From Mourning to the Supreme Court: Favela Voices Demand Reduction of Police Lethality

Photo by Tatiane Mendes

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For the first time in Brazilian history, favela grassroots movements, mothers of victims of State violence, and civil society organizations were heard by the country’s highest court, the Brazilian Supreme Court (STF), as amicus curiae (friends of the court)—institutions or persons not a party to a case, whose purpose is to offer additional and relevant information to be considered before the court makes a final ruling—at a public hearing held in April to report abuses committed by police officers in Rio’s favelas.

The hearing was called in the context of the Claim of Non-Compliance with a Fundamental Precept (ADPF 635), the STF’s decision restricting police operations in the midst of the Covid-19 pandemic. The hearing’s aim was to collect information supporting the elaboration of a plan to reduce police lethality in Rio de Janeiro, in order to fulfill an Inter-American Court of Human Rights’ ruling. The event was held between April 16 and 19 through videoconferencing and broadcast on the YouTube page of TV Justiça.

Allegations of torture, intimidation, abuse, and murder made by favela residents to the STF were not mere testimonies. In the two public hearing sessions, known as the “ADPF das Favelas,” each speech was an act of resistance. Above all, an act of survival—in present body as well as in memory—of favela residents faced by the State’s necropolitics: a policy of death inflicted daily by Rio de Janeiro’s Military Police (PMERJ) during decades of violence.

“I don’t know of any favela that has a weapons and a drugs factory. If you find guns here, it’s because they are brought in from the outside. Why do my people have to be marginalized and pay this price? When one mother weeps, they all weep. I live in a favela that is constantly visited by police. I have lost count of the number of mothers who have lost their children due to police violence. It is not easy to wake up with hooded people at our door. All we wish is to survive, because plain living has been denied to us,” said Eliene Maria Vieira, of the Mothers of Manguinhos movement at the hearing.

“I want my favela to live,” declared Eliene to the two STF judges presiding over the public hearing: Edson Fachin and Gilmar Mendes.

In all, 66 organizations participated as amicus curiae at the hearing. Among the parties were Rio’s Public Defender’s Office, the Military Police, community associations, and favela grassroots movements.

“How would you feel losing a two-year-old son and having to carry that emotional weight for the rest of your life?” asked José Luiz Faria da Silva, of the Fala Akari Collective, and father of Maicon, killed by police 25 years ago. “I respect the Constitution, I have served my country and voted all my life, but my son’s rights were not respected. Whoever’s shooting, it’s not the victims. My soul is choked by my son’s loss,” repeated this father who still seeks justice after 25 years.

“I am the mother of a son murdered by the police in favela da Maré. He was killed on his way to school, in his uniform, by a shot fired from a helicopter. There was no timely medical assistance, we were not entitled to an ambulance. That same police operation killed five other young men inside a house. The citizens of the favelas are systematically targeted,” said Bruna da Silva, mother of Marcus Vinicius, 14, who was shot by gunfire coming from an armored Military Police vehicle.

“My son was murdered at the age of 17, victim of the failed state of Rio de Janeiro. Our dead must be given a voice. How are the authorities exercising their external control of police operations? We are seen as bodies to be killed, people to be discarded. We want our right to live to be respected. I wonder, sirs, what your reaction would be if you had your children dead in your arms due to a police error?” asked Isilmar de Jesus, of the Network of Mothers and Family Members from Baixada Fluminense.

Claudia Oliveira Guimarães, another mother of a victim of State violence, pointed out that shouting for justice was not an option, but rather a condition for survival. “The role of the police is to protect, not to kill. When my son died, I thought I would die too. And I am dead, except that he is buried, and I am still here. Why doesn’t this happen in the South Zone, only in the favelas? We need help, we are crying out for justice, for a police force that will respect us.”

“ADPF of the Favelas”

In June of last year, STF Judge Edson Fachin signed a judicial order to ban police raids in favelas and in Rio’s peripheral areas during the pandemic. In his ADPF 635 decision, Fachin reflected these raids can often cause more harm to a population residing in poor living conditions and already debilitated by coronavirus contagion risks than benefits in terms of the increased security of residents.

The precautionary measures trial began in April 2020, and on August 17, 2020, the STF issued the final order, in ADPF 635, which specified what was prohibited: the use of armored helicopters (the “aerial caveirões,” or “big skulls” as police armored vehicles are generally called) as a platform for shooting during favelas police operations; raids in schools and hospitals; and the use of these areas as operational bases in favelas for the civil and military polices.

With the ADPF 635 in place, police raids in Rio were suspended during the Covid-19 pandemic, except in absolutely exceptional circumstances, requiring duly written justification by competent authorities, with immediate communication to the State of Rio de Janeiro Public Prosecutor’s Office. Judge Edson Fachin’s decision was endorsed in August 2020 by the plenary of the STF, thus taking immediate effect.

The “ADPF of the Favelas,” as the STF ruling came to be known, is the result of a petition filed by the Brazilian Socialist Party (PSB) and drafted collectively with the State of Rio de Janeiro Public Defender’s Office, and organizations such as: Educafro, Global Justice, Redes da Maré, Conectas Human Rights, The Unified Black Movement, Institute of Religious Studies (Iser), the Right to Memory and Racial Justice Initiative, Straight Talk Collective, Fala Akari Collective, Network of Communities and Movements Against Violence, Mothers of Manguinhos—all entities listed as amicus curiae in the brief—and also the Observatório de Favelas, Group of Studies on the New Illegalities (Geni), Maré Vive, Marielle Franco Institute, National Human Rights Council and the Center for Study on Safety and Citizenship (CESeC).

The injunction granted in June 2020 was the most significant action for the defense of life and against lethal violence in the recent history of the state of Rio de Janeiro. At the hearing, researchers showed the STF that, last year, the ban had caused a historic drop in the number of deaths by State agent interventions. This was the first decrease since 2013.

“We, institutions and social movements involved in ADPF 635, celebrate the STF decision recognizing favelas as part of the city, and acknowledging that the policy ‘of slaughter’ adopted by Governor Wilson Witzel not only violates fundamental rights, but is also racist. We will continue to monitor and demand compliance with the ruling. They agreed to kill us, but we agree not to die!” states the manifesto of the organizations that filed the suit.

ADPF 635’s ruling produced immediate effects in reducing violence. “With the ADPF, shootouts fell by 22%, and the number of massacres decreased by 30%. What was proved is that police action does not lessen crimes. Even without police presence, robberies did not increase. If the police’s mission is to protect, how can the situation improve with police inaction? Rio’s lack of control is also a reflection of the stray bullet fear,” said journalist Cecilia Oliveira, director of the Fogo Cruzado Institute, another participant of the public hearing.

While the ruling was being fully enforced in Rio from June to September 2020, 288 lives were saved, according to  the Federal Fluminense University’s Group of Studies on the New Illegalities (Geni). However, in recent months, the injunction started to being ignored by state authorities.

Friends of the Brazilian Court: Military Police Targets

According to Judge Gilmar Mendes “Those who use force, cannot use this force at any time and in a disproportionate manner.” The judge’s statement was expressed at the opening of the STF public hearing for ADPF 635, on April 16, the hearing’s first day. However, on that same day, Kaio Guilherme, 8, was the victim of a stray bullet in the Vila Aliança favela, in the West Zone.

Kaio died on Saturday, April 24. The boy was the 100th child shot in Greater Rio in nearly five years, according to a mapping carried out by the Fogo Cruzado Institute, which monitors gun violence in Rio de Janeiro. “Every 17 days a child is shot in Rio,” said journalist Cecília Oliveira, coordinator of Fogo Cruzado.

“The war on drugs is the justification used [by the State] for the confrontation in favelas. This war is an excuse to hide the massacre taking place in Rio’s favelas. Deaths caused by the police are routinely framed as homicides arising from police action, to protect officers in the name of self-defense. The State participates in these murders,” said Sandra de Carvalho, Global Justice coordinator.

The “ADPF of the Favelas” is contingent on the pandemic situation, so technically, police raids should be suspended. However, the ADPF does provide for police operations in exceptional circumstances. The State has used this loophole to justify its incursions in the favelas.

According to Ivan Blaz, communications coordinator for PMERJ, “exceptional actions are emergencies, i.e., cases of domestic violence; robberies perpetrated by gangs; torture or death inside communities. Preventive police operations happen when we receive information about criminals getting together.” However, Prosecutor Tiago Veras Gomes stated that the Public Prosecutor’s Office “has verified that the Military Police has difficulty in communicating its actions to the Public Prosecutor’s Office.” According to Gomes, “there is a misunderstanding of the definition of exceptional/extraordinary.”

Jacqueline Muniz, Fluminense Federal University (UFF) professor of Public Security, posits that “with the notion of exceptionality for police operations to occur and with the trivialization of exception; with lack of coordination and articulation between various police raids—in fact , with each police unit conducting its own raid—the State seeks to maximize the sense of insecurity in order to justify an ‘ostentatious police’ instead of a manifest, effective police, as well as to justify the ‘spectacle police’ in lieu of the routine police. The result of this equation are operations with high lethality rates and an attitude within the police that freedom from formal practices is allowed, all of this influencing the increase of private militias.”

“The measures established by the ADPF did not handcuff the police; they only reminded them that they should be a real police, not a foreign mercenary army within their own territory of action,” she pointed out.

“Exceptionality cannot be used as justification for human rights violations. Police authorities continue to say: ‘We cannot make an omelet without breaking eggs,’ and I add: ‘As long as the eggs are not your children,'” said political scientist Luiz Eduardo Soares.

Renata Trajano, a member of the Straight Talk Collective, stressed police lethality and abuses in Rio are a recurrent theme. “Our life is disposable. I am tired. We celebrated the injunction, but soon after, in the middle of the pandemic, a police raid took place in May [of last year] killing 13 people. Then another police operation got confused with our truck containing basic foodstuffs baskets. You’ve never been woken up with your door being kicked in, with gunfire. Here, in my house, there’s only one safe place to hide from the shooting, and many houses don’t have any.”

Renata concludes: “We die several times; we have to prove we are not criminals. We are all threatened every day. We survive, we resist. It’s like the Old West here, a lawless land. The judiciary makes a decision, the State doesn’t obey it, and we are stuck in the middle. Rio is a state in which no one understands each other, the different branches of government do not comprehend each other. The State does not respect the judiciary. I know my rights and my duties, and I obey them. So, I just want my rights to also be respected. Surviving here is very difficult.”

Daily Oppression and Police Abuses

After three days of debate at the STF, two police raids took place simultaneously in two of Rio’s largest favela complexes: Alemão and Maré, in spite of the STF’s order prohibiting such raids during the pandemic. There was intense gunfire, helicopters, and armored PMERJ vehicles operating in both North Zone favela complexes. Region residents report violence and abuse by agents during the raid, sharing complaints of police officers breaking into and invading homes.

Between April 26 and 27, Rio recorded nine dead and 15 injured in 48 hours due to shootouts in various communities, according to the organization Voz das Comunidades. Residents of Morro do Juramento, Complexo do Lins, Mangueira, Prazeres and Providência experienced moments of tension.

On April 29, crime rates released by the Public Security Institute (ISP) for the state of Rio de Janeiro, pointed to two opposing directions as far as homicides were concerned, as reported by newspaper O Globo. While records of intentional homicide, between January and March, were at their lowest level since 1991 (year that marks the beginning of the time series for violence in the state), deaths in police confrontations registered their worst first quarter numbers since 1998, when the indicator was first recorded.

Figures released by the ISP on April 29 revealed that, in the first three months of the current year, in Rio de Janeiro alone, 920 homicide victims were recorded, showing a 13% decrease compared to the same period in 2020. The month of March on its own registered the lowest number of victims since 1991: 313 cases, a 16% reduction when compared to March 2020. However, deaths in police confrontations rose 4% in the first quarter, compared to the first quarter of 2020.


Photo: Tatiane Mendes

The violence and noncompliance with Brazil’s highest court’s decision by Rio’s security forces did not end in April. On May 6, the Civil Police, supported by its Special Resources Coordination (CORE), set off a raid in the Jacarezinho favela, located in the North Zone, which resulted in the largest massacre ever to be carried out by police officers in the history of the state’s capital. 29 citizens were killed, including one police officer and 28 civilians, all residents of the Jacarezinho favela.

From 2007 to March 2021, 186 deaths occurred during 290 favela raids, amounting to a rate of 6.4 deaths per 10 police operations. Jacarezinho has the largest black population in the state’s capital. The deadliest operation due to police intervention in Rio’s favelas in history, culminating in the Jacarezinho Massacre was not previously reported to the Public Prosecutor’s Office, as required by the ruling; rather, the communication occurred only when the raid was already underway inside the community, according to a statement sent to the press by the Civil Police.

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