In Brazil’s Favelas Caveirí£o Took Place of Bogeyman

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.


  • Show Comments (8)

  • rtpricetag

    Brazil Drug War
    I have followed situations like Chile (1973) in South American nations, and although I have not done a thorough research of Brazil drug problem, considering reports about who are running and enabling this drug operation, it so far looks suspiciously like the dead and mutilated corpses I/ve seen in reports, are the lowly and poor who are very unlikely to be the problem, only the symptom of a greater and untouched problem.
    The training film I saw was a mirror image of the MOUT training here in America, for both military and law enforcement agencies.

  • rtpricetag

    Degeneracy of Military and LawEnforcement Emblems
    I have been collecting emblems worn secretly by US servicemen in the Vietnam war, and would like to add the Brazilian Special Forces Police emblem to this collection. These are displayed in my article showing how servicemen and Law Enforcement personel when forced into prolonged and immoral killing of civilians, eventually have to harden their heart’s. Or as one professor who devised a victim-aggressor program among his students, only to see in time how it complete went out of control regarding ethical and moral character actions, later did a report calling it the ‘Lucifer Effect’.
    Anyway, anyone who finds or has one of the Brazilian Skull/Swords emblem, please send me a copy:

  • silva

    Drug dealers orders “Edilson Santos” to say shit about the big skull..

    [quote]using armored vehicles to kill innocent people is just inhumane. even the drug dealers do a better job of protecting citizens than the police!!!![/quote]

    Drug dealers make human shield of the favela’s citizens

    when you do a good job to f.. the crime in brazil, some people just start to f.. you up

  • dudeee

    using armored vehicles to kill innocent people is just inhumane. even the drug dealers do a better job of protecting citizens than the police!!!! 😮 😮 😮

  • anndre

    God bless the caveirao
    that’s right, it’s the only thing that will save that shithole that is Rio. Drugdealers deserve the caveirao on top of them

  • augusto

    i invite the people of newsroom to make a trip to shanty-town with a cop uniform,they never pass the entrance cause deaths dont walk,i think if the situation is like this,it is a case of federal intervention on rio and sp.i forgett we are democracie now the president cant take measures against this without a invite to te sate governor.the trouble is we have so mucth democracie and bad guys hyave the right to vote to.if our cops go to the favelas without armored cars they die… its simple its not a question of words is your head on the game.wath newsroom suggest ,maybe if my ncountrie solve all his social troubles,but wath we gonna do at this miracle sorry but for now the big skull is needed.the emblem is this so a message undubious an clear ,(we gonna take your souls)but for the bad guys,the guys from bope is the las civil force stand back them only the army,then they have to be the south we dont have big skulls but wen the police special forces was called the bad guys release all they have cause if no surrender they die,in here so few cop are executed because the cops make revenge cop killers dont living so mutch.

  • alltheway

    Look @ , 59% and 57% of Brasilians do not feel safe in teh streets of RIo or SP. Unless their fears are imagined they apparently feel they have a reason to feel unsafe in the streets

  • ch.c.

    all brazilian tourism agencies say that Brazil is not more violent or insecure than any country in the world !!!!!!

    who lies ?

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