Deadly police raid in Brazil slum prompts claims of abuse

Published May 8, 2021
Police get out of an armoured vehicle during an operation against alleged drug traffickers in the Jacarezinho favela of Rio de Janeiro, Brazil. — AP
Police get out of an armoured vehicle during an operation against alleged drug traffickers in the Jacarezinho favela of Rio de Janeiro, Brazil. — AP

RIO DE JANEIRO: A bloody, hours-long gunfight in a Rio de Janeiro slum echoed on Friday, with authorities saying the police mission killed two dozen criminals but residents and activists claiming human rights abuses.

It was just after sunrise on Thursday when dozens of officers from Rio de Janeiro state’s civil police stormed Jacarezinho, a favela in the city’s northern zone. They were targeting drug traffickers from one of Brazil’s most notorious criminal organisations, Comando Vermelho, and the bodies piled up quickly.

When the fighting stopped, there were 25 dead — one police officer and 24 people described by the police as criminals.

Rio’s moniker of Marvelous City can often seem a cruel irony in the favelas, given their violent conflicts, stark poverty and subjugation to drug traffickers or militias. But even here, Thursday’s clash was a jarring anomaly that analysts declared one of the city’s deadliest police operations ever.

And it was by far the most violent since Brazil’s Supreme Court issued a ruling banning most such actions during the pandemic, which drew a rebuke from the UN’s human rights office.

The bloodshed also laid bare Brazil’s perennial divide over whether, as a common local saying goes, a good criminal is a dead criminal. Fervent law-and-order sentiment fuelled the successful presidential run in 2018 by Jair Bolsonaro, a former army captain whose home is in Rio. He drew support from much of society with his calls to diminish legal constraints on officers’ use of lethal force against criminals.

The administration of Rio state’s Gov Cludio Castro, a Bolsonaro ally, said in an emailed statement that it lamented the deaths, but that the operation was oriented by long and detailed investigative and intelligence work that took months.

The raid sought to rout gang recruitment of teenagers, police said in an earlier statement, which also cited Comando Vermelho’s warlike structure of soldiers equipped with rifles, grenades and bulletproof vests.

Television images showed a police helicopter flying low over the Jacarezinho favela as men with high-powered rifles hopped from roof to roof to evade officers. Others didn’t escape.

One resident said that a man barged into her home around 8am bleeding from a gunshot wound. He hid in her daughter’s room, but police came rushing in right behind him.

She said that she and her family saw officers shoot the unarmed man.

Hours later, his blood was still pooled on her tiled floor and soaked into a blanket decorated with hearts.

On Friday, protesters gathered outside police headquarters near Jacarezinho to denounce the violence, holding a banner that read STOP KILLING US! Felipe Curi, a detective in Rio’s civil police, denied there were 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.

Curi said some suspects had sought refuge in residents’ homes, and six of them were arrested. Police also seized 16 pistols, six rifles, a submachine gun, 12 grenades and a shotgun, he said.

Bolsonaro’s son Carlos, a Rio city councilman who is influential on social media, supported police. He expressed condolences to the family of the fallen officer on Twitter, while skipping any mention of the other 24 dead or their families.

Published in Dawn, May 8th, 2021

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