The Death Chambers of Rio de Janeiro

Chan Kim Chang never made it to San Diego. He never even got on the plane at Rio de Janeiro's Tom Jobim International Airport. The 46-year-old Chinese businessman instead found himself in one of Brazil's most brutal prisons, where he would meet a violent and untimely death.

After 20 years of living in Brazil Chang, along with his 13-year-old son, was ready to fly out to meet his wife and relatives who had already relocated to the United States. At the airport, he was apprehended by police and arrested for attempting to bring $30,000 in undeclared U.S. dollars on board. That evening, on August 25, Chang was taken to Rio's Ary Franco prison. Two days later, he was found in a coma in his cell, where he appeared to have been severely beaten and tortured. He died in the hospital on September 4, less than a week later.

Seven prison guards are now accused of torturing Chang, who was found with a severe blow to the head, a large bruise over one eye, bruises on the arms, lesions on the heels, and wounds on the legs, wrists, and ankles.

Heavily publicized by both the local and national media, the Chang case has unleashed a public outcry about the calamitous state of Rio's prison system and the systematic use of torture by prison officials across the country. Days after Chang's death, the Rio's Secretary of Prison Administration asked the state governor to declare a "state of emergency" within Rio's prisons, an action four other Brazilian states have already taken.

Chang's death is hardly unusual, nor is the systematic use of torture a new phenomenon. From October 2001 through the beginning of this year, the Brazilian advocacy group SOS Tortura received 2,075 denunciations of torture, 78 percent of which were against prison guards or police officers. But the number of denunciations do not begin to reflect the rampant use of torture and abuse within prisons and holding facilities.

The use of torture in Brazil can be traced back to the military dictatorship between 1964-1985, when thousands of political dissidents were persecuted, tortured, and "disappeared." After the re-democratization of the country, many of the military officials responsible for these abuses became police officers, prison guards, and other state officials left free to inflict their brutal methods on inmates.

Torture has now become "the primary method of police investigation in the country," according to the 2001 report issued by Nigel Rodley, a UN representative. Out of the 348 denunciations detailed in the report, 33 were based in Rio: 13 of them against police officers, one against a federal agent, and 20 against prison guards. To date, not one of the accused has been found guilty. Most of the cases, in fact, have yet to come to trial, with 14 of them still in the phase of inquiry.

Criminal impunity and legal delays are routine in Brazil. While a federal anti-torture law was passed in 1997, not one person in the past six years has been found guilty under the law. "The technical proof is difficult, justice many times is not served, and those who bring denouncements forward end up being threatened, losing their jobs, their families and their homes," says Marcelo Freixo, the president of Rio's Community Council.

Chang's death is unusual, however, in the public attention it has received. Unlike the overwhelming majority of torture victims and Brazilian prisoners, Chang was an educated, middle-class foreigner. "From the moment that the first details of the case came out, it was clear that Chang was different," says Ivanilda Figueiredo, a lawyer from the advocacy group Justiça Global. "He wasn't poor, he had no previous criminal history. The public is thinking, 'It could have been them.' "

"If it were me (who was killed)," says "Vítor," an ex-police officer and ex-prison guard who does not want his real name used, "There wouldn't be any repercussions," says the 41-year-old black man. Vítor began working as a Rio de Janeiro police officer in 1990. Often colluding -- as well as colliding -- with the drug cartels that dominate large parts of the city, the Rio de Janeiro police force is infamous for its widespread corruption and brutality. In the first six months of 2003 alone, 621 people were killed by police officers in Rio, as Amnesty International reported in late August.

Officers are placed in teams of four or five, making complicity, if not outright participation, in criminal activity all the harder to avoid. "Within each team, one doesn't denounce the other; one doesn't criticize the other. Even if you don't commit a wrong act, if the others do, you can either leave that team or stay there and risk being killed by the others," he says. "They'll end up taking your life and blaming it on the criminal."

After witnessing countless acts of torture and brutality and having his own life threatened twice by other officers, Vítor left the police force in 1993. In 1996, Vítor began working as a prison guard, a job he left at the beginning of this year. "I'm having a hard time right now, because I don't want to return to this kind of work," he admits.

He soon realized that the penitentiary system was no different from the police force. Even behind prison walls, the most powerful drug traffickers remain king, coordinating a regular flow of money, weapons and drugs into the prison, frequently with the help of the prison guards themselves.

The physical conditions within prisons are in themselves abusive: wet, fetid cells, infested with insects and rats. Within special cells, he continues, beatings and torture using electric shock are common. Vítor describes the time he witnessed a man's penis being put inside a restraining device and beaten into pulp. Denied medical treatment, the prisoner eventually had to be castrated because of an infection.

When asked how he could withstand witnessing such acts for so many years, Vítor responds: "Much of the time, I wrongly thought the following: 'It wasn't me who was doing these things, so I didn't have anything to do with it.' I never lay a hand on anyone, but I was there -- I had to be there watching." Most prison guards, however, cannot afford to leave. While the salary of the average guard is meager, it still pays the bills. Since his job ended earlier this year, Vítor and his family have been struggling to get by.

The lack of sufficient training and poor working conditions all but make abuse inevitable. Says Dr. Marcos Pinheiro, director of Rio's Talavera Bruce prison, "The prison guard and the prisoner and two victims of a faulty system. If you're working in an unsatisfactory environment, and you're poorly prepared, what's going to happen? Only bad things to the clientele." Says a prison guard who worked in Ary Franco for four months before deciding to leave: "If you’re working in a clean place, you’ll be clean; if you’re in a dirty place, you’ll be dirty."

According to Bruno, a prisoner from Rio's Bangú district, guards find in torture a way to boost their own sense of power. "They say the guards use violence and torture to control prisoners who seem 'rebellious,' but a 'real' motivation never really exists -- it can be something about the tone of your voice," he says. "It's the poor beating up the poor; the oppressed beating up the oppressed."

Despite the glaring need to invest in and re-structure Rio's penitentiary system, the only concrete action the state government has taken thus far has been to install cell-phone blockers within a series of prisons. While politicians at all levels of government have vehemently condemned the torture of Chang, long-standing reform is no simple matter for a system built on decades of corruption and complicity.

"What's disturbing about the Chang case is the demonstrated complicity between various levels of state apparatuses -- between the police officers who made the arrest at airport, the guards at the prison, and the administrators who attempted to cover it all up," says Paul Heritage, the director of the non-profit People's Palace Projects.

As of late, the most significant proposals have come from the federal government in Brasília. The National Secretary of Human Rights, Nilmário Mirando, has promised that a special team of investigators will conduct inspection raids of detention centers and prisons. Calling the end to torture "our primary objective," the National Secretary of Public Security, Luiz Eduardo Soares has proposed special training for judges and prosecutors and the creating new policies to push through the most urgent cases mired in delays.

While legislation moves forward in Brasília, some are struggling to implement immediate reform at the grassroot level. Pinheiro, who became the director of Rio's Talavera Bruce prison last December, advocates a policy of mutual respect. "We have to respect the prisoner for him not to disrespect us. It's his obligation to be disciplined, and he's going to receive consideration in return."

Talavera Bruce has become a rare oasis of reform in Rio, providing a number of work, educational, and cultural opportunities for its inmates as part of a dramatic transformation engineered by Pinheiro since December. While vocal about the reforms still needing to be made, one of the inmates at Talavera affirms that "a dialogue has begun" and that prison life has changed for that better. "Not to say that we're 'negotiating' with the staff but at least things have opened up between us," he says.

In the past few weeks, state and federal politicians have unleashed a flurry of proposals to reform the Brazilian penitentiary system and to combat the shocking degree of impunity that perpetrators of torture enjoy. At a major anti-gun march two weeks ago, members of Rio's Chinese community and others supporters of Chang formed a visible contingent in the crowd of 40,000. And the media continues to play up every new story about Rio's penitentiary system. For the moment, at least, everyone seems to be paying attention.

While these developments are heartening, it's hard to avoid the constant reminders of the system's deep-rooted flaws. September 8 -- four days after Chang died -- marked the one-year anniversary of the death of Antônio Gonçalves de Abreu. Accused of killing a federal police agent in Rio, Abreu was tortured while in police custody and died from a cranial fracture and hemorrhaging. Much like the Chang case, Abreu's death had created a public furor. A year later, the case has yet to be brought to trial.

As Chang's story begins to fade from the newspapers and television stations, there is the lingering fear that life in the prisons will return to torture as usual. "The police and guards know that people are going to forget about what happened," warns Vítor. "They know that we're going to forget about Chang."

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