The arrest of three detectives in May for the execution-style murders of civilians has compounded the notoriety of the police in Maputo, Mozambique's capital city.
On 4 April the bodies of three men, each shot several times in the head at close range, were discovered on a football pitch near the city's Costa do Sol beach. Three officers of the criminal investigation unit reportedly confessed to the killings, but alleged that superiors had ordered them to commit the crimes.
"The police had an opportunity, after the Costa do Sol executions, to clean up their image, because there was no doubt it was an execution," Custódio Duma, an attorney with the Mozambique Human Rights League (MHRL), told IRIN.
"But they simply didn't do it. They lied to the public, ridiculed the work of journalists, and ridiculed our work; they even ridiculed the people of Costa do Sol who witnessed the executions. How is the public going to have confidence in the police?" he asked.
Despite human rights training and pay increases, policing in Mozambique had changed very little over the past decade, the MLHR said. Officers often used violence as a first resort, a pattern of behaviour that had its roots in the law enforcement practices of Portuguese colonial rule and the 16 years of civil war that followed.
Torture, vigilantism and corruption
The MHRL had received a number of calls from people living near the Triunfo police station, which was close to the Costa do Sol football pitch, reporting the sounds of apparent beatings or torture coming from the station.
Representatives of the league were allowed immediate entry into the station on only one occasion after receiving a tip, but did not find a victim, just fresh blood, said Duma.
In the year prior to the April executions, three more corpses bearing marks that appeared to be the result of torture were discovered in the same Costa do Sol football field on different occasions. "We couldn't prove that the victims were from the Triunfo police station," Duma told IRIN. "But we suspect they were." Another body was discovered in the field last week, bringing the total to seven.
The motives for the April executions are not apparent; in past years, summary executions were chalked up to vigilantism. The recent rise in violent crime in Maputo, which has led Interior Minister José Pacheco to place his officers on a "war footing", may have further encouraged the police to take the law in their own hands.
"This creates an atmosphere of corruption and it creates norms," said Salomão Moyana, editor-in-chief of the weekly magazine, Independente, who has been one of the most outspoken critics of police abuse. Referring to the summary executions, he commented, "It's easier just to kill someone; to kill becomes normal."
There are also increasing indications that the killings are the result of police corruption, and that executions are a means of settling accounts with criminals who did not pay police their cut.
The head of Mozambique's elite undercover police unit, the 'Mambas', was murdered earlier this year, revealing alleged links between the Mamba leader and local organised crime.
The Mambas have since been disbanded and Mozambique's armed forces have been called on to help police maintain public order.
The police have been largely silent on the subject of the executions. The commander of Mozambique's police force initially refused to surrender the three officers implicated in the April killings to prosecutors, arguing that his men were pursuing escaped prisoners.
"As we have said before, we don't have death squads; they don't exist," police spokesperson Pedro Cowsa told IRIN. "People say it always happens, but they don't ever have the proof."
As for complaints of police brutality, Cowsa said, the force was "evolving; we are not going to resolve things in just one day."