Protesters blocked off a highway lane in Rio de Janeiro’s North Zone yesterday to hear speeches, three eulogies and a funk music performance, just days after the end of the Confederations Cup—nicknamed the “Demonstrations Cup” —on Sunday. Over 2,000 demonstrators from across the city showed that the spirit of protest is still strong in Rio, and that protesters’ grievances go beyond irresponsible public spending.
The crowds gathered yesterday mourned the deaths of 10 people—including a police officer—killed last week in a police operation in the favela of Maré.
Even as Rio presents a safer image to the outside world—heralded by the much-publicized arrival of Unidades de Polícia Pacificadora (Pacifying Police Units—UPPs) in Rio’s favelas—violence between police and favela residents is still common. In the last decade, over 9,500 people in the state of Rio have been killed by police in shootouts labeled “resistance killings,” according to the Instituto de Segurança Pública (Public Security Institute). These numbers have gone down in recent years, but they remain high.
Maré resident Timo, 35, said that deadly police encounters are “not extraordinary” in his neighborhood, but the events of June 24 caused particular terror, with an almost 24-hour police chase through the community that caused a power outage and involved police entering private homes.
The events in Maré, which is about to be pacified, throw into question how committed to peace the pacification process is and brings the issue of police violence to the forefront of Brazilian protesters’ concerns. The night after the killings, the story of the dragnet caused particular outrage when Maré resident and newspaper editor Gizele Martins, 27, related the events at a planning meeting for the next citywide protest.
“I just came from Maré,” she announced shakily to a crowd of thousands—mostly students—sitting in front of the downtown campus of the Universidade Federal do Rio de Janeiro (Federal University of Rio de Janeiro—UFRJ). Martins said that a group of 500 residents marching through the streets of the community had just been able to pressure the last police tank to leave.
After chants of “Maré, Maré,” the group voted to add a new demand to their message for the next protest: the demilitarization of Rio’s police force. Coalitions from Maré and various favelas marched in the citywide protests in the following few days.“In any country, special police units are used in specific emergencies,” wrote sociologist Ignacio Cano in an April op-ed. But he points out that Rio’s special forces, called the Batalhão de Operações Policiais Especiais (BOPE), are “one of the armed police units in the world that most engages in real combat.” Sixteen officers have died in the unit’s 35-year history, in comparison with hundreds of civilians killed in BOPE operations.
Cano, who is on the human rights commission charged with investigating the Maré incident, says that there is evidence of at least one resident being shot inside a small room rather than in pursuit. “It is a pattern that when a BOPE officer dies violently, operations and deaths ensue,” says Cano.
The BOPE have been in Maré more than usual over the past months, conducting raids to remove arms, drugs and drug traffickers in the first phase of Rio’s state police pacification program. They have also been present at some citywide protests in Rio over the past few weeks.
Many question the need for such a high number of civilian deaths in BOPE operations. “We have reports that three of the people who died here last Monday were innocent, but we will never know for sure,” said Joana Mazza, 37, of the Maré NGO Observatório de Favelas (Favela Observatory). “What matters less is counting the number of innocents, and what matters more is that they will never get a trial. No one should have to die.”
State Public Security Secretary José Beltrame’s official response to Maré’s events had been to publicize the criminal records of seven of the victims and confirm that Maré would soon receive a police pacification unit.
Anthropologist Mariana Cavalcanti says she hopes the timing of the Maré deaths in the midst of countrywide protests will bring wider attention to the issue of police violence—especially as pacification expands and BOPE operations expand with it. “The scenes of police brutality that we saw during the demonstrations are shocking, but they’re not that uncommon,” Cavalcanti said. “People who live in the favelas have known the worse face of the police for a very long time, and in the favelas, the bullets are not made of rubber. For the past 30 years, they’ve been using real bullets and there’s no media there.”
Cavalcanti’s wish is beginning to come true. At Tuesday’s demonstration, leaders of civil society organizations and cultural figures stood alongside Maré residents, who are requesting a government apology. Speakers remembered all 10 people killed, including the police officer. “His family is crying the same tears, and they should not have to,” said a Maré neighborhood association president. Accompanied by drumbeats, 10 actors lined up in the center of the crowd and laid on the pavement one by one.
“The message of this event was very deliberate,” said Timo. “It’s not simply ‘anti-violence.’ It’s about who is conducting the violence.” He pointed to the stickers that were being passed out and to the giant banner on the announcer’s truck, which read, “To the State that Kills: Never Again.”
As a response to Brazil’s protests continues to be negotiated on the national and local levels, demands to protect the public from police violence are finally gaining attention.