Witnesses to Brazil’s Deadliest Police Raid Are Being Threatened to Stay Silent

A raid on May 6 killed 27 young residents, and an investigation is underway. But witnesses and human rights advocates claim the incident was a “massacre.”
May 12, 2021, 6:15pm
A woman holds up a candle during a protest on May 7 2021, the day after a deadly police operation in the Jacarezinho favela. More than two dozen people died in the bloodiest police operation in the history of Rio de Janeiro.
A woman holds up a candle during a protest on May 7 2021, the day after a deadly police operation in the Jacarezinho favela. More than two dozen people died in the bloodiest police operation in the history of Rio de Janeiro. Photo: Andre Borges/picture alliance via Getty Images.

RIO DE JANEIRO, Brazil - After 27 youngsters were killed by the deadliest police raid on record in Rio De Janeiro, residents and witnesses are being threatened to remain silent about the incident.

The police claim that all of the deaths following the raid in the Jacarezinho favela were a result of confrontations with “suspects” - alleged members of a local drug gang. But locals reported that some of the men were unarmed and  trying to escape as the police entered. 

Advertisement

Families of the victims as well as lawyers and human rights activists want answers and have demanded an independent investigation into the killings. But they told VICE World News that they are now being threatened to remain silent about their version of events. 

Rodrigo Mondego, from the Human Rights Commission (OAB-RJ), an independent body, said that activists and lawyers, including himself, who are gathering witness testimonies in Jacarezinho are also receiving death threats over social media.

Rio's Deadliest Police Raid on Record Kills 24

“You should have been shot like the other 27 people died. You should have died before, whoever defends a criminal is a dead criminal,” said an anonymous person via Twitter to a resident in a message seen by Mondego. Similar threats were sent via Instagram and seen by VICE World News. 

Other witnesses reported receiving text messages from unknown numbers saying that the police had their personal info and their photos, insinuating that there would be consequences if they gave evidence about the events of that day.
 
“The families in Jacarezinho are terrified that there will be another raid. They’re still in a state of shock and too scared to leave the favela. They’re worried about what could happen if they speak and denounce the abuses,” said Seimour Souza, a coordinator of the Independent and Community Learning Centre in the Jacarezinho favela.

Advertisement

“The headquarters of the civil police is directly in front of the favela”, added Thaina de Medeiros from the Human Rights Commission of the legislative assembly of Rio de Janeiro, who was at the favela when the shooting took place and is now supporting some of the affected families.

Terror and panic have been replaced by indignation in the Jacarezinho favela after dozens of police officers stormed into the zone last week, backed up by helicopters. The death count included a police officer as well as the 27 young Black men in what is considered Rio de Janeiro’s most deadliest police raid on record.

The initial death count as a result of the raid, which took place on May 6, was 24 but Rio’s police reported an additional three deaths over the weekend. Two civilians were injured after being hit by a stray bullet on a metro nearby. According to the police, the operation  - dubbed “Exceptis” - (which translates as “exceptional”) - was based on 21 arrest warrants generated after 10 years of investigations into the Comando Vermelho (Red Command) drug trafficking organization that dominates the favela and has a trend of recruiting young men and children. 

But residents are questioning the police’s version of its true motives for the bloody incident, and claim extrajudicial killings took place.

“It was a massacre, the police invaded houses, questioned families, confiscated their phones and threatened the residents. It was true terror,” said one activist who asked not to be named by VICE World News.

“According to the Civil Police, all 27 criminals killed in confrontation with police in Jacarezinho are part of ongoing investigations that prove their involvement in organized crime. The only person executed was police inspector Andre de Mello Frias,” wrote the police’s press department in an email responding to questions from VICE World News.

Under pressure from human rights groups and lawyers, Rio de Janeiro’s Public Ministry, which is responsible for police oversight, announced on May 12 that it would launch an independent investigation via the prosecutor’s office. The focus of the investigation is likely to be the decisions to remove bodies from crime scenes as well as reports of executions and the death of a police officer. 

The removal of bodies from crime scenes is common practice in Rio, and according to media reports 25 bodies were removed from Jacarezinho by the police following the raid. That could hinder investigations surrounding the exact circumstances of the killings. 

“Removing bodies … is a traditional strategy in Rio de Janeiro to generate impunity,” said Daniel Sarmento, a lawyer with his own firm in Rio. 

Rio’s Civil Police said via email that it is still possible to conduct investigations without bodies at the scene. But experts argued that if all of the killings occurred within a legal framework, there would be no need to change the crime scenes. 

Mondego, from the Human Rights Commission, told VICE World News that the Souza Aguiar Municipality hospital where 20 of the bodies were sent said that all the men were dead on arrival.