‘Makes you sick’: fury in Rio as pregnant 24-year-old killed amid police raid

By Flávia Milhorance

In early June, Kathlen Romeu posted a photo of herself and her boyfriend on a Instagram, with a caption announcing that she was pregnant. “I am discovering myself as a mother, and I am scared thinking about how it is going to be,” the 24-year old interior designer wrote on 2 June. “I laugh, I cry and I am afraid.”

Just a few days after writing those tentative, hopeful words, she was dead: another victim of Rio de Janeiro’s relentless conflict between police and drug gangs.

According to the city authorities, she was struck by a single stray bullet during a confrontation between officers and criminals.

But the death on Tuesday of yet another young Black favela resident during a raid by heavily armed police has prompted an outburst of fury in Brazil – and fresh calls for a rethink of the so-called war on drug gangs.

A family member is comforted as he grieves during the Kathlen Romeu’s burial service on Wednesday in Rio.
A family member is comforted as he grieves during the Kathlen Romeu’s burial service on Wednesday in Rio. Photograph: Bruna Prado/AP

In the past year, Rio has seen a dramatic upsurge in deadly police incursions into the favelas – despite a supreme court order to halt such operations during the Covid pandemic.

Lins de Vasconcelos, the neighbourhood where Romeu died, is just a couple of miles from Jacarezinho, were last month police killed more than 20 young men in the deadliest police raid in the city’s history.

After Romeu’s death, local residents blocked a highway connecting southern and northern zones of Rio. Protesters blocked traffic, calling for justice and holding signs saying: “We want peace.”

“We want the police to stop these operations that oppress and exterminate us,” said Luciano Norberto dos Santos, whose brother was also killed by the police in 2009.

Romeu was visiting her grandmother, Sayonara Fátima de Oliveira, in Lins de Vasconcelos, which, like many favela neighbourhoods, is a stronghold of one of the city’s many drug factions.

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Oliveira told local media that gunfire suddenly broke out and her granddaughter fell on the floor.

“Before I realised, there were police officers everywhere,” she said.

Romeu was taken to hospital but died soon afterwards from internal bleeding.

The police said officers on patrol had returned fire after coming under attack and rushed to help Romeu as soon as they realized she had been struck. “The officers were the first to reach Kathlen. They fought for her life,” said Ivan Blaz, a police spokesperson.

Nadine Borges, the vice-president of the human rights commission at the Brazilian Bar Association, which is providing legal assistance to Romeu’s family, said that witness testimony suggested the fatal shots had come from the police position.

“We are heading towards a precipice where security forces are increasingly authorized to carry out killings,” Borges added. “This is really shocking.”

On Wednesday, Romeu’s boyfriend, Marcelo Ramos, posted a tearful video on Instagram, laying the blame on the police. “The culprit has a name: it’s the state, it’s the unprepared police. A month ago, there was the Jacarezinho massacre, now it’s Kate – and next month another family will lose someone close.”

Many Brazilians reacted with grief and fury. Ícaro Silva, a popular Black actor, re-posted Romeu’s last Instagram photo, with the comment: “The news is repeated so often it makes you sick. Innocent. Black. Dead. Police operation.”

He added: “Black lives matter. And it is absurd and hellish to have to say that.”