessive force.
In one notorious incident in August 1993, police entered a Rio slum and
Residents said the police had returned to the Vigario Geral area to avenge
deaths of four officers who had been killed there by drug dealers on the previous
night. After an investigation of the incident, 29 of the 33 officers were fired.
Former Rio de Janeiro Chief of Police Helio Luz says, "The percentage of
involved in crime in Rio is much higher than elsewhere, so the traditional
methods of law enforcement cannot be applied here."
'The police have no solution'
At a time when they need protection the most, many Brazilians have become
wary of the police. "The government wants the police to find a solution to our
problems," one woman told CNN. "But the police have no solution. All they
know is to kill."
Another said, "I don't feel protected or safe. I walk down the streets
have no choice."
In the latest salvo of criticism fired at the police, Rio's state security
Luis Eduardo Soares, told the press, "The rotten side of Rio's police forces
extorts, kills and tortures."
Three days later, Gov. Anthony Garotinho fired Soares. Within a week, Soares
had fled the country because of death threats. He is now living at an undisclosed
location in the United States.
'There's no problem'
But former Police Chief Luz defends the beleaguered Rio force.
"The police are actually being efficient, because they're protecting the
the state," Luz said. "So there is no problem."
Historian Emir Sader points to other problems facing the Brazilian police.
"Society pays them minimum wage, a badge and a gun. It's almost as if we
expect police to engage in other activities," Sader said.
The historian also says the low wages and the high stress of the job push
police toward violence.