Police killing hundreds in Rio de Janeiro despite court ban on favela raids

By Flávia Milhorance

Nearly 800 people were killed by police in the Brazilian state of Rio de Janeiro in the past nine months, as raids remain a terrifying routine for favela families – despite a supreme court ruling to halt incursions during the coronavirus pandemic.

New figures show that between June 2020 and March 2021, 797 people were killed in Rio state, 85% in the city of Rio and surrounding metropolitan region.

The court ruled to suspend police raids in Brazilian favelas in June 2020, amid public outcry following the death of 14-year-old João Pedro Matos Pinto, who was shot in the back during a police incursion.

Between June and September, police raids plummeted 64% compared with the average for the same period in previous years, according to a report by Geni, a research group at the Federal Fluminense University (UFF).

But incursions resumed in October, one month after the acting governor, Cláudio Castro, took office and rapidly doubled to 38 in October, compared with the previous month. In the following nine months, the communities of Greater Rio saw an average of nearly one raid every day, the report showed.

“It’s absurd,” Daniel Hirata, an author of the report and professor of sociology at UFF, said. “The highest court takes a decision, and political authorities do not respect it, violate it deliberately. This is a risk to the rule of law in Brazil.”

On Friday, the state supreme court started a two-day public hearing on police raids to draw up a new plan to reduce police killings and human rights violations.

Police in Rio de Janeiro state, kill almost twice as many people each year as they do in the US. Most of the victims are black and brown.

A police spokesmen said the raids were launched in response to violent disputes for territory between warring gangs, and claim that they focus on “preserving lives and following strict legal precepts”.

But Hirata argued that “police raids, in addition to being lethal, are ineffective against crime”, and the report shows that such actions are not associated with any reduction in criminal activity.

The Santa Marta favela in the Botafogo area of Rio de Janeiro.
The Santa Marta favela in the Botafogo area of Rio de Janeiro. Photograph: Ellan Lustosa/Zuma Wire/Rex/Shutterstock

A surge in police violence came after the 2018 election as Rio governor of Wilson Witzel, who had campaigned on a promise to “slaughter” criminals. Witzel was forced from office in late August 2020 after a corruption scandal, but his acting successor has pursued a similar frontal assault on drug gangs – and ordinary civilians are caught in the crossfire.

Police violence has also compounded the disastrous impact of coronavirus on Brazil’s most vulnerable. A study published by the Lancet showed that inequality was a larger factor in Covid deaths in Brazil than age, health status and other risk factors, where more than 355,000 have died from the disease.

Favela-based groups delivering food and cleaning products kits during the outbreak say they have often been forced to suspend operations because of police raids.

A 36-year-old female schoolteacher, who asked not to be named for security reasons, distributed kits and listened to daily struggles at her Parque Esperança (or Hope Park) community, in the municipality of Belford Roxo, in Greater Rio.

“I visited households and I saw several people living below the poverty line,” she said. “And amid this crisis, we have been living in a war state since January.”

The current wave of violence began when police launched an incursion to set up an outpost in a community in Belford Roxo, sparking retaliation from gangs.

Since then, the sound of police helicopters is constant, and shootings break out day and night.

Fransérgio Goulart, the head of a local activist group, said that while official figures said nine people had been killed in the community, local residents say that more than 30 have been shot since January.

“One case that shocked me was that of a young man who was shot dead going home from work. His mother spent hours with her son on her lap waiting for the body to be taken away. The whole family left the community afterwards,” she said.