SÃO PAULO — The personal social network profiles of some Brazilian police officers show a grim reality: too many of them subscribe to the philosophy that "a good criminal is a dead one."
Some feature photos of detained boys with whipped backs, while others show young offenders severely beaten at the hands of cops. Two videos even show police officers torturing young adults who have clown tattoos — a symbol known to be associated with the murder of police officers. One of them is being forced to scratch his tattoo off with sandpaper and alcohol if he doesn't want to be shot in the foot. The other video shows a youth having his tattoo scratched off of his back with a knife.
The recordings were circulated via WhatsApp, a mobile messaging application, and were also posted on an Instagram profile named "Anjos Guardiões" (Guardian Angels), which boasts more than 40,000 followers who have subscribed to receive these pictures and videos, sometimes so graphic they're painful to watch, showing officers posing with their guns and people they apprehended bearing swollen, beaten faces.
Some of the videos have been deleted since we began our reporting, and one profile that had published many photos and videos of violent arrests has been deleted. Our investigation found at least 19 such accounts on Instagram, with a total of 305,000 followers. But we only found one of the people behind these profiles.
Ronaldo Gomes, 18, works in a shop selling electronics and dreams of becoming a police officer. About a year ago, he created the profile "Polícia Brasileira" (Brazilian Police), which now has nearly 70,000 followers. There, he wants "to show police work in Brazil." He's assisted by a member of the Federal Military Police who wishes to remain anonymous.
"The government and the population denigrate the police," Gomes says. "Many people talk ill of the police, but when they're being attacked, calling the police is the first thing they do." He receives six pictures a day, on average, directly from police officers. Gomes sees no problem with the images he posts on his account. One of them shows a baseball bat with the words "Human rights" written on it.
"When a criminal is killed, people blame and lambast the police," he says. "But when something happens to a police officer, what about human rights then?"
Images honoring the memory of dead officers are part of the feed on the profile "Rota Adm," which is dedicated to an elite group of the São Paulo military police and followed by more than 66,000 users. Conte Lopes, a São Paulo councillor and former captain in the military police whose pictures appear on that page, defends the recurring motto that appears on these pages, that "a good criminal is a dead one." He says it represents what society thinks.
Brazilian police showing their work on Instagram
He cites research conducted in July by the polling institute Datafolha, which pointed out that half of the population in Brazil's major cities agreed with this statement. "A dead criminal won't commit any more crimes," he says. "Those who died in a shootout against me didn't attack anybody else."
Samira Bueno, director of the Brazilian Forum on Public Safety, says police officers sometimes forget that they're representing the state. "It's one thing to consider that a good criminal is a dead one," she says. "But Brazilian law stipulates that there's no capital punishment in Brazil." She says she fears that "the undiscriminated use of new technologies ends up leading to savagery."
Everaldo Patriota, the president of a Brazilian human rights commission, sees the online publication of these pictures as reminiscent of "the Far West." He condemns the photographs of detentions, and there are many of them in which the prisoner's face is clearly visible and accompanied by such messages as "one scumbag down."
Instagram doesn't comment on specific cases. Its directors say the social network accepts pictures portraying acts of violence with the goal of denouncing it, but that it rejects those who glorify it. As for the São Paulo military police, it says that the "cited profiles have no official connection with the military police."
If a government watchdog identifies them, these officers risk facing charges of torture and abuse of authority in a public court, or of condoning crime in a military court.