Raid in Rio de Janeiro Leaves 25 Dead

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Activists and relatives of victims shout slogans and demand justice the day after a deadly police operation in the Jacarezinho favela of Rio de Janeiro, Brazil, May 7, 2021.
© 2021 AP Photo/Silvia Izquierdo

In the early morning of May 6, police in the Brazilian city of Rio de Janeiro sent heavily-armed officers supported by helicopters and armored vehicles into Jacarezinho, a vast poor neighborhood of narrow alleys, subjecting its almost tens of thousands of residents to nine hours of terror.

The target of the raid, according to Rio de Janeiro civil police, was a criminal group that was responsible for “the constant violation of fundamental rights” of the residents of Jacarezinho.

By the afternoon, 25 people lay dead, including a police officer, making it the second deadliest police raid in Rio de Janeiro’s history.

Commanders said the operation was “legitimate from beginning to end.”

“The 24 dead criminals, they are not suspects, they are criminals, drug dealers, and killers because they tried to kill police officers,” Felipe Curi, one of the officers in charge of the operation, said. By contrast, a resident said police executed a man inside his daughter’s room.

Rio police routinely claim they kill in self-defense, and in some cases, that may be true. But many other killings are the result of reckless and excessive use of lethal force, or outright extrajudicial executions, as extensively documented by Human Rights Watch.

There needs to be a thorough, independent, and prompt investigation to determine what happened in Jacarezinho. But there are already reasons to question whether that will happen: testimonies, photos, and videos by residents suggest crime scenes were not preserved and bodies were moved.

The civil police, whose commanders have said that no abuses were committed, are tasked with investigating the actions of their own members.

Brazil’s Supreme Court ruled in 2020 that prosecutors should open their own investigations into all police killings in Rio to guarantee independence. But that has not happened. On the contrary, in March, Rio’s new attorney general dissolved the unit of prosecutors specializing in police abuse. It is crucial that he reinstate it, abide by the Supreme Court ruling, and open an investigation into the Jacarezinho killings immediately.

The court also prohibited police from conducting raids in poor neighborhoods during the Covid-19 pandemic except for “exceptional cases.” Police have still launched operations that have killed a record 453 people from January through March of this year.

As long as impunity for police abuses remains the norm, the bloodshed will continue.