Maddie Oatman

Maddie Oatman

Research Editor

Maddie worked as a travel guide in Argentina and a teacher at several educational nonprofits in San Francisco before joining Mother Jones. She’s also written for Outside, the Bay Citizen, and the Rumpus. A proud Boulder native, she makes time for mountain climbing, stargazing, and telemark skiing.

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US Police Brutality Is Bad. This Giant Western Country's Is Way Worse.

| Wed Nov. 12, 2014 6:34 PM EST
Sao Paulo police officers confront student protesters during a strike in August.

The high-profile killings of figures like Ferguson, Missouri's Michael Brown have stirred a national conversation about police brutality as of late. But it turns out the Americas' second biggest economy struggles with this issue on a much greater scale: Brazil's police killed more than 11,000 civilians between 2008 and 2013; on average, a staggering six people every day. This jaw-dropping number was released today in a Brazilian Public Security Forum (BPSF) report which rounds up statistics illuminating the country's struggles with public safety. To put the figure in context, it took police in the United States 30 years to kill the same number of civilians, despite the fact that there are at least 50 percent more people in the US.

Sao Paulo in particular has seen an increase in civilian deaths at the hands of the authorities. Between January and September of 2014, officers killed 478 people during confrontations, twice as many victims as during that same period last year. The uptick parallels an increasingly lawless criminal culture, say authorities. "Rather than turn themselves in to the police, criminals prefer to open fire," Sao Paulo police department's Jose Vicente da Silva told the AP. "That is what is causing the increase."

"Unfortunately, we are a country where police kill more and die more."

Many of Brazil's police killings happen in the predominately black favelas of Rio de Janeiro, where there's been a heightened military presence, in part to try and pacify the area for the World Cup and 2016 Olympics. Brazilian journalist Juliana Barbassa, who's writing a book on the issues feeding Brazil's massive national protests, described this tension when she spoke with my colleague Ian Gordon in July. When more police entered Rio's slums, "at the beginning there was this real hope that they could do something," Barbassa said; for one, break up the drug rings controlling the community. But then "you've got military police fully armed, in your community 24/7, regulating things like when you can have parties—it's not without its serious problems." Barbassa explained that the city has seen some "very ugly cases of abuse of power," including authorities torturing and killing civilians and then hiding the bodies. "To see these things happen, with this freshly trained, specifically chosen group of officers, really helped unravel a little bit the expectations and hopes that people had."

While the BPSF report paints a grim portrait of police use of force in Brazil, it also reveals how officers themselves suffer at the hands of the country's rampant violence. While fewer officers died on duty in 2013 than in 2012, many more were killed (from non-natural causes) on their off-hours: In 2013, 369 policemen perished while off-duty, compared to 191 just two years earlier. BPSF researchers note that it's tricky to pinpoint exactly why officers are being targeted outside of work, but in some parts of the country, killing a cop is a gang rite of passage.

"Unfortunately, we are a country where police kill more and die more," BPSF's researchers write. They later conclude: "Death should be understood as taboo, and not an acceptable outcome of security policy."

Obama Plan Will Cut Out Grueling Journey for a Small Number of Central American Refugees

| Thu Oct. 2, 2014 8:06 PM EDT
A boy steps out of a bus full of families deported from Mexico back to Honduras in July of this year.

Escaping rampant violence in parts of Central America, tens of thousands of child migrants made a treacherous journey up to the United States border this year. To help dissuade such a vulnerable population from taking such risky treks in the first place, Obama announced Tuesday that he plans to roll out a new program to allow children to apply for refugee status from their home countries of El Salvador, Guatemala, and Honduras.

The program is still in the planning stages, and it remains unclear how old the kids must be and what circumstances they must be caught in to successfully apply for asylum. But at least it's a move in the right direction, says Michelle Brané of the Women's Refugee Commission. "They are laying the groundwork and designating an avenue—it's a good starting off point," she says.

"That's not even close to enough. We saw 60,000 kids arrive from Central America this year."

White House spokesperson Shawn Turner told the New York Times that the initiative is meant to "provide a safe, legal, and orderly alternative to the dangerous journey children are currently taking to join relatives in the United States." The point made in the last part of this statement has caught the attention of human rights advocates including Brané, as it suggests that only children who already have a relative in the US will qualify for asylum under this new program, leaving out thousands who are trying to escape newly developing unrest and gang violence.

Advocates also worry about the number of applicants that will be granted asylum. The White House's announcement projects that 4,000 people total from Latin America and the Caribbean could be granted refugee visas in fiscal year 2015. (Let's not forget that region includes troubled countries like Cuba, Venezuela, and Haiti). The children who would be allowed to apply for refugee status from their home countries appear to be a subcategory of that 4,000. "That's not even close to enough," says Brané. "We saw 60,000 kids arrive from Central America this year."

"Kids have a threat against their lives. They don't have time to stand in line, file an application, come back later, stand in line again. They have to leave immediately."

One study by the UN High Commissioner of Refugees revealed that 60 percent of recent child migrants interviewed expressed a targeted fear, like a death threat, which is the type of experience that can qualify you for asylum. If you use that statistic, that means 36,000 of the kids who crossed the border this year should qualify for refugee visas—nine times the total number Obama is promising.

But Brané says an even bigger concern with the program is its potential to eclipse or replace protections given to targeted migrants who arrive at the Mexico/US border. "A program like this is fine as a complementary approach," she says, "but it cannot replace protection at the border; it should not impede access to asylum in the US." Ironically, it's the children whose lives are most threatened that could have the hardest time applying for refugee status from their home countries. "In some of these cases, kids have a threat against their lives," says Brané. "They don't have time to stand in line, file an application, come back later, stand in line again. They have to leave immediately."

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