Even what appears to be a police-led massacre is unlikely to change the dynamic of police extrajudicial violence in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil.
The stranger burst into the house, staggering and leaving a trail of blood behind him. He ran into the back, into the bedroom of the nine-year-old girl. Police were not far behind, screaming to know where he was. They had followed the blood. The children hid behind their mother. The officers went into the back room and shots rang out.
“My daughter will never want to sleep there again,” the unidentified mother later told journalists, heavy blood trails visible behind her.
The reports from residents of Jacarezinho are anonymous and difficult to verify. But they all seem to point towards the same conclusion: This was a massacre.
On May 6, at least 25 people were killed in this northern neighborhood of Rio de Janeiro, including one police officer, in what has been called the city’s worst-ever police raid.
In the early morning, about 200 police officers, backed by a helicopter carrying a sniper, moved into the favela. The raid was based on “concrete intelligence information” that the Red Command (Comando Vermelho – CV), one of Brazil’s largest gangs in Jacarezinho, had been recruiting minors into its ranks, according to a police statement.
But according to witness statements gathered by Brazilian and international media, many of the dead were shot inside houses, often not their own, as they tried to flee and offered no resistance.
A member of the human rights commission of Brazil’s Bar Association (Ordem dos Advogados), Joel Luiz Costa, posted on Twitter that he visited several houses in Jacarezinho and saw similar disturbing evidence of extrajudicial executions in each: “Overturned houses, shots, execution. There was no sign of shots being exchanged. One boy died sitting in a chair. This was execution.”
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Other international organizations came to a similar conclusion.
“Even though the victims were suspected of criminal association (which has not been proven), summary executions like these are totally unjustified. The police has the power to arrest but the courts have the duty to process and judge those suspected of committing crimes,” said Amnesty International in a statement.
InSight Crime Analysis
The Jacarezinho killings are unlikely to make a difference, despite the large local and international outcry.
There is a dark pattern. In June 2018, Marcos Vinicius, 14, was shot dead from a police helicopter while wearing his school uniform in Rio’s district of Maré. An investigation was launched but nothing followed.
In September 2019, an eight-year-old girl was shot in the back and died while riding home in a van with her mother in Rio’s district of Alemão. An investigation was launched but nothing followed.
These cross-fire incidents are common, as is the lack of oversight that follows. In 2021 so far, Rio has seen 30 cases in which three or more people were shot dead, for a total of 139 dead, according to Brazil’s Crossfire Institute (Instituto Fogo Cruzado). But authorities refuse to rein in police.
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Several factors have enshrined a culture of impunity inside Rio de Janeiro’s security forces.
First, statements from certain politicians and journalists have glorified killing as a badge of honor for police. President Jair Bolsonaro has given carte blanche to security forces, and former Rio governor, Wilson Witzel, once said police should be allowed to “slaughter…bandits” from helicopters.
Even after the Jacarezinho killings, Tino Junior, presenter of Balanço Geral RJ, a popular TV show in the city, set off a firestorm on Twitter, congratulating the police for their actions, encouraging them to carry out more raids and even suggesting the mothers of the victims should be “relieved.”
"Owing to the bellicose "tough on crime" posture of the president, many right-leaning politicians, police and members of the public feel emboldened, urging more repression, not less. There is a sizable proportion of Brazilians - including members of the public - who support a crackdown on bandidos. Indeed, there are a disconcerting number of citizens who support chacinas (slaughters) such as those occurring in Jacarezinho," Robert Muggah, founder and research director of the Igarapé Institute, a Brazilian think-tank that researches security in Brazil, told InSight Crime.
According to Muggah, only a real change in political leadership can bring about substantial actions to improve the situation.
"There needs to be a commission of inquiry into the massacre, including the destruction of evidence. At the same time, there must be a re-installation of oversight mechanisms over the police, including stronger constraints of discretionary use of force, tougher disciplinary penalties, the use of body cameras, and training and support for police suffering from psychological illness. These are immensely challenging owing to the strength of police associations as well as wider political opposition," he added.
Second, efforts by the courts to quell the violence are routinely ignored or dismissed. In June 2020, Brazil’s Supreme Court banned police raids in Rio de Janeiro for the duration of the COVID-19 pandemic. Justice Edson Fachin stated that raids could only happen only in “absolutely exceptional cases.”
While police operations did go down significantly for a few months, they have now returned to pre-pandemic levels. Raids dropped by 64 percent year-on-year between June and September 2020, but from October 2020, they rapidly increased to at least one a day. Between June and March 2021, Rio police had killed 797 people, according to a report by Federal Fluminense University (Universidade Federal Fluminense – UFF)
“It’s absurd. 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,” Daniel Hirata, a professor of sociology and author of the report, told the Guardian.
According to Benjamin Lessing, a professor at the University of Chicago who examines organized crime, the Supreme Court decision was still a step in the right direction.
"It's difficult to imagine a court decision that would have banned police from entering favelas entirely. There had to be exceptions. But the violence did fall for months after the decision. Overall, the method that most consistently reduces violence in Rio is to limit police operations," Lessing told InSight Crime.
"It's difficult to prove that the operation was deliberately conducted to benefit the militias. But it does benefit them, and if in a few months, Jacarezinho becomes militia territory, we should look back to this massacre as an important step," said Lessing.
"Regardless, militias everywhere can use this as a way to gain civilian support. These shootouts don't happen in militia-held areas. So the militias can promise residents that shootouts won't happen anymore," he added.
In Jacarezinho, protests have begun, with angry residents demanding an investigation. The police have stated that the operation was justified, that protocols were followed and had been coordinated with Rio’s Delegation for the Protection of Children and Teenagers (Delegacia de Proteção à Criança e ao Adolescente – DPCA). Their protection may not be much comfort to the nine-year-old who saw a man shot dead in her bedroom.
To be sure, there is a long history of children being recruited by organized crime groups in Brazil, most often being used as drug couriers. As far back as 2002, the International Labour Organization reported on children being recruited into drug gangs in Rio and used as drug dealers, watchmen or to package the drugs. In 2020, the government of the central state of Goiás reported that messages had been intercepted inside a detention facility for youngsters, showing teenagers having been recruited by CV and their rivals of the First Capital Command (Primeiro Comando da Capital – PCC).
But it is uncertain what, if any, impact this raid will have on the CV’s ability to do so in the future.