Police Violence in Rio de Janeiro

"It was an execution," one man who was in the bar at the time but was too scared to be identified told Toward Freedom.  

He described how one 11-year-old victim, Welington Santiago de Oliveira, came running into the cramped bar seeking shelter from the police. When the policemen arrived was he forced to strip naked and then dragged out into the alleyway. Those in the bar were ordered to close its rusty metal shutter.

"They left the rest of us inside [and] everyone lay down on the floor," he explained. "Then we heard lots of shots, lots of noise. It was madness."

Minutes later the police returned. "There’s one hung up for you over there," one of them bragged to those who remained in the bar, according to witnesses.

Fifty metres down the alley way, splayed out underneath a polystyrene fridge box, they found Welington’s lifeless body nestled in the undergrowth.

The latest killings, which came one day after the launch of Amnesty International’s report "They come in Shooting: Policing socially excluded communities", have for once caught the public attention in Brazil. Several politicians have denounced what they suspect were "summary executions", while the police have opened an inquiry into what happened that night outside the Bar do Raimundo.

The policemen involved in the operation meanwhile maintain they were defending themselves and that those killed were all linked to the Terceiro Comando Puro (TCP or Pure Third Command) drug faction that controls the favela, something denied by the families.

Human rights activists believe deaths like these underline the increasingly aggressive and often illegal tactics being used by police across Brazil to crack down on the burgeoning drug trade with devastating results. They point to summary executions and the use of bullet-proof caveirão (‘grim reaper’) vehicles as the most worrying aspects of an increasingly militarized urban conflict.

Marcelo Freixo from the Rio-based Justiça Global, says a ‘culture of war’ is becoming more and more prevalent in Brazil’s police force and its population.

"In cities like Rio de Janeiro there exists a culture that there is a war going on and that therefore the enemy has to be destroyed," he said.

"Often this serves to legitimize illegal police action." 

Statistics show that an entire generation of impoverished Brazilian youth is being decimated, in part by the police’s ‘war’ on drugs. Between 1999 and 2003 the number of people killed during police operations in Rio more than tripled from 289 to 1,195, according to Justiça Global. The majority were poor, black males from the favelas, aged between 15 and 24.

Carlos Alberto da Silva understands the consequences of this conflict better than most. In July the 31-year-old was returning home with his 11-year-old son Carlos Henrique when police invaded the Vila do João favela in northern Rio where he lives. Carlos Henrique was shot in the head, residents say by police inside a caveirão, and died immediately.

"The whole top of his head had gone," said da Silva, who was also wounded and spent 7 days in hospital undergoing 3 operations on his skull.

"You could only see his eyes, nothing else above that."

Faced with a barrage of criticism over the soaring mortality rate amongst children and teenagers in Rio’s favelas, police chiefs maintain that their actions are a necessary response to the drug trade.  

"It is very complicated for us to have to operate in an area of social exclusion, full of children," said José Luiz Nepomuceno Marinho, commander of Rio’s 16th Military Police battalion. 

"But the criminal act is happening there: it’s [about] the truck that’s been robbed, someone who might have been kidnapped or who has been robbed in the city and taken inside the favela [or] a policeman who is being taken into the community to be tortured… we have to act."  

Campaigners, however, fear that ever more repressive police operations with names like Pressão Máxima (Maximum Pressure) are merely serving to brutalise the population and  exaggerate the conflict with drug traffickers. 

"It is one thing to have a bullet proof car and quite another to have a caveirão that comes into a community shooting in every direction, provoking complete terror with a loud-hailer and someone inside shouting: ‘We’ve come to take your souls’," said Freixo. 

Activists also express concerns over the type of weapons used by police in Rio. Marksmen deployed in the caveirão for example, are routinely armed with the Belgian made FAL (Fuzil Automático Leve) caliber 7.62, an automatic rifle capable of piercing up to 3 different targets.

"Here they don’t have the death sentence so they use the caveirão instead," Carlos Henrique’s father says blunty, sat in the house where, until July, he had raised his son.

Yet faced with a daily threat from Rio’s increasingly young drug traffickers – who many officers admit are better armed than the police themselves – police say they have little choice but to fight fire with fire. 52 police officers were killed on duty in 2004. 

"In six months I have lost 3 policemen," said Marinho, whose battalion is located near the sprawling Complexo do Alemão favelas, which forms part of what many refer to as Rio’s answer to the ‘Faixa de Gaza’ or Gaza Strip’.  

"One took a shot in the throat…and the third a rifle shot to the skull… Because of this the caveirão is necessary."

Following what many are calling Rio’s latest chacina or ‘massacre’, it is a view for which there is little sympathy on the winding back-streets of Morro do Estado. 

"They have destroyed my family," said Rosa Clera, the aunt of another of Sunday’s victims, 24-year-old Wedson da Conceição, as drizzle began to fall washing away the remaining blood stains from the favela’s entrance.

"Here the police don’t ask questions. They come up killing: children, old people, anyone. For the love of God it is time to put the bullets away."

Tom Phillips is a journalist working Brazil. Photo from Brasil.indymedia.org