Last October was the fortieth anniversary of the most traditional and feared group of civilian special operations in the State of São Paulo. Created as an elite unit to curb violent crime, the Armed Robbery Repression Group (GARRA) and its 100 men continue to chase gangs of criminals in São Paulo city today. Their dedication remains the same, but tactics and gear have significantly evolved. Here’s a look at GARRA by a man who sometimes rolls out with them On The Job — please join us in welcoming newest contributor João Paulo Zeitoun Moralez to B-B-C. Mad Duo
Garra – The Strongest Force
João Paulo Moralez
A black Chevrolet Trailblazer blends with the darkness of the night and, at the same time, the blinding lights of São Paulo. Moving at high speed with three police officers inside, it moves through the avenues of the city toward a favela to investigate a complaint of illegal drug sales and drug dealers in possession of illegal weapons.
On the moment of arrival, the police team disembarks to search on foot. As alleys, passages, and corridors reach only 23 inches in width, it’s impossible to use even motorcycles. The incursion in these urban labyrinths where a twilight predominates must be done with foot and with extreme caution. The Imbel MD-97L 5.56mm caliber rifle also cannot be used. There is no space. Only .40 pistols can be used in the showdown.
After walking a few dozen feet a suspect sees the police and tries to escape. He is chased and throws cocaine on the floor, as well as money that was in his pocket. The police officers catch the suspect when he reaches a wall he can’t jump. In custody, he gives up his friends’ location. With them are large quantities of drugs, 7.62mm assault rifles, 9mm pistols and other contraband.
The cops return with the bad guys to the car. On the officers’ ballistic vests, the acronym GARRA leaves no doubts about who carried out the small operation that resulted in great loss for the drug traffickers. They are the elite and one of the most motivated police officers in the entire Civilian Police of São Paulo State (CPSPS). They are the strong arm of justice, the strong arm of the law: Grupo Armado de Repressão a Roubos e Assaltos (GARRA).
Intelligence, research and special operations
A wave of violent crimes, robberies followed by rape, was plaguing the city of São Paulo, the capital of Brazil. In the 1970s the population was tired of living with this fear and the authorities sought to modernize the São Paulo police structure. The model used as a reference by the Brazilian authorities was found in a city 4,722 miles distant, located in the Northern Hemisphere: New York, which had a motivated, proactive police that evolved at the same pace as the city.
The Armed Robbery and Robbery Repression Group was established in October 1976 and has since been subordinated to the State Department of Criminal Investigations (DEIC). Recently the name changed to Armed Group of Robbery Repression, but acronym GARRA was kept.
In 1977 26 teams were formed, each containing three investigators and one driver. Each car was equipped with a radio and had direct contact with the Civilian Police operating center.
In the 80’s the group consolidated. It sought and arrested wanted criminals, while assisting other Civilian Police units in actions to stop criminal and threats to the public. It is currently one of the three pillars of the Division of Special Operations (DOE). Created by Decree No. 59.219, dated May 22, 2013, the DOE is subordinate to the DEIC and is the response of Civilian Police to the most serious crimes.
In addition to the GARRA, the DOE has the Special Reaction Group (SRG) and the Aerotactic Service.
Its structure is composed of five Operational Groups that work in shifts covering 24 hours a day. Each Group (10, 30, 50, 70 and 90) has a chief delegate known as a “pilot,” investigators and its own vehicles. Besides the Operational Groups there are also two Special Groups with motorcycles.
“GARRA supervisors are highly experienced investigators, who carry out intelligence work by analyzing incidents and studying the routine of criminal activities, so the groups have complete information to make arrests. This is one of the faces of GARRA, the investigative and intelligence work that has a very profound impact on the group’s activities, “explains Dr. Mario Palumbo Jr., GARRA’s supervisor.
The work of investigation and intelligence is fundamental and indispensable. In several situations GARRA police officers, through planning and intelligence, stopped major crimes minutes before they were committed, such as an attempted robbery of a high-end residential condominium (as we’ll describe below).
The robbers were in two vehicles: first, a luxury model SUV obtained through theft. The other, a popular car with a chassis number altered. Four criminals carrying a 7.62mm AK-47 assault rifle, a .45 pistol and a 9mm pistol – armament restricted to use by the Armed Forces and police services – met with four other members of the same gang to divide the tasks that day. They also wore black balaclava and carried plastic handcuffs, ten cell phones and two HT-type communication radios.
The goal was to steal as much money as possible with an assault on a luxury condominium. Everything was ready. But when the plan was about to be executed, the surprise: the gang had been under surveillance for a week by GARRA cops. Guided by its Supervisor Delegate, Dr. Mario Palumbo Jr., a team leader began an investigation, observed the criminals, noted their patterns, and planned an operation to catch the robbers at the exact moment of the robbery. Without a shot being fired, a specialized robbery gang was dismantled and armaments of restricted use were seized.
To be part of the GARRA, first and foremost, you must be a volunteer. None of his men were transferred to the unit without their consent. “The GARRA is not a place where just any cop works. You must like it. Police officers here are dedicated to this work,” comments Dr. Youssef Abou Chahin, Civilian Police General Delegate, chief of Civilian Police.
However, volunteering is only the first step for a police officer to join GARRA. Dr. Palumbo, who now has seventeen years as a police officer, analyzes all applicants’ professionalism, technique and dedication. Dr. Palumbo worked for eight years in the Special Operations Group (including as supervisor for one year), in the special operations sector of the State Department of Drug Prevention and Repression (DENARC), and in 2011 went to GARRA. Since April 6, 2015, he’s the group’s supervisor.
Requirements to join GARRA include being physically fit, ability to shoot above average, and passion for law enforcement. Dr. Palumbo’s cops are at the forefront of confronting heavily armed and well-trained gangs, and must act calmly even in extreme, high-risk situations. When a policeman volunteers for GARRA he’s interviewed and, if accepted, enters GARRA in a probationary stage.
“A new officer’s ability to fit into our routine or not will prove to us, and especially to that police officer, whether or not he is fit for the functions that GARRA exercises. He might experience what we do day to day and realize he doesn’t have the aptitude for it. We solve problems, and a police officer cannot become just another problem when he unexpectedly faces gunfire. In many cases the police officer realizes he doesn’t have the ability to do what we do, and asks to be transferred,” explains Dr. Palumbo.
Once the probationary period is over, the police officer receives specialized training to fulfill the various missions of the GARRA. This includes the most correct way to tactically operate a vehicle, rappelling, martial arts (Jiu-Jitsu and Muay Thai) and advanced shooting techniques. “If you do not shoot 100% with your rifle, you aren’t eligible to operate that rifle. We practice unwavering discipline. Another point that I highlight is how our police officers treat the population, which must always be professional. That principle I will not give up,” reinforces Dr. Palumbo.
GARRA police officers periodically improve techniques, shots and approaches, and seek to introduce into their routine the modern equipment and doctrines employed by special police services around the world. There are exchanges in other States, but the techniques are always adapted and modified according to the reality of São Paulo and the equipment used by GARRA.
The weapons and equipment of the GARRA
An operational team is not complete without dedicated equipment and armaments.
The GARRA officers use a level III ballistic vest, with the option of adding ceramic plates that support impacts of higher caliber such as 7.62mm. They have handcuffs, a tactical flashlight, a knee pad, a radio, glasses and a .40S&W Taurus PT840P. They also have helmets and ballistic shields for invasions in hostile environments or for control of civil unrest. Their support guns are 12 gauge model 586.2 Pump Action shotguns, Taurus/FAMAE MT-40 caliber .40S & W submachine guns and Imbel MD-97L 5.56mm assault rifles.
But GARRA follows the progressive use of deadly force and its men are ruled by the Politics of Human Rights. Hence the importance of knowing how to to immobilize a criminal or person threatening other citizens. The GARRA employs low-lethality weapons such as elastomer ammunition (rubber bullets), pepper spray, and gas bombs.
Although recent events in Brazil have led to the deployment of military personnel to maintain order, GARRA remains busy. São Paulo is Brazil’s largest city, indeed the largest city in South America, and it is a violent one. Just days ago five hundred police officers were involved in a massive operation in a slum called Cracolandia (Crackland), a place described as a “no-go place for police”, where narcotics are traded so openly a former train station had become an open-air drug market. You can see some of their operations in the photo gallery here on social media.
Crime is common elsewhere too. In addition to robbery, assault, carjackings, and burglary, there is a substantial amount of gratuitous violence. Organized crime rings, like the PCC (First Capital Command, which has been responsible for the murders of dozens of police officers) remain a significant problem, and cocaine use there is second only to the United States. The homicide rate in Brazil remains among the highest in the world.
GARRA has no worries about keeping busy.
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About the Author: João Paulo Zeitoun Moralez is a seasoned journalist, photographer and editor from Brazil. His work has been seen in such magazines as ASAS magazine and Força Policial, as well as the UK’s Flypast, and he recently published a book on the EMB-312 Tucano through Harpia Publishing. Moralez specializes in aviation, military, and security matters.