Rio’s deadly police shootout prompts claims of abuse

A bloody, hourslong gunbattle in a Rio de Janeiro slum echoed into Friday, with authorities saying the police mission successfully eliminated two dozen criminals


Authorities say the police operation successfully removed two dozen offenders in a Rio de Janeiro slum, though residents and activists report human rights violations.

Hundreds of officers from Rio de Janeiro state’s civil police raided Jacarezinho, a working-class favela in the city’s northern sector, shortly after sunrise on Thursday. They were going after drug dealers from Comando Vermelho, one of Brazil’s most infamous criminal gangs, and the bodies were piling up fast.

There were 25 people killed when the fighting ended, including one police officer and 24 people identified by the police as “criminals.”

Given their stark poverty, violent crime, and subjugation to drug dealers or militias, Rio’s nickname of “Marvelous City” can seem like a cruel irony in the favelas. Even here, though, Thursday’s clash was a startling phenomenon, with observers declaring it one of the city’s deadliest police operations in history.

The bloodshed also exposed Brazil’s long-running debate about whether “a successful criminal is a dead criminal,” as a common local proverb goes. Jair Bolsonaro, a former army captain who lives in Rio, ran for president in 2018 on a wave of pro-law-and-order sentiment. Through his calls to loosen legal restrictions on officers’ use of deadly force against suspects, he attracted widespread support.

In an emailed statement, the administration of Rio state Governor Cláudio Castro, a Bolsonaro supporter, expressed regret for the deaths, but said that the operation was “oriented by long and thorough forensic and intelligence work that took months.”

The raid was carried out to prevent teenage gang recruitment, according to police, who also cited Comando Vermelho’s “warlike system of soldiers armed with rifles, grenades, and bulletproof vests.”

A police helicopter flew low over the Jacarezinho favela on television, while men armed with high-powered rifles jumped from roof to roof to avoid policemen.

Others were unable to flee.

The Associated Press reported that a man barged into her modest home about 8 a.m., bleeding from a gunshot wound. He took refuge in her daughter’s bed, but police rushed in behind him.

She and her family witnessed officers shooting an unarmed man, she said.

His blood was already pooled on her tile floor and soaked into a heart-shaped blanket hours later.

Following the shootouts, about 50 residents of Jacarezinho flocked to a narrow street to see members of the state legislature’s human rights commission conduct an investigation. They clapped their hands and yelled, “Justice!” Some people made fists in the air with their right hands.

A investigator with Rio’s civil police, Felipe Curi, denied there had been any executions.

“There were no suspects killed. They were all traffickers or criminals who tried to take the lives of our police officers and there was no other alternative,” he said at a news conference.

Some criminals sought shelter in residents’ houses, according to Curi, and six of them were apprehended. In addition, he said, police confiscated 16 handguns, six rifles, a submachine gun, 12 grenades, and a shotgun.

Carlos Bolsonaro, a powerful social media influencer and member of the Rio city council, backed police. On Twitter, he expressed condolences to the fallen officer’s family, but made no mention of the other 24 victims or their families. In his weekly Facebook live broadcast on Thursday night, the president made no mention of the incident.

Former President Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva, Bolsonaro’s political foe, said any activity that results in two dozen deaths would not count as public protection.

“That is the absence of the government that offers education and jobs, the cause of a great deal of violence,” said da Silva, who is widely expected to mount a challenge to Bolsonaro’s reelection bid next year.

Human Rights Watch and Amnesty International’s Brazilian divisions urged public prosecutors to conduct a comprehensive investigation into the operation.

“Even if the victims were suspected of criminal association, which has not been proven, summary executions of this kind are entirely unjustifiable,” said Jurema Werneck, Amnesty’s executive director in Brazil.

The state prosecutor’s office in Rio de Janeiro said in a statement to the newspaper Folha de S.Paulo that it would look into the allegations of abuse, adding that the case warranted an independent investigation.

Last year, Brazil’s Supreme Court ruled that police operations in Rio’s favelas during the pandemic should only be carried out if they were “completely extraordinary.”

The order was issued after a 14-year-old was fatally shot in a home where there was no evidence of criminal activity. The death of the teen ignited weeks of Black Lives Matter demonstrations around the city’s metropolitan area in Brazil.

The decision, which is still in effect, resulted in a decrease in police operations in the middle of last year, as shown by a drop in the number of shootouts recorded by Crossfire, a non-governmental organisation that tracks crime, and official state statistics on deaths caused by police action. However, both measures have returned to pre-pandemic levels.

The Public Safety Observatory at Candido Mendes University reported that during the first quarter of 2021, Rio police killed an average of more than five people every day, the most lethal start to a year since the state government started routinely disclosing such data more than two decades ago.

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