Panic in Brazil due to new serious cases of police violence

Public opinion in Brazil was shaken in early May this year by alleged new cases of police violence, with allegations of torture in the case of bodies found after a police operation in a favela and, above all, in the case of a man who died of asphyxiation inside the boot of an official police vehicle in the town of Umbauba. The Federal Highway Police (PRF) claimed that the agents used immobilisation techniques and weapons of low offensive potential in the face of the detainee’s strong aggressiveness at a police checkpoint.

The shootout in the favelas of the Complexo do Alemão on 4th May was so intense that the elite squad of the Rio de Janeiro Military Police ran out of ammunition in just two hours. It is noteworthy that the final result of the operation was 18 people dead.

According to police, the operation, which involved some 400 uniformed personnel, targeted a group of individuals suspected of car and bank robberies as well as attacks on police stations. Among the deceased were two women, some fifteen suspects and a policeman.

But various security experts, relatives of the victims and residents of the area questioned the police action as they considered it to be extremely violent. For example, one of the dead women was shot while driving her vehicle down a nearby avenue. The other died while police were removing barricades in the area, although uniformed officers deny that the projectile came from their weapons.

Called a “massacre” by many elected officials and community activists, the police raid has turned out to be the second deadliest in Rio’s history in a favela.

As a result of the events, the human rights organisation Human Rights Watch also expressed its dismay in a public statement. It is worth mentioning that Brazil has one of the police forces with the most fatalities in police custody and with the most police officers killed in the line of duty in the world. For example, in 2021 there were 6,100 fatalities in police operations, while 183 law enforcement officers were killed, according to the Violence Monitor project.

What is true is that this police operation has been the one that has generated the strongest public reactions in Rio de Janeiro, as explained by Geni, a study group on public security and violence at the Fluminense Federal University (UFF). And it is this foundation that believes that police operations lack effectiveness, are often motivated by a thirst for revenge and revel in total impunity.

In addition, there were two other police operations in the last 14 months that resulted in even more deaths. One police operation was in the favela of Jacarezinho in May 2021 – the deadliest in Rio de Janeiro, with 28 fatalities – and the second, in Vila Cruzeiro in May 2023, with 23 deaths.

The Rio police force assures that these actions are based on intelligence reports and are carried out in accordance with the law, justice and technical operational protocols.

But the reality is that the increase in street violence and the growing militarisation of public security operations are contributing to a very confusing situation. The convoluted institutional role of the Military Police and the increasingly important role of the Army demonstrate that, unlike what happens in developed countries, in Brazil the duties of national defence are dangerously mixed with those of maintaining domestic order.


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