"Public Enemy Number Two?: Rising Crime and Human Rights Advocacy in Transitional Societies,"

James Cavallaro, Mohammad-Mahmoud Ould Mohamedou
Published: 
May 2005

On March 5, 2002, a special division of the São Paulo military police in Brazil positioned several vehicles with heavily armed ofªcers on a highway near Campinas. The police sought to intercept and ambush a truck transporting twelve suspects that their intelligence services had indicated was on its way to participate in an armed robbery. When the suspects’ vehicle came into their sights, the police opened ªre, spraying hundreds of rounds of machine gunªre at the truck, killing all twelve men. No police were injured. It is unlikely that there was any return ªre at all, given the sudden intensity of the police attack.1 Authorities reported, later that day, that a dozen drug trafªckers had been killed in a shootout with police forces on the highway. The state governor hailed the killings as a “dream police” operation.2 Rights activists and policing experts in Brazil know that authorities routinely contend that the police have killed in shootouts to paper over what are in fact summary executions.3 They also recognized that it was highly unlikely, in this case, that a gun battle would leave twelve civilians dead and no police killed or wounded. Yet, remarkably, in the immediate aftermath of the incident, no rights groups stepped forward to challenge the ofªcial version.4 Individually or through consultation, these rights defenders seemingly concluded that challenging the ofªcial version would be counterproductive. Because there was little doubt that those killed were tied to a dangerous criminal enterprise, rights groups feared—and rightly so—that denouncing police excesses would be unpopular.