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Searing Look at Rio's Homicidal Police

As Brazil prepares to host two high-profile global events, filmmaker José Padilha suggests that while improving security is a worthy goal, its methods and rationale are deeply flawed.
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Brazil doesn’t make the Top 10 of Transparency International’s annual list of the most corrupt countries–it’s tied with Cuba and Montenegro at No. 69 out of 178 — but you’d never know that after watching Elite Squad: The Enemy Within, a white-hot blast of cinematic righteousness that makes Rio de Janeiro look like ground zero for sleazy dealings, extrajudicial police executions and political chicanery.

Directed by José Padilha, whose 2002 documentary Bus 174 detailed how police incompetence turned a Rio bus hijacking into a disastrous media circus. This film is a sequel to his 2007 film Elite Squad, which told how the BOPE, the Special Police Operations Battalion of the Military Police of Rio de Janeiro state, used violence and fascist tactics to shut down drug dealers in that city’s slums. The new film centers on Nascimento, a BOPE leader from the first film who, after a botched standoff between rioting prisoners and his men leads to a massacre of the criminals, finds that he has become a public hero, and is kicked upstairs to a position of even more authority.

Elite Squad: The Enemy Within then becomes an engrossing look at how BOPE’s success in shutting down slum drug dealers has left an opening for corrupt cops, who move into the favelas and form their own widespread criminal organization. Even worse, these murderous paramilitaries are supported by the local government, which sees them as a source of power and votes. In a real switch, Nascimento decides to fight this corrupt system with whatever tools are at his disposal.

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Padilha’s film is exciting, fast-moving and swarming with top-notch action sequences. It’s as good as any Hollywood cop film you can name. It’s also scary as all get-out, a look at a law enforcement system that seems totally out of control. A 2009 Human Rights Watch report found that Rio police kill one person for every 23 they arrest. That figure in the U.S. is one killed for every 37,000 arrested.

“Why is it that everything in Rio is so violent? Even the traffic,” Padilha asked in an interview with Miller-McCune. “I did three movies to try to answer that question. In Bus 174, you see how the state mistreats a street kid [the hijacker]. The way the state is handling the small-time criminals and street kids is breeding violent criminals. Then in Elite Squad, look at how the state treats the police. They choose bad people, they pay bad wages–the state itself is creating corrupt and violent cops.

“In Elite Squad: The Enemy Within, I try to say why. The answer is in the interface between politicians and the police. I force Nascimento to deal with the police, drug dealers, and the politicians. And you learn all the decisions made that deal with security in Rio are politically oriented, what will get me the most votes.”


What all this says about public security in Rio during the 2014 World Cup and 2016 Summer Olympics is what gives Elite Squad even more immediacy. Padilha admits that things are being done to make the city safe – but for the wrong reasons.

“Things have to be done anyway, beyond the World Cup and the Olympics,” he said. “We should have changed things much earlier, and the fact someone is finally doing something speaks very lowly of us.”

For the immediate future, this means the concentration is on driving drug dealers and other violent criminals out of neighborhoods that tourists frequent, such as the area around the airport and Ipanema. “This program is working, and it’s a good thing,” said Padilha, “but I think the real things that will solve the problem in the long run are not being tackled.”

What the system needs desperately is better police training, higher wages, reform of the medieval jail system, and better social services for youth and juvenile offenders. “This is all very complicated to tackle, and takes a long time, a huge political commitment,” said Padilha. “That is not happening. What is happening are special political decisions and special policies that will have a fast effect in the context of the World Cup.”

It’s all, Padilha notes, part of the growing pains of being an emerging world superpower. “It’s the same thing as in Russia, where there is a huge structure of corruption, and the country is clearly a power,” he said. “I think every country, in its own way, goes through that. Brazil can develop economically while being socially fair and democratic.

“Is there a direct connection between economic growth and social justice? Yes, but it’s not a simple one. And in a short span, it’s possible to grow economically and be unfair to the population.”

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