Brazil Human Rights

Human Rights Concerns: Police abuses, 2014 World Cup, 2016 Olympics

Brazil is a vast multicultural state and comprises one of the BRIC countries (Brazil, India Russia, China). It is the world’s fifth most populous country and is largely recognized as a thriving democracy with a vast network of sophisticated and well organized civil society groups.

With its economic potential and emerging role in regional and international affairs the focus on Brazil will continue for some time. Given its rising status in the world and its position as one of Latin America’s leading economic and political players it only stands to reason that Brazil is an important site of social, political and cultural exchange.

In October 2010, in a landmark ruling, the Brazilian High Court of Justice voted to bring the investigation and judicial proceedings relating to the killing of Manoel Mattos, a former councilor and human rights activist, under federal jurisdiction. This was the first time a case had been moved to federal jurisdiction since a 2004 constitutional amendment allowed for cases of grave human rights abuses to be heard at the federal level. Manoel Mattos had exposed the activities of death squads in the border region of Paraíba and Pernambuco states and investigations into his death were hampered by threats against witnesses.

The controversial Belo Monte hydroelectric dam project on the Xingu River in Pará state was granted an environmental license in February 2010 by the Brazilian environmental agency amid opposition from Indigenous and other rural communities, human rights and environmental groups and federal prosecutors. Local NGOs argued that the dam project could displace thousands of families, and flood vast tracts of traditional Indigenous lands. In October, in a positive step, the federal government issued a decree providing for the creation of a socio-economic register including a public record of all those affected by dams.

In February, Brazil approved a constitutional amendment which added the right to food to existing economic, social and cultural rights. In November, Brazil ratified the International Convention against enforced disappearance. However, Brazil did not recognize the competence of the Committee on Enforced Disappearances to receive complaints from or on behalf of victims or states when the national authorities fail to fulfill their obligations.

Dilma Rousseff won the presidential elections in the second round in October, promising continuity and took office in January 2011. She said that public security, health and the eradication of poverty would be priorities for her administration.


Public security

Criminal and police violence continued to be a serious problem in Brazil’s largest cities. In a progress report, the Special Rapporteur on extrajudicial, summary or arbitrary executions wrote that “the norm remains that citizens, especially residents of favelas (shanty towns), remain hostage to violence from gangs, militias and the police” and that “extrajudicial killings remain widespread”. In Rio de Janeiro, further Police Pacification Units were installed in favelas, achieving reductions in violence. However, outside of these projects, police violence, including killings, remained widespread. According to official statistics, police killed 855 people in situations described as “acts of resistance” in 2010.

In November, in response to gang violence, including the burning of more than 150 vehicles and attacks on police posts, police mounted operations across the city. More than 50 people were killed in confrontations between police and drug gangs in the space of a week. Civil Police killed seven people in a single operation in the community of Jacarezinho. In the community of Vila Cruzeiro, a 14-year-old girl was killed inside her house when she was hit by a stray bullet. At the end of the week, over 2,600 men, supported by the army and the navy, staged a major operation in the Complexo do Alemão, a group of shanty towns in the city’s northern zone where Rio’s largest drug faction had set up headquarters. The complex was swiftly taken and at the end of the year was under the control of the army, awaiting the possible future deployment of a Police Pacification Unit. Militias and death squads

Militias (armed paramilitary-style groups) continued to dominate many areas of Rio de Janeiro and a large number of the recommendations of the 2008 parliamentary inquiry into the militias had not been implemented by the end of 2010.

  • In September, Leandro Baring Rodrigues was shot dead as he drove his car. A year earlier, he had witnessed the killing of his brother, Leonardo Baring Rodrigues, who had testified against the militias in the case of a massacre of seven people in the Barbante favela in 2008.
  • Death squads, many made up of off-duty law enforcement officers, continued to operate in many states. In August, a report presented by the Council for the Defense of Human Rights – a federal body which investigates human rights violations – concluded that death squads, often contracted by local businesses to threaten, torture and kill petty thieves, were operating with impunity in Ceará state.
  • More than 30 people living on the streets were killed in Maceió, the capital of Alagoas state, in what state prosecutors suggested could be attempts by vigilantes to “clean up” the city. Investigations into the killings were slow; by November, investigations into only four cases had been completed and passed on to the prosecution services.
  • There was a spate of multiple homicides in São Paulo in which the perpetrators were suspected of having links to police death squads and criminal gangs. According to official figures, between January and the end of September, 240 people had been killed in 68 separate incidents across the capital and greater São Paulo.

Torture, other ill-treatment and prison conditions
Torture was widespread at the point of detention and in police cells, prisons and juvenile detention systems.

  • In April, a motorcycle courier was tortured to death inside a military police base in São Paulo. He died after being repeatedly kicked in the face and beaten with sticks and a chain by a group of police officers. Twelve police officers were later charged in connection with the death.
  • Prisons remained severely overcrowded and inmates were held in conditions amounting to cruel, degrading or inhuman treatment. The authorities had effectively lost control of many facilities, leading to a series of riots and homicides.
  • In October, rival factions killed 18 prisoners, four of whom were decapitated, in two facilities in Maranhão state. The riots began after prisoners complained about overcrowding, the poor quality of the food and lack of access to water. In November, following criticism by the state Human Rights Commission and local NGOs, the Espírito Santo state authorities closed the Judicial Police Department in Vila Velha, which had been holding up to eight times as many prisoners as it was designed to house and which had been the subject of repeated torture allegations. The controversial use of shipping containers to house prisoners in several units was also stopped. Nevertheless, inspections by the National Council of Justice reported continuing problems, including overcrowding and insanitary conditions, especially in the Tucum Women’s Prison.

At the end of the year, proposals for a federal law to introduce preventative mechanisms in line with the Optional Protocol to the Convention against Torture – ratified by Brazil in 2007 – remained stalled in the Office of the President’s Chief of Staff. Meanwhile, two states, Alagoas and Rio de Janeiro, approved laws to implement the Optional Protocol in May and June respectively.

Indigenous Peoples’ rights

Indigenous Peoples fighting for their constitutional rights to traditional lands continued to face discrimination, threats and violence. The situation was particularly grave in the state of Mato Grosso do Sul, where Guarani-Kaiowá communities faced persistent persecution from gunmen hired by local farmers. In spite of efforts on the part of federal prosecutors to speed up the process to recognize the rights of Indigenous Peoples to traditional lands, the process remained stalled.


The Guarani-Kaiowá communities of Y’poí, Ita’y Ka’aguyrusu and Kurusú Ambá in the south of Mato Grosso do Sul state were harassed and attacked by hired gunmen. In the community of Kurusú Ambá, a three-year-old Indigenous boy died after suffering bouts of diarrhoea in September. At the time the security situation had been deemed so dangerous that the Federal Health Agency had suspended visits.

  • In October in the south of Bahia state, Pataxó Hã-Hã-Hãe leader José de Jesus Silva (known as Zé da Gata) was shot dead by a gunman riding on a motorcycle. José de Jesus Silva was trying to deliver supplies to an Indigenous occupation of traditional lands. A decision relating to the demarcation of Pataxó Hã-Hã-Hãe lands had been pending in the Supreme Court since 1983.


Workers’ rights


Degrading labor conditions persisted across Brazil. In May, the UN Special Rapporteur on contemporary forms of slavery visited Brazil. She concluded that forced labor and “slave-like” practices were most prevalent in the cattle sector, followed by sugar cane plantations. She urged the federal authorities to pass a constitutional amendment that would allow for the expropriation of land where forced labor is used. The amendment, which was proposed in 1999, remained stalled in Congress at the end of the year.

Human rights defenders


By the end of the year the National Program for the Protection of Human Rights Defenders had expanded its operations to six states. However, inconsistent funding and a lack of co-ordination between state and federal authorities meant that many human rights defenders included in the program remained without protection.

  • In May, Josilmar Macário dos Santos was shot at as he drove his taxi along a viaduct in the neighborhood of Catumbi, in Rio de Janeiro city. At the time of the attack, hearings were taking place in the case against four police officers accused of killing six young men, including Josilmar Macário dos Santos’ brother, Josenildo dos Santos. Although included in the National Program, Josilmar Macário dos Santos did not receive adequate protection.
  • Alexandre Anderson de Souza, President of a fishermen’s association in Magé, Rio de Janeiro state, received a series of death threats related to his work as a community leader. He was involved in protests against the environmental impact of the construction of a pipeline in the bay where the community fishes.



Brazil continued to lag behind the rest of the region in its response to grave human rights violations committed during the military era. In April, the Supreme Court ruled against a challenge to interpretations of the 1979 Amnesty Law. Current interpretations have resulted in impunity for officers accused of grave human rights violations including torture, rape and enforced disappearance during Brazil’s military dictatorship (1964-85).

  • In November, the Inter-American Court of Human Rights ruled that Brazil was responsible for the enforced disappearance of 62 guerrillas in Pará state between 1970 and 1972. The court found that Brazil had violated the right to justice by not adequately investigating the cases and withholding information, and that the 1979 Amnesty Law runs counter to Brazil’s obligations under international law and cannot be used to block prosecutions in cases of grave human rights violations.

By the end of the year, President Lula had not fully complied with a 2009 ruling of the Inter-American Court of Human Rights ordering that compensation be paid to the family of landless worker Sétimo Garibaldi. According to witnesses, Sétimo Garibaldi was shot dead by hooded gunmen on the Fazenda São Francisco, in Querência do Norte in the north-east of Paraná state, in November 1998.

Rights of lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender and intersex people

According to Bahia Gay Group, 277 LGBTI people were killed in Brazil between 1 January and 20 September, the highest number since the group began compiling data in 1980.
On 15 February, transgender woman Dandara dos Santos was beaten to death in Bom Jardim neighbourhood in Fortaleza city. According to investigators, at least 12 people were involved in her killing. Two men were arrested in connection with her killing during the year.
In September, a Federal District judge authorized psychologists to use unethical and harmful so-called “conversion therapies” in an attempt to alter individuals’ sexual orientation. The decision flouted a resolution of the Federal Psychology Council confirming that psychologists cannot take any action that would “pathologize homosexuality”. The judge’s decision contributed to increasing stigma and violence against LGBTI people.
A number of proposals at city, state and national level sought to prohibit gender and sexual orientation-related issues from being included in educational materials.

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