Warning sign in the batallion
Members of the Special Operations Battalion known as the Bope tell VEJA about their concern that isolated cases of corruption could be the seeds of evil in Brazil´s best prepared police force
In a series of taps of phone calls and text messages obtained during an operation carried out in Rio de Janeiro by the Civil Police, sergeant Arlen Santos Silva negotiates with drug traffickers from the gang that calls itself the Pure Third Command (Terceiro Comando Puro or TCP in Portuguese).
The sergeant sells arms, information and protection to the criminals. In a single working shift, he earned R$ 12,500 (about US$ 4,000). It is obvious from the conversations that the sergeant had partners within the elite unit of the Rio federal police (PM) in which he served, known locally as the Bope. In one telephone conversation, a drug gangster called Ronaldinho talks about transferring bribes to sergeant Arlen and “his friend”. In a text message, the sergeant promises to warn the drug trafficker about a police action, the details of which would be passed to him by a “major”. This shameful behavior comes as a reality shock to millions of Brazilian who formed an image of the Bope as a squeaky clean and incorruptible police unit through the 2007 film Tropa de Elite (Elite Troop).
The Bope continues to be one of the best prepared police forces in Brazil. What this article shows is that the armor plating measures installed to prevent police deviating from the conduct expected of Bope members are being constantly put to the test by increasingly more daring renegade members. Could cases such as the corrupt relationship between sergeant Arlen and the criminal Ronaldinho be a sign that the seed of evil that germinates so easily in the regular battalions have infiltrated the Bope? This is a concern raised with VEJA by members of the elite troop. Based on information supplied by them, the magazine examined 20 cases of serious violations in the Bope. The leadership has been quick in removing those found guilty and suspects. Moreover, the culture of being intolerant with wrongdoers is still dominant. However, for those who live the day-to-day reality of the battalion, the irregularities, although still far from being the norm, may be becoming unacceptably more frequent.
The VEJA investigation includes cases that occurred over the last seven years and were described by members of the Bope, Civil and Federal police and investigators of the internal force that examines complaints against the police themselves. These are serious occurrences that highlight highly successful attempts to open breaches in the Bope´s ethical armor. In one of them, it was revealed that Antônio Bonfim Lopes, known as Nem, who is the godfather of drug trafficking in the Rocinha favela district and has been in prison since 2011, had seven policemen from the Bope on his payroll. One of them became a friend of Nem and taught the police´s patrol tactics to the gang. The seven criminals in uniforms were discovered by agents of the Bope itself and were transferred to other battalions. This was the same destination for a patrolman suspected of being part of the security escort of Brazil´s most wanted drug lord, Celso Pinheiro Pimenta, known as Playboy.
“At one point, the gambling racketeer, Alcebíades Paes Garcia, decided he needed to recruit members of the Bope for his personal security. A troop to protect him was formed,” said a Federal Police chief who investigated the case. A video from 2008 obtained by VEJA shows three members of the elite troop escorting Garcia to a car. All the signs indicate that the policemen were unmasked and transferred to other battalions but the official inquiry into the affair was shelved.
During the retaking of the Complexo do Alemão favela district, shown live on TV in November 2010, the commander of a Bope team which found an arms store kept two of the rifles that were apprehended. A lieutenant denounced him, the two rifles reappeared and the commander was dismissed. During the same operation, two Bope members were caught red handed in a removal truck as they were about to steal valuable objects from the home of a drug trafficker in Vila Cruzeiro, one of the favelas in the complex. The action, to be carried out on their days off, was thwarted and the two policemen were transferred. At the end of last year, the then Bope commander, lieutenant-colonel Luís Cláudio Laviano, called the battalion during the night and discovered that the shift from one team had gone out on a mission without telling anyone about it. The following day, all 10 members of the mysterious operation were summarily excluded from the elite troop and transferred to other battalions. Did this drastic action rip up the evil by the root? Apparently it did but the uncertainty remains over whether the immediate transfer of the suspects was the best response rather than a more in-depth investigation into what they were doing that night outside the battalion´s control in uniform and armed.
The Bope commander in 2006 and former chief of the Rio de Janeiro PM, Mário Sérgio Duarte, investigated this practice which has been passed from one administration to another. “The Bope does not wait for suspicious signs to materialize before getting rid of its undesirables. I even apologize for doing so myself. When in doubt, the commanders transfer their potential problems,” he said. Some case are investigated in an efficient way and others not. This logic of silence is part of the strategy of elite security forces throughout the world. The aura of incorruptibility has to be maintained at all costs. Internal investigations in the American FBI and Scotland Yard take place far from the public eye and are only revealed on rare occasions.
The Bope was created as the Special Operations Cores in 1978 and consisted of only 20 carefully men chosen to be the elite of the police force. The core became a company which, in turn, became a battalion. Now there are 450 “skulls”, as the Bope members are known. This comes from their distinctive human skull pierced by a dagger symbol — an almost universal emblem of the “do or die” elite i.e. carrying out the mission even if the cost is death. Colonel Paulo César Amendola, who founded the troop and is a specialist in public security, believes that the increase in the size of the contingent has been a determining factor in the rise in violations. “It´s much easier to maintain strict discipline with fewer people,” he said. One of the features of the high performing elite units, such as the American Navy´s Seals, is to organize itself into small teams in which all the members respect each other, know each other and, of course, keep an eye on each other.
The Bope police have killed 83 people during 77 incursions against drug traffickers over the last two years. How many people were killed after surrendering, confused with criminals, or simply hit by bullets fired at the wrong target by criminals or the police? No-one knows. The Bope carries out war operations and killing is the law in wars. “Any deviation from the Bope conduct is like stealing,” said a sergeant with more than 10 years´ experience with the unit. For those who follow this inflexible code, the link between colleagues and criminals is serious enough for them to break the silence and reveal secrets — such as the cases brought to light by this VEJA article. The commanders of the PM and the Bope preferred not to comment when approached by the magazine. Stay alert.
The then Bope sergeant Arlen Silva offers rifles to the drug trafficker
Ronaldinho, the right arm man of the godfather of the Complexo da Maré favela district
Sergeant Arlen — What´s up man?! I have a little deal for you here! How do we go about it?
Ronaldinho — Well… Just bring it over… how much is each one?
Sergeant Arlen — Four five (R$ 45,000, about US$ 15,000)
Ronaldinho — That´s a lot dude!
Sargent Arlen — I will be there and we´ll discuss it.
The sergeant promises to advise the drug gangster when the Bope will be carrying out an operation in the Maré complex
Ronaldinho — Some cars from the Light went by here (Bope vehicles) with a crane as well, do you understand?
Sergeant Arlen —I will warn you if there is any operation happening.
Ronaldinho — That will be really worth it. We are together!
The drug trafficker makes it clear to an intermediary that the bribe is to be paid not only to the sergeant
Ronaldinho — Tell that guy (the sergeant) who went to buy clothes with you that you are getting the business (the bribe) for him and his friend. Tell him, dude, that I am sending him a message, for him to get some information for me. Do you get it (if the Bope will be in the Maré)? And tomorrow is the day for his friend (an agent from the other Bope team) who is also taking (bribe). Do you understand?