Tuesday, September 27, 2011

Eight Cops Arrested in Murder of Brazilian Judge Tough on Vigilante Groups

A Brazilian court in the state of Rio de Janeiro ordered six new arrests yesterday (September 26) of police implicated in the murder of a judge who was tough on rogue cops. Two other police officers were arrested last week as also being involved in the assassination of Judge Patricia Acioli, who was shot and killed in front of her home in the city of Niteroi in August. Among those arrested was Claudio de Oliveira, who was chief of police in the city of Sao Goncalo, a city of nearly 1 million people. Clearly, the involvement of a chief of police of a city of that size would be BIG news in any country.

Judge Acioli was known for being tough on crooked cops. Unfortunately, there are a lot of them in Brazil, and many are in the state of Rio de Janeiro, where Acioli presided. During her tenure, she put more than 60 officers behind bars, most of them for murder.

COMMENT: Normally, I would not extensively cover what some may describe as a just one of many murders of judges in Latin America. For sure, there are lots of example of such attacks to be found in Mexico, Colombia and several other countries. Yet, the brutal attack on Judge Acioli is a serious flag that the criminal justice system in Brazil is not doing well at all, particularly in light of the fact that Rio has been selected as host to both the World Cup (2o14) and the Summer Olympics (2016).

Another distinction in this case surrounds the number of times that Judge Acioli was shot. All of the 21 rounds that hit her came from a lot issued to police, including some in Sao Goncalo, the city where she presided as judge. Any reasonable person would conclude that her murder was a very strong message from cop-dominated vigilante groups to "lay off." Acioli's murder was also the first assassination of a judge in the state's history.

Unfortunately, vigilante groups have grown in number and power in recent years, largely due to the huge levels of crime seen in major Brazilian cities (e.g., Rio de Janeiro, Sao Paulo, etc.). As a result, vigilante members are comprised mostly of former and current police, firefighters and jail guards. Strangely, some have even succeeded in becoming elected officials. A state-level investigation in 2008 revealed that vigilante groups were connected to execution-style killings, far-reaching extortion schemes and the kidnapping and torture of a group of journalists investigating the groups' activities.

Sadly, Acioli had been repeatedly threatened for taking on the police officers who were part of the gangs and had written letters to her superiors requesting protection. One week before her murder, she went to Rio police internal affairs office and reported that she was being threatened by officers from Sao Goncalo. The last case on her docket the day she died, involved police officers charged with executing an 18-year-old man in a slum. One of her last acts as a judge was to authorize their arrest.

Nationally, the lives of 134 judges are currently under threat, according to the National Council for Justice, which oversees the judiciary branch in Brazil. Requests for protection from magistrates jumped 400% after Acioli's assassination, according to the Brazilian Association of Judges. Acioli's murder also caused the United Nations special rapporteur on the independence of judges and lawyers, Gabriela Knaul, to urge Brazilian authorities to protect those charged with enforcing the law. Yet, how is it possible for the vigilante groups to be stamped out, when former Rio de Janeiro Mayor Cesar Maia in 2006 welcomed them as a "lesser evil" and a form of "community self-defense" against drug gangs. Worse, incumbent Mayor Eduardo Paes also praised vigilante groups in a July 2008 interview on Globo television, saying they "brought peace to the population" in areas where the state had lost sovereignty to drug lords.

In Sao Goncalo, 34 officers were placed on administrative leave after Acioli's death because they faced a multitude of felonies, including murder, according to Rio state's Supreme Court. Arrest warrants have been issued for 28 of them.

Here's the really sad part. In spite of the documented threats against her, Judge Acioli had her protective detail cut from four officers to one in 2007. On the day she was murdered, August 10, 2011, her assailants, who were also cops, followed her from the courthouse to to her home where she was shot 21 times. On that day, the armed security escort who was assigned to accompany her on all portal-to-portal moves, was conveniently absent. What may never be known is whether the police who protected her were the same officers who actually killed her.

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