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Missing in Rio on the rise

Elizabeth Gomes, right, shouts at Brazilian policemen during a protest demanding information about her husband Amarildo de Souza, went missing, at the Rocina slum, in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil. AP photo

Elizabeth Gomes, right, shouts at Brazilian policemen during a protest demanding information about her husband Amarildo de Souza, went missing, at the Rocina slum, in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil. AP photo

RIO DE JANEIRO — Anderson de Souza turned back after bounding down a dark maze of passageways in Rio de Janeiro’s sprawling Rocinha slum, incandescent light illuminating his face.

It was right here, he said, pointing to a spot near his family’s shack, that the police led his father away to a brutal torture and death. And it was in the same place he said he lost all hope that Rio’s ambitious security program to pacify and permanently occupy slums ahead of the 2016 Olympics would make his city safer.

“We’re not going to get my father back alive. All I want now is justice, that’s it,” Souza said. “Things have only gotten worse since the police came here. At least when the drug gangs had control, we knew the rules. Now, there is only fear. Police are snatching people up randomly, just like my dad.”

Human rights activists and police watchdogs say the case of Amarildo de Souza, a 42-year-old construction worker who an internal police investigation found was tortured, killed and “disappeared” by officers in July, is emblematic of deeper problems with Rio’s plan to clear slums of gangs who have held sway over most of the city’s thousand shantytowns for decades.

Homicides in Rio are down, but an Associated Press analysis of official police statistics shows that since 2007, a year before the security push into the city’s slums, the number of missing person cases in the city and its impoverished outskirts has shot up 33 percent, to 4,090 reports last year.

It’s not clear who’s behind the increase, but heavy-handed police tactics raise suspicions among those living in slums that authorities are involved.

“These are missing people who are never coming home,” said Antonio Carlos Costa, a pastor who has worked for years in Rio’s slums and runs the anti-violence group Rio de Paz. “We’re talking about numbers far higher than the number killed or disappeared under Brazil’s military dictatorship. These are the disappeared of democracy.”

For years now, police throughout Brazil have come under withering criticism for extra-judicial “resistance” killings, or summary executions of suspects. In a 2009 report, the U.S.-based watchdog group Human Rights Watch estimated that some 11,000 people were killed by police between 2003 and 2009 in the country’s two largest metropolises, Rio and Sao Paulo. A 2008 United Nations report found that that Brazilian police were responsible for a significant portion of the country’s 48,000 slayings the year before.

Costa said the worry is that police, in an effort to improve those grim statistics, have taken to disappearing the bodies of the people they kill, similar to what investigators say happened in the Souza case.

Reports provided by the Rio state Public Security Institute show that the number of resistance killings by police in metropolitan Rio dropped by 71 percent since 2007, while overall homicides are down 37 percent.

“These statistics are strange,” Costa said. “How can we have falling homicides and police resistance killings, presumably showing that the city is safer, yet have disappearances spiking? Something isn’t right.”

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