The death of a judge in metropolitan Rio de Janeiro has prompted an intense re-focus on police reform. On 28 September Colonel Mário Sérgio Duarte, the commander general of the military police force (PM) in Rio de Janeiro, stepped down from his post, assuming responsibility for the assassination of a local judge, Patricia Alioli, on 12 August.

Colonel Mário Sérgio Duarte, 52, also oversaw the PM’s elite special force, the Batalhão de Operações Policiais Especiais (Bope). Earlier this week, Lieutenant Colonel Cláudio Luiz Silva de Oliveira, head of the two PM battalions accused of organising Alioli’s murder, was imprisoned on charges of being the intellectual author of the crime.

In a letter to the state’s security secretary, José Mariano Beltrame, Colonel Duarte, who is in hospital recovering from prostate surgery, recognised his “mistake” in appointing Silva de Oliveira to head up the PM’s 7th battalion (São Gonçalo). It was Silva de Oliveira’s first-ever command. He is now in the Bangú 8 penitentiary, with seven other PM officers, all of whom served under him.

Patricia Lourival Acioli was shot 21 times by masked gunmen on motorbikes as she pulled up outside her home in the municipality of Piratininga, Niterói. She was known for her aggressive criminal sentencing, in particular against militia members (comprising former and off-duty officers, police and firemen). Reportedly, she had sentenced more than 60 military police officers in her local jurisdiction of São Gonçalo over the past 10 years. A week before her death, Lourival Acioli herself had apparently informed the military police central command that she had been threatened by officers stationed at São Gonçalo and Niterói (12th battalion). Rumour has it that Silva de Oliveira was the target of her recent investigations, in which she was focusing on his alleged involvement in cases of extrajudicial executions and corruption. The pair had a history going back 20 years, when Acioli first investigated him for abuse of authority.

Following the incident the NGO Amnesty International issued a statement noting that the assassination underlined “the profound problems with police corruption and the spread of organised crime”. “The death of a judge who was simply doing her job is an attack on the rule of law and the judicial system in Brazil,” Patrick Wilcken, the NGO’s Brazil representative, added. He called for a thorough investigation and warned that “the police, municipal and state authorities have closed their eyes” to the illegal activities that sustain organised crime and police corruption in Rio. He cited the militias’ continued operation of transport, gas and electricity service networks “with impunity”.

The politically ambitious (and federal government allied) Governor Sérgio Cabral has led an aggressive security crackdown on the city’s criminal culture in preparation for the 2014 FIFA World Cup and the 2016 Summer Olympics. His efforts to clean up the city’s violent and drug gang and militia- infested shanty towns (favelas) via the use of counter-insurgency tactics have received international plaudits, most notably from the visiting US President Barack Obama back in March.

However despite reform efforts, including improved pay, police corruption remains endemic. In February, Rio’s latest civil police chief resigned following yet another major corruption scandal in that force. The city’s secretary of public security, José Mariano Beltrame, opted to replace him with Marta Rocha, the city’s first female chief of police.

Latin American Weekly Report, 29 September 2011