RIO DE JANEIRO (AP) - Six years ago, Elizabeth Martin's nephew Joseph was shot and killed by an off-duty police officer while out celebrating his 30th birthday in Rio de Janeiro. Now, Martin has a message for the hordes of foreigners set to descend on Brazil for next year's World Cup: The next Joseph Martin could be you.
Within Brazil, police have long been notorious for their links to organized crime, use of heavy-handed tactics including torture and even summary executions. Citizens often approach officers warily if at all, put off by the violent behavior of some police.
Martin, whose nephew was gunned down following an altercation with police over a stolen purse, worries that foreigners oblivious to Brazilian officers' reputation could unwittingly stumble into the kind of scuffle that cost Joseph his life. Although police violence in Brazil overwhelmingly targets the country's poor and rarely affects foreigners, Martin has launched a campaign, "Don't Kill for Me: Safe Games for All," aimed at raising international public awareness of the issue - especially ahead of the wave of foreign visitors expected for the World Cup and the 2016 Olympics.
"I think of police brutality as Brazil's dirty little secret," Martin said in a phone interview from her home in Massachusetts, where she stays in close contact with Brazil-based human rights campaigners and organizations representing the families of those killed by police. "People outside of Brazil have drunk the Kool-Aid of Brazil being this economic success story with beautiful beaches and bikinis and this side of it just isn't discussed, it isn't known."
Human rights campaigners and international organizations alike have long condemned Brazil's police for routinely carrying out summary executions - often officially explained away as suspects "killed while resisting arrest." A 2009 report by the U.S.-based group Human Rights Watch estimated police killed about 11,000 people in Brazil's two largest cities, Rio and Sao Paulo, from 2003 to 2009, far more than the number of non-fatal civilian injuries and police fatalities in those same areas of operation. A damning 2008 United Nations report blamed police for a "significant portion" of the country's approximately 48,000 annual slayings the year before.
During protests over the past months, the U.S. Embassy issued travel advisories warning visitors to avoid demonstrations because of possible violence between police and demonstrators. The British government also warned of violence at demonstration
While officers used to be rewarded for using lethal force, earning cash bonuses for killing suspects as recently as around a decade ago, a quotas system put in place in 2009 now gives bonuses to the units with the lowest lethality rates. Earlier this month, Rio state shelled out nearly $26 million in bonuses to units that registered the biggest fall in police killings as well as a range of crime statistics in the first half of the year.
Joseph Martin was plunged headlong into Brazil's police brutality drama in May 2007, when an off-duty officer, Joao Vicente Oliveira, detained a boy who'd snatched a purse belonging to one of Martin's friends, who were out celebrating his birthday at a popular Rio nightspot.
The American, who had been living in Brazil for about two years and supported himself by teaching English, intervened, but the boy ran away. Witnesses said Martin was arguing with Oliveira when the officer fired three shots at the American. The officer would later allege he fired in self-defense after Martin tried to grab his weapon, but the prosecutor in the case, Viviane Tavares Henriques, said Martin "never went after the police officer's gun or in any way threatened him."