Brazil gangbusters target elite police unit in widening corruption probe

Several members of Rio’s revered Special Police Operations Battalion taken down in ‘Operation Black Evil’.

PUBLISHED : Saturday, 12 December, 2015, 2:57pm
UPDATED : Saturday, 12 December, 2015, 2:57pm

Brazil’s ever-expanding corruption problem broke new ground Friday with charges that members of the country's most storied and supposedly untouchable police unit were taking bribes from drug traffickers.

Anti-organised crime and intelligence units carried out “Operation Black Evil” to arrest five members of Rio de Janeiro’s Special Police Operations Battalion, usually known by its acronym BOPE, the city prosecutor's office said in a statement.

Four men were quickly detained and one remained at large in Miami, Florida, Globo news site reported.

In addition to taking narco gangsters’ bribes in exchange for tipoffs on police operations, the BOPE agents provided weapons captured in other police raids, prosecutors said. More than US$20,000 was found in the house of one of the accused.

READ MORE: Brazil corruption scandal sends shock waves through ruling coalition

The arrests were only the latest corruption scandal in Brazil, where dozens of high-ranking politicians and business leaders have been snared in a bribes and kickbacks probe at oil giant Petrobras, and impeachment proceedings are underway against President Dilma Rousseff.

But the targeting of the elite BOPE officers was unusual.

BOPE troopers, whose emblem is a skull pierced by a dagger and crossed with two pistols, are a familiar presence in Rio where they ride in black pick-ups and vans, wearing all black or camouflage and often pointing automatic rifle barrels from open windows.

They are charged with confronting Rio’s ruthless drug gangs in favelas. Backed by helicopters and armoured vehicles, they conduct military style operations in the poor, densely crowded neighbourhoods when the already well-armed regular police cannot cope.

The BOPE won worldwide fame in the hit 2007 and 2010 “Elite Squad” movies, where it was portrayed as Brazil’s sole incorruptible force in a society riddled with drug violence, thieving police and crooked politicians.

The reality is more complicated. Like the rest of Brazil’s police, the BOPE have been accused of participating in widespread abuses, ranging from falsification of evidence to extrajudicial executions.

Prosecutors said they had issued warrants for four serving BOPE members and one veteran who now works for the regular police.

“Between August and December 2015, the police officers received weekly bribes from traffickers of a criminal group in return for information on operations carried out by BOPE in different neighbourhoods,” the prosecutor’s office said.

For information on each neighbourhood, the officers allegedly received payments of between US$516 to US$2,582.

A series of setbacks during operations first set off the alarm for commanders and led to the opening of the five-month “Operation Black Evil,” O Dia newspaper reported.

“We found it very strange. We’d do an operation at night and when we entered a favela, we’d find there wasn’t so much as a dog in the street,” BOPE’s commander, Lieutenant Colonel Carlos Eduardo Sarmento da Costa was quoted as saying. “We understood that our operations were being leaked.”

Anti-organised crime, intelligence and internal affairs units searched for the moles, releasing false information so that the network could be pinpointed.

When the alleged leakers found themselves unable to give the right tips, O Dia reported, they apologised to the traffickers.

Searches at their houses turned up money, a variety of firearms and ammunition, grenades, 11 cellphones and phone numbers of traffickers, O Dia reported.