Rio de Janeiro’s ‘Governor of Massacres’ as an Affront to the ‘Right to the Favela’

Have you ever wondered what happens after a police operation?

Original art by David Amen
Original art by David Amen

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The ‘right to the favela’—a social, political and pedagogical position in defense of the right to life, development, and rootedness in the favelas—is disrupted daily by the ‘right to public security’ in Rio de Janeiro. For this article, we heard community organizers reflect on Governor Cláudio Castro’s public security policies during the 2022 election process.

The ‘Right to the Favela’ is a concept developed collectively, but spearheaded by Marielle Franco‘s office—the beloved Rio city councilor who was brutally assassinated on March 14, 2018—to kick off a process of public discussion and policy proposals aimed at responding to the urgent, concrete needs of favelas and urban peripheries of Rio.

Seminar on the Right to the Favela at the Maré Museum in 2017 with Marielle Franco (dressed in white) in the middle. Photo: Brian McNamara

The right to the favela centers the right to lifein turn contemplating all other rights, like access to education, adequate housing, culture and leisure, work, food security, the freedom to come and go, being recognized as an integral part of the city and being able to remain in one’s community, and the right to public security within favelas and homes, since home invasions without a warrant are the current operational model for police in the favelas.

For this article we interviewed five community organizers and heard their outlook for the second term of Governor Cláudio Castro while he was still a candidate for re-election. All five support the reform of Rio’s public security policies as a central concern for the effective fulfillment of the right to the favela.

According to the community organizers interviewed, the policy of confronting drug trafficking with a logic of war undertaken by the State under the argument of “fostering public security” in practice prevents favela residents from accessing their constitutional rights. Alan Brum, coordinator and founder of the Roots in Movement Institute in Complexo do Alemão, insists:

“The number one agenda [that the] governor of Rio de Janeiro must consider is the right to life in the favelas and not just in some parts of the city. I’m talking about the need for a significant change in public security policy… A structural change and not just one focused on policing. This means tackling public security from a different paradigm… From the paradigm that public security means ensuring a safe environment for everyone, in all places, in any place. We don’t have the right to life with the current public security policy… We don’t have the right to the favela.”

Graffiti in Maré by David Amen, an artist from Complexo do Alemão and member of the Roots in Movement Institute. Photo: Brian McNamara

To the community organizers interviewed, the right to the favela was brutally violated over the past four years of Jair Bolsonaro’s federal administration as it removed even the “right to breathe” for the poorest and favela residents during the coronavirus pandemic. In Rio de Janeiro, Governor Cláudio Castro’s re-election clamps down on democracy and makes citizenship a condition without legal effects in the favelas.

Alan Brum at the Roots in Movement Institute’s headquarters. Photo: CEPEDOCA

“If you talk to someone [who works] in education, they end up talking about security, and that just goes on and on [no one trying to help develop the community from any sector manages to get things done]. When you try to develop and carry out projects in the areas of culture, leisure, employment, you end up stumbling on public security because in the favela it’s what grants, allows, or impedes access to all other rights. We need real public security, a public security practice seen from a different perspective. One that understands what security is, and not this current security project that’s existed for decades and that’s only gotten worse in Castro’s administration. A project that makes everyone living here in the favelas hostage of a state of siege… What I’m talking about, is understanding that police operations in the favelas, the way they’re carried out today [by the Rio governor], expose us to death and remove everything from us: each and every right.” — Alan Brum

Reelected with 58% of the vote in the first round of the last elections, Cláudio Castro was inaugurated as Rio de Janeiro governor on the same day as President Lula on January 1, 2023 at a ceremony at the Tiradentes Palace, former seat of the Rio Legislative Assembly, in downtown Rio (read the full inauguration speech in Portuguese here.)

In December, the Regional Electoral Prosecutor’s Office requested the annulment of Castro’s and his vice governor Thiago Pampolha’s electoral ticket for abuse of political and economic power in hiring the Ceperj Foundation and Rio de Janeiro State University (UERJ) for electoral gains, as well as alleged illicit campaign expenses. However, the ticket denies any wrongdoing. “What draws attention is the volume of cash withdrawals directly at the tellers’ counters in branches where payments were made to beneficiaries associated with political parties and candidates from Castro’s coalition,” reported CNN Brasil.

Governor Cláudio Castro receiving official confirmation from the Regional Electoral Court (TRE). Photo: ALERJ

Elected with electoral support from former president Jair Bolsonaro, Castro is the politician responsible not just for the increased number of police massacres in Rio de Janeiro—including the Jacarezinho Massacre—but is also the governor responsible for the highest rate of lethal police action in favelas over the past 15 years.

Rio de Janeiro has a decades-long history of police massacres. But under Castro’s first administration—which took over the office following Wilson Witzel’s impeachment, for whom Castro was vice-governor—the state lived through 39 massacres with 178 deaths by police in just 15 months, according to a study by the Fogo Cruzado Institute, which gathers data on armed violence, in conjunction with the Study Group on the New Illegalities at the Fluminense Federal University (Geni-UFF).

The deadliness was so intense that the executive director of Amnesty International Brazil, Jurema Werneck, stated in an interview with DW Brasil that “Governor Cláudio Castro… seems to be seeking to implement a public security policy, that he never developed, into a policy of massacres.”

In her interview with the German publication, Werneck also highlighted that the governor seems to want “to confuse the population,” as “he has the obligation to ensure public security for all, but he’s been putting a massacre in the place [of security]” which hasn’t “resulted in anything except piles of bodies—and dead police too.” According to the Study Group on the New Illegalities, operations are considered police massacres if they result in three or more civilian deaths and have direct participation by public authorities.

Claudio Castro: The ‘Governor of Massacres’

Favela community organizers reveal the practical impacts of living under a regime of State terrorism which deprives residents of their constitutional rights through a routine of intensive police operations. Public security is central to everyone’s daily life and exerts a high degree of influence on favela residents’ lives.

Gizele Martins wearing a Maré Mobilization Front t-shirt. Photo: Maré de Notícias

“It [public security] ends up being the priority because we’re dying from gunshots from helicopters during police operations. Our lives are paralyzed with each operation. So that’s where we end up putting all our efforts. There’s no other way to survive. We end up putting various other factors and rights to the side because the public security issue disrupts everything! Because when we talk about public security we’re talking about militarization and control… about killing favela populations. I’ve said this before, and I’ll say it again: all our efforts and forces go toward this debate because we’re being shot dead. But I mean it when I say that not having water killed as many people as gunshots in 2020 [with the Covid-19 pandemic]. Not having a well-ventilated home killed as much as gunshots. So when we talk about genocide, we’re talking about how the favela is controlled, affected, and violated in every sphere of human rights.” — Gizele Martins

The testimonial comes from Gizele Martins, journalist, grassroots communicator, human rights activist with a Master’s degree in Education, Culture, and Urban Peripheries, and resident of the favela Morro do Timbau in Complexo da Maré. Author of the book Militarization and Censorship: The Fight for Freedom of Expression in the Maré Favela which resulted from her master’s thesis, the researcher reports on the workings of a hindered citizenship and the State’s policy of death during police operations in favelas.

“Police operations paralyze life in the favela: for those who die, for those who lose a life, and even for those who don’t die because they can’t go to work, they can’t study… On police operation days we have no Internet and no cell phone access because the signal drops. This is control. All other spheres of rights are taken away from us during operations. During the operation that began on Monday [November 25, 2022] for example…, we spent the whole week with our lives being dictated and marked by that operation.” — Gizele Martins

And she asks:

“Have you ever wondered what happens after a police operation? Whole families scrape money together to bury their dead and we fight for forensics that never happen. People go to health centers and family clinics with depression, panic attacks, anxiety, strokes. People miss work and have to make up the time as many workplaces don’t understand the situation. We flunk a grade or miss years of study. Surgeries can’t be done after we’ve waited three, four, five, ten years for an appointment to get that surgery… And worse still there’s the psychological terror: hearing the noise of a helicopter arriving in the favela at 4am… Look, I don’t have words to describe what that’s like. That infernal noise, the gunshots… The noise of armored police trucks, armored police helicopters, people shouting in the favela. People dying, and afterwards there’s this silence in the favela, which is really weird. Everything stops. We lose life. This has a name. It’s State terrorism.”

For Fransérgio Goulart, coordinator of the Right to Memory and Social Justice Initiative (IDMJ), police operations can be classified as State terrorism because Rio’s public security policy selects “specific territories” for war operations.

“We can say that the State’s public security policy is terrorism because it creates public enemies [the favelas] stemming from racism. The State promotes terrorist actions in these territories alone to advance genocide in majority Black areas. This terror ranges from denying access to food and health, to the rifle pointed by police officers who are backed by the courts.” — Fransérgio Goulart

Goulart explains that State terrorism always operates in residential territories with a majority Black population “stemming from a political project designed between the absence of health, education, food, and the presence of police.”

Map of voting results for Cláudio Castro across Rio de Janeiro state. Photo: G1

Despite the rise in lethal force in the favelas and the high number of massacres, Cláudio Castro beat his opposition candidates in 91 of the state’s 92 municipalities. Gizele Martins recalls that Castro won “the election carrying out a massacre in Maré” just six days before the first round in the 2022 elections.

The slaughter was carried out with the use of armored trucks and helicopters and involved the Special Operations Battalion (BOPE) and Special Resources Coordination (CORE)—the Rio de Janeiro Military Police and Civil Police’s elite squads—on September 27, 2022.

At the time, investigative news site The Intercept Brasil was in Maré and reported: “terrified residents tried in vain to convince police that there were people at home who were workers and not criminals. One of the state agents responded saying, ‘F*ck you.’”

Image still from The Intercept video-report showing the police invasion of Maré on the eve of the 2022 elections.

Even so, Castro won the elections in electoral zones surrounding favelas, such as electoral zones 21, 161, and 162 which cover the Complexo do Alemão and Complexo da Penha favelas, neighborhoods Olaria, Ramos, Bonsucesso and surrounding area, which includes Complexo da Maré, in North Zone. He also won in the 179th Electoral Zone which covers the Rio das Pedras, City of God, and Gardênia Azul favelas in the West Zone, as well as in peripheral areas in the Baixada Fluminense (see the voting results in each electoral zone across the state here.)

Though it is difficult to pinpoint the reason for Castro’s appeal in the regions most affected by his deadly policies, Fransérgio Goulart believes voters in favelas and peripheral areas tend to elect extreme-right politicians due to the phenomenon of faith and prosperity theology common to the neo-Pentecostal evangelical churches which increasing numbers belong to.

“Ever since the arrival of neo-Pentecostalism in the favelas, [we have] the building of a more individualistic and meritocratic ideology, expressed in the Old Testament as an eye for an eye, tooth for a tooth. It’s not by chance that [the phrase] ‘a good criminal is a dead criminal’ has gathered strength and the election [had the outcome it did]. The terrorist State combined with the neo-Pentecostal church have strengthened this ideology, saying our own people as responsible for the violence and not the State.” — Fransérgio Goulart

A Machine for Violating Rights

On November 25, 2022, the joint operation by the Military Police and Civil Police in Complexo da Maré drove residents to despair. Starting at 4am, the operation was marked by aggressive action by the security forces, deaths, and violence towards residents.

The operation did not follow the ADPF 635 legal stipulations regarding start and end times, as reported by newspaper Maré de Notícias, and did not fulfill the ruling that ambulances be present when police action is carried out. The failure to follow these regulations “cost residents’ lives and the life of a police officer who was also shot in the operation,” reported the community newspaper. Maré de Notícias denounced:

“The Homicide Division (DH) did not carry out forensics in Renan’s case [one of the youth killed in the operation], just like the Civil Defense did not remove the body from the area, forcing the family to put the young man’s body in a wheelbarrow, take it to Avenida Brasil, and wait around for three hours for the body to be taken away. Following many complaints and liaising with the Prosecutor’s Office and other human rights institutions, the fire department confirmed the death, the 22nd Police Department recorded the incident, and the Civil Defense removed the body. The DH did not carry out forensics in the area or on the body, which hinders any possibility of investigation into today’s deaths in the region.”

The operation affected almost all 16 of Maré’s favelas, but “there was a concentration of very violent episodes in Nova Holanda and Parque União,” where there were a lot of serious complaints and reports of damage to property, home invasions, and damaged cars. In an interview with RioOnWatch, organizer João Silva* already predicted Castro’s re-election and return to Laranjeiras Palace, the Rio state government headquarters. Speaking days before the gubernatorial elections on October 2, 2022, he said: “The situation is kind of demotivating because looking at the favela context, my opinion is that Cláudio Castro will be re-elected. I think he’ll manage to validate this project of confrontation within and outside the favelas because people didn’t know who this Cláudio Castro character was before and still don’t really know. My mother didn’t know who the governor of Rio de Janeiro was. With Witzel’s impeachment, everything got kind of nebulous.”

A resident of the Jacarezinho favela, Silva believes Governor Cláudio Castro used public security as an election platform, since the operation took place during the electoral period.

“A lot of people there don’t like Castro, but I’m sure he’ll be back. He reinforces the discourse that [the Jacarezinho massacre] was important, that violence in the favela has reduced in some way or at least that the context changed. That after the massacre there weren’t as many people moving around the area selling drugs. Despite this moment and the [sale of drugs] having returned, the discourse remains. It sticks! I really hope it doesn’t happen, but I don’t think the opposition candidate [Marcelo Freixo] will win.” — João Silva

Demonstration in the Jacarezinho favela on May 7, 2021. Photo: Tatiane Mendes

The Jacarezinho Massacre was the most deadly in Rio de Janeiro’s history. On May 6, 2021, in broad daylight with the operation broadcast on TV, Rio de Janeiro Civil Police killed 27 people in the city’s Blackest favela. A police officer was also assassinated in Operation Exceptis—28 deaths in total. The violence of the operation was so intense it reached passengers on the subway line passing through Jacarezinho between the Maria da Graça and Triagem stations, with two passengers taken to the hospital with gunshot wounds.

João Silva recalls that when Governor Cláudio Castro went to the Jacarezinho favela following the massacre that kicked off the Integrated City project’s police occupation, he was met with resident demands that the State occupy the favela, not with police, but with sports courts and better social projects to generate jobs and foster sport in the community. So far, none of this has happened.

“Jacarezinho has a huge demand from the population for sport, leisure, and cultural spaces, as well as housing. The General Electric plot is enormous and abandoned, leaving various heavy metals inside the community, but this has yet to be resolved. The community wanted it to be turned into an Olympic Village. But with the Integrated City project it is being proposed that the plot become a new Military Police base. So, instead of coming in with sports and projects for the people, you’re going to create yet another Military Police base in a community already surrounded by Police City. It’s bizarre because it’s a block that literally looks out [with weapons] onto Jacarezinho and Manguinhos.” — João Silva

Silva adds:

“In Jacarezinho we have athletes that compete in national and international events, people who were put forward to take part in the Olympics. A lot of children and youth are getting into clubs through social projects, but the mission taken up by the state is… police, massacre.”

Another community organizer, Rosa do Carmo*, says Cláudio Castro was elected precisely by selling the optics of confrontation and despite little dialogue with people in the favelas.

“When he went to Jacarezinho, he had no answers. He basically spoke for half an hour, imposed his opinion, and when we asked him about ‘what he actually knew about living through a police operation,’ he looked at us almost mockingly and said that ‘yes, he knew.’ How does he know and why? Because one day he went to sing in Jacarezinho when the police were going in and he had to hide from a shootout? You see what he did? He was there saying he understood my pain, the complexity of my pain, being fully aware that this episode isn’t the same as a resident’s day-to-day life, but he used it as an example to defend the policy of death he calls public security. He used it to silence people who were showing him a real problem. And that’s it. There’s still no dialogue with Castro’s administration. We’ll have four more hard years of despair with [his new term].” — Rosa do Carmo

But while there’s a lack of hope in the hearts of some favela residents, in others there are still seeds of hope for better days—even if they don’t believe in a complete transformation.

Joaquim Lima*—pseudonym for yet another community organizer who prefers not to be named—experienced hunger in the middle of the coronavirus pandemic. He states that he “is still waiting for a thread of hope” that it’s possible to change things through electoral processes.

“We cannot lose hope… I have hope for some transformation. Has the dictatorship ended? For whom? We have an armored truck at our door. I don’t have any hope [for improvements in public security policy] anymore because I know they’ll keep this same policy. I just mentioned hope. I know it’s a contradiction but I think the electoral process and especially the political experience in the favelas evokes this. And that’s just it… at the same time that we have hope, we think nothing will change. There are a lot of mixed feelings.

But I believe in the idea of harm reduction. We’ve reached the absolute limit with the state of things and need to reduce the damage so we’re able to breathe. And if we breathe, there’s hope. I’ve seen so much pain. I think I speak from this place of pain. We should have [had the right to] stay protected at home, but we were in the streets during the Covid-19 pandemic because hunger is a very real thing. You feel it in the flesh that trembles with hunger. And the flesh that trembles and breathes is ours: whether it’s mine or my neighbor’s.” — Joaquim Lima

Military Police and Civil Police State Secretariats

In contrast with other states, Rio de Janeiro has not had a State Public Security Secretariat since 2019. The department was eliminated by then governor Wilson Witzel by way of decree nº 46.544 on January 1, 2019. The decree states: “The State Public Security Secretariat is extinct and will be succeeded for all legal matters by the Public Security Council’s Executive Secretariat, which is responsible for the gradual transition of the former secretariat’s functions to the Civil Police State Secretariat and the Military Police State Secretariat.”

Witzel’s main argument for eliminating the role was that it was being used as a political platform. Cláudio Castro, upon assuming the role of governor following Witzel’s impeachment, has maintained this structure, which continues the same in his second term as state governor.

*Some interviewees have been given pseudonyms for their protection.

About the author: Tatiana Lima is a journalist and popular communicator at heart. A black feminist, member of Complexo do Alemão’s Researchers in Movement Study Group, she is currently special reporter with RioOnWatch. A fair-skinned black woman, born and raised in a favela, Lima currently lives in Rio’s periphery and is a doctoral student at the Fluminense Federal University (UFF).

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