On this day in 1783, one of Latin America’s most significant figures, Simón Bolívar, was born in Caracas. While many in the region will celebrate the occasion, today also marks the anniversary of a more chilling episode in Latin American history. Shortly after midnight on July 24, 1993, nine hooded men, including several off-duty police officers, opened fire on a group of homeless youth sleeping on the steps of Rio de Janeiro’s historic Candelária church. Eight young people between the ages of 11 and 20 were killed in what came to be known as the Candelária Massacre.
Although the incident gained international attention, the Brazilian government at the time did little to stem the tide of extrajudicial killings in the country. Only three of the officers involved in the incident were charged with any crime.
Today, despite attempts at reform, the frequency of police related killings in Brazil can be jarring. Deaths at the hands of law enforcement average around 2,000 annually. State violence in the country disproportionately affects Afro-Brazilians and the urban poor, as evidenced in the pacificação (pacification) process of Rio’s favelas throughout last year’s World Cup.
Atila Roque, director of Amnesty International Brazil, said on the massacre’s 20th anniversary in 2013, “Our police still have blood on their hands, and are allowed to act with impunity as extra-judicial killings remain rife in Brazil’s major cities.”
State violence may be more pronounced in Brazil than elsewhere in the region, but citizen insecurity continues to pose a challenge throughout Latin America in part due to negative perceptions of police. According to a 2013 Brookings Institution report, “only 7.5% of the Latin American population express[ed] a lot of confidence in the police.” In the United States, too, confrontations between police and residents in predominantly black communities have left many questioning whether police departments are effectively serving the citizens they are tasked to protect.
Despite the challenges, governments in the region are trying to address the issue. Efforts to cooperate in professionalizing police forces and offering technical assistance to prosecutors, investigators and judges are underway. But more needs to be done, and until criminal justice reforms are effectively implemented, the legacy of the Candelária massacre will remain unsettled.