RIO DE JANEIRO — Sheila Machado de Oliveira’s day began like any other. She planned to get her kids ready for school then head to work at the grocery stall in Maré, the favela where the mother of three lived and worked alongside 130,000 others. But on this particular morning in June, Rio’s feared military police were planning a raid on a local drug dealer, and when shots rang out, de Oliveira was stuck in the crossfire.
Cellphone video footage taken at the scene of the crime captured De Oliveira’s final moments, as her limp body was rushed into a passing car and toward the emergency room. By the time her sister Daniele arrived at the hospital, Sheila was dead.
“We were afraid that it might happen but never thought it would happen to us. With someone from our family,” Daniele told VICE News.
Sheila is among the more than 1,000 people who’ve been killed by police in Rio so far this year. The trend shows no sign of slowing.
In Rio’s poorest neighborhoods like Maré the chances of being caught in the crossfire during gun battles between the police and criminal gangs are rising.
Already this year, 27 people have been killed in Maré, 15 of them by the police. Meanwhile, across Rio state there has been a 17 percent rise in police killings with police intervention accounting for 30 percent of all deaths.
The rise in police killings coincides with a public declaration of war on criminals in Rio state made by its new governor, hardline former judge Wilson Witzel.
“Those who use rifles and do not wear uniforms are enemies, are terrorists and will be shot down," Witzel told an audience at the beginning of this year. An ally of Jair Bolsonaro who hopes to one day succeed the far-right president, Witzel added, “I tell you, Military Police: do not fear. The Public Defender's Office will be with you to defend you.”
Witzel’s tough-on-crime rhetoric has given Rio’s police more leeway and authority to kill suspected criminals, critics worry.
The prosecutorial unit tasked with looking into police abuses and investigating police killings, meanwhile, does not have the resources needed to do their work properly and is struggling to have an impact.
“It's very hard for you to do an efficient investigation because lots of times bodies are taken away from the location. There is no location or witness reports,” Special Action Group on Public Security (GAESP) lead Andréa Rodrigues Amin told VICE News.
Now, Amin is concerned Witzel’s heavy-handed approach to public security will have lasting effects. “Unfortunately in Rio we have lots of deaths caused by shoot-outs involving police and criminals where innocent people are dying,” she said. “Not caring if you kill, not caring if they die is a detail that's become natural.”
But the police deny the surge in killings is a reflection of Witzel’s hardline rhetoric.
“We understand that the politicians’ discourse is important. He utters it to attend to his constituency. However, our mission will always be to preserve life and act within the law,” Military police spokesperson Col. Mauro Fliess told Vice News,
Instead, Col. Fliess attributes the rise in police killings to an increase in the number of operations conducted. “The criminal holding a weapon has the option of turning it over and himself in. However, lots of times they opt for confrontation,” said Fliess.
Police like Fleiss, and politicians point to the 23 percent drop in homicides across Rio as justification for intensifying raids on favelas. “I won’t backtrack,” said Witzel in August. But critics say that the reduction in violent deaths began 12 months before Witzel and Bolsonaro took office.
Still, for others, the issue boils down to institutional racism.
Rio state legislative Assembly member Renata Souza, who grew up in Maré, has called on the United Nations to investigate the spike of police-related killings in Brazil.
“What we concretely have in terms of public safety in Rio is institutional racism. There are no stray bullets in the slums. There's always a target the body of a young black man.” she told Vice News. “We haven't overcome the slavery mentality that sees black people which is the majority of people living in the slums of Rio as people who have no rights.”
For Daniele, who has not heard from the police since losing her sister, that’s how it feels. “They come, kill and leave, and nothing happens. Regardless of being a criminal or resident, that is the way they see it,” she said.