Police Raids in Rio's Favelas Were Banned — But Now They're Back and Deadlier Than Ever

Despite a life-saving Supreme Court ban on police operations in favelas, deadly raids in these poor neighbourhoods are back and on the rise.
April 26, 2021, 5:11pm
A police officer from the anti-drug squad searches a home in the the Pixunga favela in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil.
A police officer from the anti-drug squad searches a home in the the Pixunga favela in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil. Photo by Christopher Pillitz/Getty Images.

RIO DE JANEIRO, Brazil - Eight-year-old Kaio Guilherme da Silva was at a school party when he was hit in the head by a stray bullet and tumbled to the ground. Shrieks of panic echoed across the playground as his mother and teacher, Thais Silva, found her son lying in a pool of blood. 

“I knew it was a stray bullet in an instant. Our community lives in a constant state of fear that one of us might be a victim,” said Silva, who later lost her only son.

Advertisement

Kaio died this weekend after spending a week in a coma after the shooting in the Vila Aliança favela in Rio de Janeiro, and became the 100th child to have been hit by a stray bullet in the city in the past five years. Almost 30 percent of those events have been lethal, according to data from Fogo Cruzado, a digital platform that monitors armed violence in Rio. On average one child a month was killed in Rio by a stray bullet last year. The majority of those deaths happened during police operations in Rio’s redbrick favelas, which are home to a large portion of the city's poor, Black population. 

Residents got some temporary respite from police raids in the favelas in Rio following a ban issued by the Supreme Court last June. The court ruled to suspend police operations there during the COVID-19 pandemic, except in “absolutely exceptional circumstances,” which the police were obliged to justify in writing to Rio’s Public Ministry beforehand.

The results were promising, at least at first, according to data from a report by Ceni, a research group at the Federal Fluminense University (UFF). Police raids plummeted by 64 percent between June and September, compared with the average during the same period in previous years: the lowest number of killings from police raids since records began in 2007. Even so, more than 1,200 of Rio’s citizens were killed by police in 2020 - more than the total number of police killings in the entire U.S in the same year, according to separate findings from Human Rights Watch

But despite the apparently life-saving ban, the number of operations and killings began to climb again in October, and raids quickly doubled to 38 compared to the previous month, according to the UFF study.

Advertisement

Observers say that Claudio Castro, the governor of Rio who took office in September, is to blame for that. He appointed Allan Turnowski as the commissioner of Rio’s Civil Police. He’s a former police chief who was expelled from the city’s police force for ten years on corruption charges but was reinstated when Castro became governor. 

In one of his first interviews, Turnowski said that the Supreme Court ruling would not prevent the police from entering favelas and defended the use of tanks and helicopters. 

“[The police] made it clear they will not respect the judge’s decision. This is serious. They think they won’t be held accountable,” said Daniel Hirata, an author of the report and professor of sociology at the Federal Fluminense University UFF. 

Part of the issue is the ambiguity over the “exceptional circumstances” worded in the ban. “Rio’s police force has always had a lot of power. Turnowski said that since communities are heavily armed with rifles and barricades, this justifies Rio de Janeiro state being a permanent exception,” said Luiz Alexandre Costa, a sociologist and professor of military law at the State University of Rio. 

The Supreme Court said this week that raids are justified under the “exceptional” clause if civilian lives are in imminent danger or to prevent territorial expansion from criminal factions. But Hirata said some killings are motivated by other dynamics: “Many involve ‘retaliation’ killings, fuelled by vengeance. That’s why they're so deadly.” 

Advertisement

Favela residents say that police operations are becoming the rule, not the exception, again.

“They're waging a war against Black people. It’s a violation of our human rights and the killings are rarely investigated. There’s no interest from the state. This gives police impunity and license to kill,” said Gizele Martins, an expert in urban peripheries and resident of the Mare favela, where raids have continued despite the ban.

And matters could get worse. In March, Rio’s Attorney General’s office eliminated the Group of Specialized Action in Public Security (GAESP), an independent investigative body handling over 700 police cases. 

Alexandre said that while GAESP only handled a small number of investigative cases, its removal raises questions of impartiality. Now, all investigations into police misconduct will be handled by prosecutors working closely with the police officers under investigation, putting them at risk of retaliation. The sheer volume of cases could also hinder progress, where police killings might not be prioritised.

Back in Vila Alianca, Guilherme’s mother, Silva fears that as long as violent police are not held accountable and with no intervention from the state, innocent children risk suffering the same fate as her son.

“We need better state tools so innocent people shouldn’t have to endure this pain. Right now, I’m hurting. But the whole community is hurting with me.”