RIO DE JANEIRO, Brazil — Raull Santiago was trying to deliver basic food during the COVID-19 lockdown in the Complexo do Alemão favela in Rio de Janeiro where he lives when all hell broke loose. The sounds of shots and bombs rang out as police swept into the neighborhood in a raid that killed 13 people.
The police said that the operation, in May, was an attempt to take down local drug traffickers.
“Once again, we had to interrupt our humanitarian work to carry out bodies,” said Santiago, who is also part of a collective of favela residents that provides aid to locals.
Residents and activists, who have been spurred on by the Black Lives Matter protests in the United States, took to the streets, once again, to protest more rampant police brutality in some of the country’s poorest neighborhoods.
“People living in favelas had only two options: to die from the coronavirus or to die from a gunshot,” said Santiago.
The Supreme Court took the unprecedented decision in June of banning police operations in Rio’s favelas completely during the Covid-19 pandemic, except in “absolutely exceptional cases”. In August, the court also banned the use of helicopters by police over favelas, which are majority-Black working-class neighborhoods on the outskirts of Brazil’s major cities.
Now, new data shows that since the Supreme Court ruling, the number of deaths at the hands of the police in Rio plummeted by 74% in June and July, compared to the same period in 2019. It is the lowest number of deaths recorded during those months for the last six years.
In June and July of this year, 84 deaths were registered, compared to 348 during the same period in 2019, according to figures from the Public Security Institute of Rio de Janeiro.
During March and April, the first months of the Covid-19 pandemic in Brazil, 992 shootings were registered in Rio de Janeiro. Some 285 of those (29%) involved the police, according to Fogo Cruzado (which means Crossfire), a digital platform that tracks armed violence in the cities of Rio and Recife.
Pushback against police brutality has been growing in Brazil, and was further emboldened in 2018 after the killing of Marielle Franco, a councilwoman who was a strong voice against police brutality and racial inequality, amongst other issues. She was shot dead in her car after leaving a political event.
In the Complexo de Favelas da Maré, where Marielle lived and which is home to more than 140,000 people in northern Rio, the police ban has been welcomed.
“People have more peace of mind now, they go out when they need to, to do their daily activities,” said Lidiane Malanquini, from the human rights organization Redes da Maré.
Since the court’s decision, Santiago said that the number of police operations have fallen dramatically, although they still happen. Rio’s Military and Civil Police told VICE News in an email that they “already carry out operations complying with all legal requirements and technical protocols, to preserve the lives of residents and police officers”. But they voiced “extreme concern” over the restriction of operations zones that are disputed by criminal gangs that “terrorize thousands of people".
Brazil’s police are some of the deadliest in the world. Over the past four years, Rio de Janeiro alone has seen consecutive increases in the number of deaths caused by police officers. In 2016, 925 cases were registered compared to 1,814 in 2019, according to the Public Security Institute of Rio de Janeiro.
Rio’s Governor Wilson Witzel is partly to blame, according to Malanquini. He was elected in 2018 on the promise of a “zero tolerance” security policy. In one of his famous quotes he told a local newspaper that the police should kill criminals, shooting them "in the head". Witzel was denounced to the United Nations by human rights advocates following the death of Ágatha Félix, aged 8, during a police raid in the Complexo do Alemão favela in 2019. She was killed by a shot fired by a police officer.
Malanquini, Santiago and others who are part of Brazil’s anti-police brutality movement feel encouraged by the police ban.
"It is essential that this movement takes on the process of building new possibilities for public security to break the structural violence that has existed for so many years”, said Malanquini.
The police ban in Rio’s favelas is temporary, and could be revoked once the lockdown around the coronavirus pandemic ends. Should that happen, without institutional and regulatory changes to address police conduct, deaths at the hands of the police could rise again.
Malanquini knows that’s a risk.
“There is still fear, and tension, about what will happen when police operations return.”
Cover: A member of the military police patrols during an operation in the Rocinha favela in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil on January 25, 2018. Credit: MAURO PIMENTEL/AFP via Getty Images.