Close to 2 million residents of Rio de Janeiro’s impoverished favelas are struggling to cope with two lethal threats. The first, COVID-19, affects us all but is a heightened risk for those who live on cramped streets where social distancing is hard and in homes without decent ventilation, sanitation and access to potable water. Most favela residents rely on informal jobs and cannot work from home. About 300 residents have died of coronavirus.
The other threat is entirely man-made. In the first four months of 2020, Rio police, by their own count, killed 606 people. In April, as isolation measures came into place, robberies and other crimes dropped dramatically, but police violence surged. Police killed close to six people a day – a 43% increase from the same month last year. They were responsible for 35% of all killings in Rio de Janeiro state in April.
To put that in perspective, if police in the United States killed at a similar rate, they would be responsible for more than 36,000 deaths each year. Instead, U.S. police shoot and kill about 1,000 people per year. That number includes cases where the use of deadly force was excessive and unwarranted, and is too often indicative of flagrant discrimination against African Americans. Some of those cases have led to public protest and unrest, as with the recent killing of George Floyd.
More than three quarters of the close to 9,000 people killed by Rio police in the last decade were black men. Nationwide, police killed more than 33,000 people in the last ten years. There have been some protests, particularly in the communities that suffer the brunt of that violence, but not the uproar seen in the United States.
The numbers alone cannot convey the tragedy. On May 18, three police officers, supposedly pursuing suspects, entered a home in the Salgueiro favela where six unarmed cousins had gathered to play. They opened fire hitting 14-year-old João Pedro Matos Pinto in the back, later taking him away in a helicopter. The family spent more than 17 hours not knowing his whereabouts or condition, and finally found João’s body at the coroner’s office.
Three days later, as teachers, students, and other volunteers outside a school in the Providência favela handed out food packages to families left hungry by the economic fallout from COVID-19, the police opened fire. They said they were responding to gunfire from unidentified suspects. They killed Rodrigo Cerqueira, a 19-year-old whose teacher described him as a “wonderful boy” who always sat in the front row in school.
In their statement to investigators, the police did not mention the food distribution, the newspaper Extra noted. Officers claimed, as they usually do in police killings cases in Rio, that they’d found a gun and drugs on their victim. His family denies he was involved in any criminal activity.
Fogo Cruzado, a digital platform that collects violence data, says shootings involving the police have disrupted food distribution in at least four other instances.
In the May 18 and May 21 operations, the police made no arrests and no officer was injured. The police routinely excuse themselves in killings, saying they opened fire in self-defense. Sometimes, it is true, as they face dangerous gangs. But many times, it is not.
The same rules for the use of lethal force apply in Providência or Salgueiro as in Copacabana and other wealthy Rio de Janeiro neighborhoods, but you wouldn’t know it. Human Rights Watch research over more than a decade shows that in poor neighborhoods, police open fire recklessly, without regard for the lives of bystanders. Sometimes they wantonly execute people.
That they only behave so abusively in poor neighborhoods may explain the lack of an uproar over the killings in a society as deeply unequal as Brazil’s.
Police operations resulting in injuries and killings make law-abiding citizens of poor neighborhoods see officers as the enemy and a threat to their children. Such brutality does nothing to dismantle criminal groups. Instead, it feeds a cycle of violence that also puts officers at risk.
When President Jair Bolsonaro and Rio de Janeiro Governor Wilson Witzel encourage police to kill even more, as they have done in public remarks, they only empower corrupt, abusive officers, while undermining and endangering officers who abide by the law.
In an April 17 ruling, Supreme Court Justice Edson Fachin required Rio de Janeiro police to preserve crime scenes and stop taking bodies to the hospital as a ruse to destroy evidence. The ruling required forensic experts to include photographs in their reports.
That a Supreme Court justice has to order such basic steps is testament to the dismal investigations into police killings that Human Rights Watch has documented in scores of cases over the years. The result is a prevailing impunity for police abuses in Rio de Janeiro.
Rio de Janeiro state authorities need to draft and put into effect a plan with concrete steps and goals to reduce police killings. And when those killings occur, the Rio de Janeiro prosecutor’s office needs to ensure prompt, thorough, and independent investigations, including by opening its own investigations, in addition to those undertaken by the police.
While COVID-19 will affect favela residents for a long time, effective public health policies can help bring it under control. But as long as officers responsible for reckless shootings and cold-blooded executions are not held accountable, we’ll keep losing innocent young people in Rio de Janeiro, with no end in sight.
Muñoz Acebes is an Americas senior researcher at Human Rights Watch.