In Other Words

Brazil’s Secret Army

Elite da Tropa (Elite Squad) By Luiz Eduardo Soares, André Batista, and Rodrigo Pimentel 314 pages, Rio de Janeiro: Objetiva (in Portuguese) When the Brazilian police thriller Elite da Tropa (Elite Squad) arrives on U.S. bookshelves late this year, American readers might assume it is exaggerated fiction. Even the inhabitants of Rio — who often ...

Elite da Tropa (Elite Squad)
By Luiz Eduardo Soares, André Batista, and Rodrigo Pimentel
314 pages, Rio de Janeiro: Objetiva (in Portuguese)

When the Brazilian police thriller Elite da Tropa (Elite Squad) arrives on U.S. bookshelves late this year, American readers might assume it is exaggerated fiction. Even the inhabitants of Rio — who often remark between friends that on a dark street they would rather encounter a criminal than a police officer — have largely reacted to the bestseller by Luiz Eduardo Soares, André Batista, and Rodrigo Pimentel with disbelief. After all, it is difficult to believe that a policeman charged with leading the fight against drug dealers in Brazil’s slums would organize trials in which the police acted as attorneys and jury. Especially considering that their judgments usually concluded with the execution of the accused. Similarly, it seems impossible that a drug dealer trying to leave a slum to start a new life would be kidnapped by police officers and forced to return to "work" because their boss wanted to continue receiving the bribes that the fugitive used to pay.

Unfortunately, though, the majority of the bizarre, violent, touching, repulsive, and amusing tales in Elite Squad are true. Soares, a former Brazilian secretary of public security and now a leading researcher of urban crime, and Batista and Pimentel, former members of the Special Operations Battalion of the Rio de Janeiro Police (BOPE), constructed their story through a series of vignettes with material mined from their own memories and the stories of friends. It’s a powerful recipe: In its better moments, Elite Squad transports the reader to scenes of Brazil’s drug war with an intensity rarely matched in the traditional press. And, in doing so, it tears down the sanitary barrier that Brazilians construct to deal with daily tragedies. As the authors write, many of Rio’s inhabitants live with a routine of killings "as pilgrims, who carry the cross and feel its weight and size, without looking at it to know its shape and understand its nature." Elite Squad grabs its readers by the neck and forces them to take a long look at the true costs of a losing war.

The book is divided into two parts. The first focuses on the BOPE, using the unit itself as the protagonist. Established 30 years ago as a hub for highly qualified police officers trained to lead hostage-rescue missions, the BOPE specializes in carrying out operations in the favelas — slums with a high concentration of Rio’s poor and where drug traffickers have established heavily guarded distribution centers. To be a caveira, or "skull" — as those in the BOPE are called — requires stringent training. Drowning simulations, torture, starvation, and humiliation are common admission requirements. The suffering makes acceptance into the BOPE such an honor that it steels its members with the strength to resist bribes and kickbacks, frequent temptations for conventional police officers in Brazil.

Its training and high-profile operations made BOPE famous — and made its soldiers proud to count themselves as part of one of the best police squads in the world. Until recently, the number of BOPE officers stood at 150. Today, there are roughly 400. And though several BOPE officers have been expelled for ties to organized crime, its commandos, who constantly risk their lives for $800 a month, still uphold standards that are rare among police officers in Brazil, or anywhere else.

The first part of Elite Squad, "War Journal," is narrated by an anonymous, intelligent, aggressive, and bitter BOPE officer. Talking to the reader as if interviewed by a reporter, he starts telling stories. They don’t follow a chronological order or describe the evolution of a single character. They are more like snapshots plucked from a long movie, or lightning that suddenly illuminates a scene that soon returns to dark: the friend who dies by friendly fire, the sniper who can’t wait to use his new rifle. Rather than focusing on the narrator, the author prefers to build a narrative that describes all BOPE officers.

"If you are expecting a well-mannered speech, forget it. You can close the book," warns the narrator. Without remorse, and willing to admit some of the inevitable collateral damage of a war on crime, he describes BOPE operations in stark fashion. "Delinquents fear us…. Last night, for example, we took no prisoners. If we encounter a vagabond in the nocturnal raids, he is dead." He isn’t bragging about the facts, but he is not ashamed of them either. The victims are outlaws; therefore interrogation techniques such as drowning and electric shock are appropriate. Torture is acceptable when the end justifies the means, the narrator asserts. He is not alone. One recent study conducted by IBOPE, the leading Brazilian market research firm, showed that 26 percent of Brazilians agree that torture is a legitimate police tool. What’s more, the 2007 book How Brazilians Think, by Alberto Carlos Almeida, revealed that 30 percent of the population approves of the police killing assailants. This public acceptance, combined with inefficient bureaucratic oversight, has translated into alarming death rates at the hands of police in Rio de Janeiro. In a state with a little more than 15 million inhabitants, 1,330 people were killed by the police in 2007. Compare that with the entire United States: With a population of about 300 million, there are just 350 similar deaths each year.

In the second part of the book, titled "The City Kisses the Ground," the authors leave the trenches of the urban war to focus on the inner workings of Rio’s government. Short scenes, reminiscent of a cinema script, recount an intricate drama surrounding Chief of Police Vítor Fraga. Stressed by the debt left over from a failed electoral campaign, Fraga wants to dislodge the BOPE from the Rocinha, Rio’s largest favela and the most lucrative drug market for Rio’s elite. For the drug sales — and police payoffs — to return to normal, the BOPE would have to be removed. In describing the macabre fallout from Fraga’s machinations, the authors reveal a sad reality of Rio’s drug war: The BOPE soldiers, for all their bravery and violence, are only pawns at the disposal of politicians and other corrupt police. And the questions posed by a well-intentioned fictional "secretary of security" (largely based on Soares’s own experiences as deputy public secretary in 1999 and as a security minister in 2003) capture the confusion rampant inside the Guanabara Palace, the seat of state government: "Who is actually in control? Are gangs, drug barons, and politicians? … What policies are these? They are not institutions. They are battlefields. They are Persian markets. They are tribes at war."

A bestseller in Brazil, with more than 150,000 copies sold, Elite Squad was the basis for Jose Padilha’s controversial film Tropa de Elite, winner of the Golden Bear award at the 2008 Berlin International Film Festival and slated for release in the United States. The film has been a phenomenon in Brazil since its 2007 release: The leak of one copy before its official premiere proved a hit for street vendors, who sold pirated copies by the dozen. This allowed favela residents who rarely frequent movie theaters to watch the thriller in great numbers. Accustomed to fear the real shots of the BOPE, they approved of the ironic depiction of Captain Nascimento, narrator of the film, who presents the same mixture of aggressiveness, intelligence, coarseness, and anguish of the book’s anonymous officer.

Nascimento tortures, kills, and, with each passing day, begins to resemble the criminals he fights. But he does it with an intelligence and humor that allows the public to relate to him. In turn, he has become a pop hero. His phrase — "Blame it on the pope" (after commanding an execution), "Say you want out" (to officers during training) — are often heard on the streets. The BOPE uniform was one of the most popular costumes in Rio’s 2008 Carnaval festival. The entire police complex has become fashionable: Newspapers and magazines frequently publish features about the hardships police face, and some officers are even delivering motivational lectures for companies interested in adopting the motto of the soldiers: "A mission given is a mission completed."

For many Brazilians, the popularity of the book and movie seems to indicate that the crisis of public security can only be resolved through violence. What they do not ask themselves is why this strategy, which has been applied informally by Brazilian police for decades, has not been able to prevent the slaughter of 50,000 people every year. Perhaps, like so many other ugly realities of this struggle between cops and criminals, it’s a fact people won’t accept until they have to — or until someone turns the truth into a thrilling work of art.

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