War on Assault Rifles

Assault rifle seized by the Federal Police, in Inhaúma, in Rio's North Zone (Polícia Federal/FotosPúblicas.com)

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Between January and September 2016, more than 220 assault rifles were taken out of circulation in Rio’s Metropolitan Region. The large number of seizures transformed the rifle into a priority for the new Public Security Secretary.

Public enemy number 1 of the new Public Security Secretary is an old acquaintance. The fight against the assault rifle was chosen as a priority for Antônio Roberto Sá, in office for almost one month. According to Beltrame’s successor, the large number of seizures of these highly lethal guns stains the city’s image around the world. “We have to disrupt the route of these assault rifles to drug traffickers,” affirmed Sá in an interview with the O Globo newspaper. The issue should get special attention from the police in the next few months.

“The problem of this type of weapon is its highly destructive power,” explains Ivan Marques, executive director of the Sou da Paz Institute. If a gunshot hits an arm or a leg, the victim loses a member right then. If the target that’s hit is the face, half of the head goes with it. Access to this type of experience has a relatively low cost. For R$200, it’s possible to buy this type of gun wholesale in Asia or in Africa. In Rio, one of the most common models is the AK-47, created 60 years ago in the Soviet Union, with more than 100 million units sold and present in the flag of Mozambique. “Trucks, boats and containers are some of the most used means by smugglers to bring assault rifles here,” says Vinicius Cavalcante, director of the Brazilian Association of Security Professionals (ABSEG). According to him, countries like the US, China and Switzerland are some of the suppliers.

According to numbers from the Institute of Public Safety (ISP), more than 220 assault rifles were taken out of circulation in the Rio de Janeiro Metropolitan Region (RMRJ) between January and September 2016. At the top of the ranking for seizures is the region of Acari, Barros Filho, Costa Barros, Parque Colúmbia and Pavuna (see the map above). Not by chance, this area of the North Zone has been highlighted by conflicts involving police and drug traffickers recently. A study by the Sou da Paz Institute shows that Rio is the only Brazilian state with a significant presence of assault rifles among seized weapons. They were 3.3% of the total around here, compared to less than 1% in Espírito Santo, Minas Gerais and São Paulo in 2014. According to experts, one of the factors for such dissemination is the good performance in long-distance combat, like those seen in favelas. A projectile shot by this type of equipment is capable of traveling two kilometers without stopping.

Federal decree 3.665, from 2000, establishes that only people and institutions authorized by the Army can carry assault rifles. But, in practice, criminals have ample access to the gun, which has a capacity to fire up to 800 shots per minute. On the other hand, the Military Polic (PM) also make indiscriminate use of the item in Rio. So much that, since August, it has been substituting rifles with less offensive equipment (learn more at the bottom of the text). “From a technical point of view, they are more adequate than the assault rifle, in terms of the intermediate reach of its ammunition, of close to 150 meters”, explains Vinicius. “The assault rifle is a war weapon, which increases the number of innocent people wounded by stray bullets,” affirms Ivan. In practice, some experts understand that the presence of the assault rifle has created a sense of insecurity such as is found in war zones, even where there is no sparked conflict, such as Copacabana, Ipanema, and Leblon. “The fear becomes a political operator to promote order. The result of this is a cornered society,” summarizes Pedro Paula Gastalho de Bicalho, psychologist and professor of criminology at the Federal University of Rio de Janeiro (UFRJ).


“Until the 1990s, the trendiest gun in Rio was the sub-machine gun,” says Vinicius. Models like the Israeli UZI, which brings to mind a drill, and the American Ingra, defined as the “pistol-machine gun,” marked the era. But a wave of assaults on armored cars at the start of the last decade of the 20th century did away with small-sized weapons. With the capacity to perforate armored vehicles back then, AR-15 and M-16 assault rifles brought from Miami started to take the scene. For the novelty to migrate from assaults to the drug trade, it was a jump. While bandits came out ahead, the police were still dragging their feet. Only the Special Operations Battalion (BOPE) relied on equipment of that type and, even so, in a reduced quantity. The disparity of strength made it so the state started to acquire small quantities of FAL, a model made in Belgium and better known around here as the “seven six two.” The nickname comes from the caliber 7.62 millimeters of its bullets and the characteristic “pa pum” of its shots is a well-known sound in the favelas. The purchases started during the Marcelo Alencar government (1995-1999) and never stopped.

“In Rio, it was understood that it was the criminal’s assault rifle against that of the police,” says Ivan. According to Vinicius, the wrong choice from a technical point of view served as a guarantee for the agents. “With the assault rifle, the PM doesn’t feel inferior. An escalation arose, a game of strength,” he affirms. From the drug traffickers side, there was just one supplier of these types of weapons during a set period. It became common that trafficking factions would buy even defective items so that rivals would not have access to this type of weapon. At that time, the police started to invest in other models, such as the M-16. Two thousand units were bought after the kidnapping of bus 174, in 2000. But the lack of appropriate ammunition stopped new police officers from being trained to use the item, in accordance with a complaint by security expert Rodrigo Pimentel in an interview with Trip magazine in May 2001. “If I’m afraid when I see a police officer with an assault rifle on the street, imagine the population,” he affirmed at the time.

This genuine arms race transformed the assault rifle into a typical character of Rio’s landscape. On the hills, it started to appear at parties. It became the “beak,” the “broom.” A tool of seduction and synonymous with power in the hands of bandits, according to studies such as Coisas da Vida no Crime (Aspects of Criminal Life), by anthropologist Carolina Grillo. On the asphalt (the formal city), it guaranteed a set place outside the windows of the PM vehicles. Launched at the end of the 1990s, Rap das Armas describes the invasion of a favela citing the AR-15, AK-47, M-16 and other such items. One of them is the M-24 or the “50 point.” Capable of taking down airplanes, this model had its first unit seized in Rio only in 2008, during a raid in Vila Cruzeiro.

“Everywhere bandits drag one leg.
It’s from constantly carrying an assault rifle on the same side” — A joke told by favela resident and cited in the doctoral thesis Coisas da Vida no Crime, by Carolina Grillo

The popularization of the assault rifle coincided with one of the most violent periods in the history of Rio. “The police today present cases of PTSD at infinitely higher levels than any other category of worker,” affirms Pedro. According to the psychologist, symptoms such as insomnia and muscle pain are common in the corporation and become evident at the moment the officer goes to sleep. “The guy lies down full of thoughts that make him lose sleep,” he sums up. The situation of those who live in the communities isn’t much different. “I do psychological visits with residents in Maré at UFRJ and the majority of cases that we receive are related to the question of urban violence,” tells Pedro. In spite of the pacification policies to have initially decreased the use of the assault rifle in the drug trade, the number of seizures in the Metropolitan Region has grown in the last three years. In 2013, there were 230; in 2014, 264; in 2015, 330.

The mission the new Public Security Secretary proposes is difficult, but not impossible. “The way to remove the assault rifle from Rio is through investigation,” affirms Ivan. He highlights how this type of weapon isn’t made in Brazil. That’s why discovering ways through which it arrives in our state can be the key to taking it out of the hands of drug traffickers. Aside from this, the expert believes that the use of the equipment should be restricted to elite police forces, due to its high destructive power. “Today, there’s no way to remove the police’s assault rifles from one moment to the next,” punctuates Vinicius, who agrees that disarming the bandits should be a priority. “It’s necessary to remove, from the hands of the kids, guns that can provoke an unparalleled harm,” he concluded.


Over the last 20 years, Rio news services registered a rise in assault rifles. From guns used in assaults on armored cars, it became one of the main concerns in the area of public safety:

Assault on armored car

Two armored cars from the transport company Brinks, already equipped with the new system of anti-assault armor, were assaulted yesterday morning on Washington Luiz Highway, around Campos Elíseos, Duque de Caxias (RJ). Twenty bandits, armed with AR-15s, machine guns and grenades, took CR$40 million – all the money that was in the two vehicles.
(JB, March 24, 1994)

Dossier reveals the power of the drug trade

Governor Anthony Garotinho delivers today to the Parliamentary Inquiry Commission for the Drug Trade a report prepared by the Civil Police showing how the drug trade dominates 180 Rio favelas. The 50-page file identifies points of sale, the heads of the drug trade and the power of an “army” of more than 900 men, with 670 assault rifles and pistols at the service of the drug trade.
(JB, November 4, 1999)

Drug trade has an army of 10 thousand men in Rio

Close to 1 million people, one sixth of the population of the city of Rio, live in 800 poor communities. Their daily lives are marked by the domination exercised in these areas by a clandestine army of 10,000 men connected to criminal organizations like the Red Command, Third Command and Friends of Friends, that control the trade in the city. A study of the Narcotics Repression Division calculates that just the Complexo do Alemão, a collection of 11 favelas in the suburb where journalist Tim Lopes was tortured and murdered, is stationing 500 men acting in the illegal drug trade, with an arsenal of 250 assault rifles, pistols and grenades.
(JB, June 16, 2002)

Rio Police seize more than 2,000 assault rifles this decade

Rio de Janeiro’s Civil and Military Police seized 2,141 assault rifles in the entire State from 2000 to June of this year. The total weapons would be enough to supply at least 13 PM battalions and doesn’t even come close to the arsenal that is in the hands of Rio’s drug traffickers. According to police officers heard by R7, just the complex of favelas in Alemão, in the North Zone, there are close to 1,500 assault rifles, weapons used exclusively by the Armed Forces and the police.
(R7, October 4, 2010)

RJ Military Police substitute assault rifles for rifles

The Military Police started this week the substitution of assault rifles for .40 rifles, guns that don’t shoot repeatedly and whose shots have a lesser impact. The change-over, announced eight years ago by the state, has the goal of decreasing the risks of death by stray bullet. (…) The UPP police will have both options of weaponry and, later, the need for a definitive substitution of weaponry will be evaluated.
(G1, August 25, 2016)