Since 2005, social movements, NGOs, community residents, families of the victims of police violence and Amnesty International have denounced the caveirão used by the police in Rio de Janeiro.
"Imagine an official armored vehicle, emblazoned with a skull and a sword, with police who come in shooting – first at the streetlights, then at the neighborhood’s residents… this is the caveirão. An eleven-year-old boy had his head torn off his body by shots which came from the caveirão – and we, the residents, still have to prove that it was the police." Resident of Caju community, where the caveirão has been deployed.
"We operate as we would in a conventional war, where the tank leads the way and the infantry surrounds the enemy." BOPE (Special Police Operation Battalion) commander, Colonel Venâncio Moura
The favelas of Rio de Janeiro – from the hilltops of the Zona Sul (south zone) to the plains of the Baixada Fluminense – live in a state of permanent tension. These are some of the poorest and most vulnerable communities in Brazil, enjoying little or no provision of public services.
Thrown back on their own resources, Rio’s favelas have grown into networks of narrow alleys, makeshift lean-tos and improvised plumbing and wiring. For these communities the hardships of poverty are compounded by a constant sense of insecurity and imminent violence.
Drug gangs have rushed in to fill the vacuum left by the state, organizing themselves into the rival factions that now dominate the city. The state government’s response has been a series of ever more confrontational crack-downs, involving large-scale police operations which target not just criminal gangs, but entire favela communities.
Four years ago, with violence escalating, the police brought into service a military-style vehicle, colloquially known as the caveirão. The introduction of the caveirão marked a new phase for Rio de Janeiro’s shanty towns – heavy armory was now being deployed in the heart of residential areas.
The caveirão also sent out powerful signals about the state government’s thinking on public security. The approach is to meet violence with violence, in a strategy of confrontation and intimidation. Trapped between the police and the drug gangs, Rio’s most deprived communities are now paying the price.
The caveirão is a security van that has been adapted into military-style assault vehicle. The word caveirão literally means "big skull" – a reference to the emblem of the BOPE, which is prominently displayed on the side of the vehicle.
Among the modifications made to the original security vans are a turret, able to rotate through 360 degrees, and rows of firing positions running along each side of the body of the van. The caveirão can carry up to 12 heavily-armed officers.
Built to resist high-powered weapons and explosives, the caveirão has two layers of armory, as well as a steel grill for protecting windows when under heavy fire. Its tires are coated with a glutinous substance which prevents punctures.
Its four doors lock automatically and cannot be opened from the outside – two escape hatches, one out of the turret and the other in the floor can be used in emergencies. Although it weighs around 8 tons, the caveirão can reach speeds of up to 120 km an hour.
So far, the Rio authorities have bought 10 caveirões, at a cost of US$ 62, 000 each, to police Rio’s shanty towns, with plans to increase the fleet in the coming years. In a sign that this approach to policing may be spreading beyond Rio de Janeiro, Santa Catarina state bought its first caveirão in 2004. Police officials claim the caveirão is essential for the protection of officers on dangerous missions. Yet for the communities subjected to caveirão-led patrols, the reality is very different.
Tool of Intimidation
Caveirão-led operations use both physical and psychological threats, designed to intimidate whole communities. The BOPE’s emblem – a skull, impaled on a sword, backed by two gold pistols – sends out a strong, unambiguous message. As explained on the BOPE website, the emblem symbolizes armed combat, war and death.
Amnesty International has stated it grave concerns around the manner in which the caveirão has been deployed. The organization has received reports of caveirões driving into communities firing at random, sending people running for their lives.
According to Edilson Santos, the director of the arts center Lona Cultural in the Complexo da Maré, from 10 o’clock onwards caveirões routinely enter the community shooting.
"Often, when you are coming back from work, you see mothers, children and other people running in fear. It even seems like they’re guilty of something. It’s so sad. Everyone – young people, children, old people, artists – we are all anxious about how unsafe this vehicle is."
Loud-speakers mounted on the outside of the vehicle repeatedly announce the caveirão’s arrival. Expressions used vary from the polite: "Residents, we are here to defend your community. Please, don’t go out of your homes, it’s dangerous"; to the alarmist: "Children, get out of the street. There’s going to be a shootout"; to outright intimidation: "We have come to take your souls".
When the caveirão approaches someone in the street, police shout through the megaphone: "Hey, you over there! You are acting suspiciously. Move very slowly, lift up your shirt, turn around… now you can go". Amnesty International has also received reports of police swearing and using derogatory language against residents, particularly women.
The tone and the language used by police during caveirão-led operations are hostile and authoritarian. The threats and insults have had a traumatizing effect on communities, with children particularly vulnerable.
According to local NGOs, since the caveirão’s introduction, children have begun to suffer emotional and psychological problems. The innocent fear of "the bogeyman" has been replaced by that of the caveirão.