Illustration Credit: Carlos Latuff
On Thursday, May 6, an early-morning police raid in a Rio de Janeiro favela left 28 dead, including one officer, sparking allegations of extrajudicial and arbitrary executions and returning Brazil’s brutal history of police violence to the public spotlight. The raid on Jacarezinho—a sprawling, densely-populated community in Rio de Janeiro’s Zona Norte known as a stronghold of the Comando Vermelho, one of Brazil’s most powerful criminal organizations—was carried out in spite of a Supreme Court order that had banned most law enforcement raids in the city for the duration of the COVID-19 pandemic. The Jacarezinho raid, which has been described by some attorneys and human rights activists as a “massacre,” is the deadliest of its kind in Brazilian history, surpassing the previous record held by a 2007 operation in the Complexo do Alemão favela, also located on Rio’s northern periphery, that killed 19. The operation—which has been assiduously defended, and even celebrated, by police authorities and their backers—occurred less than a week into the tenure of Claúdio Castro, the newly-inaugurated Governor of Rio de Janeiro, who has vowed to maintain a hardline stance against criminality. (Castro’s predecessor, Wilson Witzel—a close ally of President Jair Bolsonaro who was impeached last month on charges that he had misappropriated funds allocated for pandemic relief—was swept into office on the strength of his promises to authorize a police “slaughter” of suspected drug traffickers and gang members).
Extreme violence has plagued Rio de Janeiro and other major Brazilian cities for decades, as heavily armed rival gangs battle for control of territory and security forces attempt to crack down on the rampant and lucrative trade in drugs and illegal firearms. In 2019, recent years, however, police killings have escalated to unprecedented levels: in Rio de Janeiro state alone, police killed at least 1,810 people in 2019, the vast majority of them young Black and mixed-race men. (The victims of the Jacarezinho raid were all males between the ages of 18 and 43). Even with the court injunction banning most police raids in effect, nearly 800 people in Rio de Janeiro state have been killed by police in the nine-month period between June 2020 and March 2021. The political ascendancy of Bolsonaro and his brand of iron-fisted, ‘tough on crime’ right-wing populism has been viewed by many observers as further inflaming the cycle of police violence in Brazil: Bolsonaro has vowed to ensure that police are able to kill with impunity, reduced restrictions on gun ownership, and vowed to allow suspected criminals and traffickers to be shot “in the street like cockroaches.” In response to reports of execution-style killings emerging from Jacarezinho, Bolsonaro tweeted his congratulations to the Rio de Janeiro police force, claiming that, “By treating traffickers who steal, kill and destroy families as victims, the media and the left equate them with ordinary, honest citizens who respect laws and their neighbors.” Bolsonaro’s Vice President, Hamilton Mourão, has also referred to the 27 dead in Jacarezinho, without providing supporting evidence, as “bandidos” (“crooks”).
In response to images and videos—depicting strewn corpses, homes riddled with bullet holes, and streets and alleyways stained with blood—that have been circulated widely throughout Brazil, protests have erupted in Jacarezinho and elsewhere in the cities of Rio de Janeiro and São Paulo. The United Nations Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights has urged authorities to conduct “an independent, thorough and impartial investigation” into the raid, expressing concern over what it termed “a long-standing trend of unnecessary and disproportionate use of force by police in Brazil’s poor, marginalized, and predominantly Afro-Brazilian […] favelas.” The Supreme Court justice Edson Fachin echoed calls for such an investigation, expressing his concern over “indications of arbitrary execution.” Meanwhile, speculation regarding the motives and objectives of the raid—although police officials have claimed that the operation had been in planning stages for ten months, with the intention of serving 21 arrest warrants, only three such arrests were ultimately made—continues to swirl. Investigations have shown that 17 of the 27 non-police victims were killed within a 1.5-kilometer radius of the spot where a police officer had been killed just two hours previously, fueling comparisons to the 1993 Vigário Geral massacre (in which off-duty police rampaged through a favela, murdering 21 residents, in retaliation for the recent deaths of four officers). Further speculation has revolved around the theory that the raid, targeting a bastion of one of Rio de Janeiro’s most powerful criminal syndicates, was designed and carried out deliberately to weaken the Comando Vermelho and facilitate the territorial expansion of police-backed milícias—which, by some estimates, already control more than half of the city—into Jacarezinho.