News crew kidnapped and tortured by slum 'militia' in Brazil

Sunday, June 1, 2008

A crew of three news workers was kidnapped and tortured by members of a criminal organization self-labeled as a militia in a favela (Brazilian slum) in Rio de Janeiro, local daily O Dia reported this Sunday. A reporter, a photographer and a driver - all employed by the newspaper - were working undercover on a story about the rule of such groups in a poor community known as Batan, in the western area of Rio, when they were found out by the criminals and kept captive for seven and a half hours.

Police officers in a favela. In recent years, some former police officers and other civil servants have formed 'militias' to counter organized crime, but their methods have been criticized.

According to the newspaper, all three were subjected to electric shock, asphyxiated with plastic bags, and beaten several times.

The next morning, they were released by their captors under threat of death if made any denunciations. Prior to that, however, the reporter managed to send text and photos to the newsroom, by email from a wireless computer.

The kidnapping and torture happened May 14 to 15, but the news organization decided to postpone its printing for safety reasons. The heads of police and public security in the state government, however, had been immediately informed. The story was only printed today, as the denounce came to public, after officials assured the primary investigations had begun and those held responsible were already identified.

The identities and whereabouts of the news workers are being kept secret.

According to the story as it was printed, the kidnappers insisted they were not criminals, but policemen who were acting "ahead of justice". They are said to govern the community under a "reign of terror", by imposing curfews, banning funk parties, and charging dwellers and small business for "protection".

At the moment when journalists are doing their job in a favela, to take information to society, and they are brutally tortured, it puts democracy under jeopardy.

—José Carlos Torves, National Federation of Journalists

The same militiamen also have a scheme to elect politicians committed with them, by making lists of voters who live in each favela, with name and electoral registry number for each one, and barring other candidates from campaigning within the neighborhood. Connection with Christian (Neo-Pentecostalist) churches were also cited.

The case brought calls for defense on press freedom and safety for reporters by journalists and civil rights entities in Brazil.

"At the moment when journalists are doing their job in a favela, to take information to society, and they are brutally tortured, it puts democracy under jeopardy", José Carlos Torves, board member of National Federation of Journalists (FENAJ), said.

"For the Brazilian Press Association (ABI), besides the uncomfortable solidarity we think we must offer to these fellows, there is also the need to claim from authorities, from the State, the strict investigation of such facts", demanded the chairman of such entity, Maurício Azêdo.

The board of O Dia said they will be taking this case to the annual congress of the World Association of Newspapers, held this week in Sweden.

Low-income communities in Rio de Janeiro are generally ruled by bands of drug lords since mid-1970s, a situation which has continuously deteriorating since then. Heavily armed drug dealers have taken control in most favelas of Brazil's second largest city, where their power often overrules that of the government.

In reaction, over the last two years such 'militias' have been formed to counter these mafias. Groups of former police officers, firemen, private security agents and civil servants vow to fight drug traffic, but impose the same kind of violent methods against the local population.

"It's worrying to know, according to these professionals account, that there would be police officers involved. This is really serious. It's unacceptable”, said Wadih Damous, from the Brazilian Bar of Lawyers (OAB).

Organized crime in Rio is known for extreme violence and cruelty. On June 2nd, 2002, a reporter for TV Globo (the main broadcaster in Brazil) was also kidnapped and killed while working on a story about sex exploitation of children in another favela. According to the police, Tim Lopes was taken by drug dealers, tortured, burned alive, then had his body quartered. He was 52 years old. The killers, known as Elias Maluco and Ratinho, were later arrested and sentenced to more than 30 years in prison.