SAO GONCALO, Brazil (Reuters) - Just before leaving her teaching job on the afternoon of May 17, Alessandra Mattos received a panicked voice message.
“Alessandra!” a relative said. “There’s been an accident with Brayan.”
She grabbed her things, flagged a motorcycle taxi and rushed to a slum in the Rio de Janeiro suburb of Sao Goncalo. There, dead in a pool of blood, lay Brayan Mattos dos Santos, the 19-year-old nephew she helped raise.
She tried to get closer, but a policeman blocked her advance. “It wasn’t me,” Mattos said the officer told her. “It wasn’t me.”
The “accident,” Mattos soon learned, was the sort of fate dreaded by families of young, dark-skinned men across South America’s most populous country.
Black and mixed-race youths like dos Santos long have been disproportionately represented among homicide victims in Brazil, the country with the world’s highest number of murders. Now, amid a crackdown on suspected criminals championed by President Jair Bolsonaro, they are increasingly dying at the hands of police.
No weapons, narcotics or other illegal materials were found on dos Santos, a car and motorcycle enthusiast who had recently begun driving for Uber. He appears, instead, to have been at the wrong place at the wrong time — near a street stall for illegal drugs just as a police raid went down.
His death, in a state where killings by police have climbed by 16% this year, according to government figures, is being investigated by Rio prosecutors.
The raid is one of many lethal operations that human rights activists, some Rio residents and opposition lawmakers see as part of a bloody and illegal campaign to clean up historically violent neighbourhoods across Latin America’s biggest country.
Emboldened by victories last year of far-right politicians with aggressive law-and-order agendas, Brazil’s police forces are surpassing their own longstanding reputations for being among the most violent in the world.
The slain include victims like dos Santos, who had no known criminal ties. In late September, hundreds gathered in northern Rio to grieve the death of an eight-year-old girl who was shot, according to bystanders, by a policeman who missed when aiming at a motorcyclist. Her death, one of several children allegedly shot by police this year, is still being investigated.
Two top commanders of Rio’s military and civil police forces, which together are responsible for security in the state, told Reuters that police have never received or issued orders to kill. Officers, rather, are finding themselves in more violent confrontations because of a nearly 50% increase in the number of raids, a response to higher crime.
“An officer never has the objective of killing,” said Fabio Barucke, operational head of the civil police. “But we have a responsibility to defend ourselves.”
Rio, a state of 17 million people that includes the seaside metropolis of the same name, has long been known as a hotbed of conflict between criminal gangs and sometimes trigger-happy police. Now, with Bolsonaro and a like-minded governor urging lawmen to get even tougher, tensions, violence and the death toll are mounting.
Bolsonaro is seeking to boost legal protections for police who kill on the job, proposing in a bill to lessen sentences for officers who shoot because of “excusable fear, surprise or violent emotion.” He has said criminals should “die like cockroaches.”
Wilson Witzel, Rio’s governor, has ordered snipers to fire on suspects from helicopters. Witzel recently told foreign journalists that suspects, when confronted by police, should “surrender or die.”
To some in the political opposition, the rhetoric of Brazil’s new leaders is reminiscent of Rodrigo Duterte, the Philippine president whose offensive against drug dealers has led to thousands of killings by police.
“The police feel authorized to kill,” said Marcelo Freixo, a congressman from Rio and veteran researcher on violence and organised crime. “The discourse stimulates violence.”
Reuters found no evidence that Bolsonaro, Witzel or other right-wing leaders elected in a wave of populist protest last year have ordered police to break laws or methodically kill criminal suspects. Bolsonaro’s justice minister, Sergio Moro, told Reuters that the administration doesn’t advocate police violence.
“Confrontations between police and criminals are always undesirable,” he said in an interview in Brasilia, the capital. “You don’t resolve public security with confrontations, but with intelligence, strategy, due process and state presence.”
Between January and August 2019, Rio police killed 1,249 people, according to official figures, nearly a fifth more than a year ago. The rate amounts to 5 people per day, more for the period than any since the state began keeping its current database in 2003. By contrast, 14 police officers have died in operations this year, down from 24 killed on duty between January and August 2018.
Recent nationwide figures aren’t available, but killings by police have also climbed in Sao Paulo, Brazil’s most populous state, and other major urban areas.
Like dos Santos, most victims of police killings are dark-skinned, a reflection of the socioeconomic and racial makeup of poor neighbourhoods where most drug traffickers and other criminal gangs operate. Although whites make up half the population in Rio, they accounted for 12% of those killed by police early this year, according to government data obtained by Reuters via a freedom of information request.
It’s impossible to calculate how many of the victims are believed to have been innocent bystanders. Human-rights activists, however, say they believe that the surge in killings indicates some police are out to kill, regardless of any evidence or the risk of collateral damage.
“These numbers aren’t those of a few murders,” said Freixo, the congressman. “They are numbers of execution, of extermination.”
Officially, many of the deaths in police operations are attributed to “resistance” by suspects. Police, wary of heavily armed gangs, argue they have little choice but to shoot in self defence, especially in labyrinthine slums where gangs can easily ambush them.
But local and international activists have for decades decried excessive force and outright executions by police.
The problem predates Bolsonaro.
After a 2003 visit to Brazil, a special rapporteur for the United Nations Commission on Human Rights wrote that she was “overwhelmed with information about human rights violations.” She criticized Brazil’s government, especially some state administrations, because they “fail to fully accept the existence of extrajudicial and summary executions.”
In early September, Michelle Bachelet, a former Chilean president who is now the U.N.’s High Commissioner for Human Rights, criticized Brazil for “discourse legitimising summary executions.” In response, Bolsonaro criticized Bachelet for pursuing the agenda “of criminals” and “attacking our valiant police.”
Dos Santos died at the hands of Rio’s 7th Military Police Battalion, the state’s most lethal. The unit, one of 39 battalions in Rio, since 2003 has killed 1,055 people. Through August, 137 civilians this year have died in operations involving the 7th, 35 more than any other battalion in the state.
The 7th operates “in very complex geography,” said Rogerio Figueredo, commander of Rio’s military police force. “There are various communities with several criminal factions all disputing the territory.”
According to a police report reviewed by Reuters, dos Santos’ death may have been accidental. Officers, the report said, returned fire after being shot at by suspects. Dos Santos died because of “intervention by a state agent.”
To understand his killing and the recent rise in the body count, Reuters spoke to police and government officials, security experts, human rights researchers, and friends and family of dos Santos. The picture that emerges, including exclusive details about the May raid in Sao Goncalo, is that of an entrenched conflict worsening amid the law-and-order agenda of a new populist leadership.
The very structure of Brazilian police forces has long been controversial.
After a two-decade military dictatorship that ended in the 1980s, a new constitution gave responsibility for most law enforcement to each of Brazil’s 26 states. Rather than reinvent their forces, the states kept a military format for police charged with everyday law enforcement.
A “civil police” force were made responsible for investigations and working with prosecutors. But the beat cops and routine patrols that most Brazilians encounter still operate within a highly regimented, militaristic structure.
As a result, everything from the fortresslike architecture of police stations to the language used by officers still reflects a barracks mentality. Training is often phrased in terms of “us” against “them.” Criminals are “the enemy.”
“The mold is that of the military,” said Fernando Salema, a former commander of the 7th battalion who is now a lawmaker, from Bolsonaro’s party, in the Rio state assembly. “We inherited that culture.”
That culture is often in sharp relief in Rio.
Clashes are as much a part of the landscape as its verdant hillsides and dramatic juxtaposition of rich and poor. Shootouts and the hum of police helicopters are a daily reality for many in a state where haphazard planning led slums and wealthy neighbourhoods to co-exist in a dense urban tangle.
Sao Goncalo, a hardscrabble suburb across the bay that carves Rio’s coastline, in recent decades became one of the state’s most violent areas. Per capita income, about $4,000 a year, is similar to that of El Salvador and less than a third the level in the city of Rio.
Once an industrial centre, Sao Goncalo has increasingly become a base for criminal gangs who smuggle drugs and weapons through the bay and hijack nearby highway cargo. It’s also one of many areas around Rio where so-called “militias,” violent criminal enterprises made up of retired and off-duty police, control extortion rackets and other illegal ventures.
In 2011, Patricia Acioli, a state judge who jailed dozens of corrupt Sao Goncalo police, was shot 21 times outside her home. Eleven officers from the 7th, including its chief, were convicted of planning and executing the murder.
“Sao Goncalo is a giant favela,” or slum, said another recent commander of the 7th. The officer, who now leads another battalion and spoke on condition of anonymity, said crime is so common it seeps into the force. “It has a corrupt population, and the officers come from the same.”
Earlier this decade, as Rio prepared to host the 2014 World Cup and 2016 Olympics, locals in Sao Goncalo complained yet more criminals were moving in because of a police cleanup near beaches, hotels and sporting venues. When a deep recession took root shortly thereafter, crime worsened across Brazil. In 2017, a record 64,000 murders were reported nationwide, more than in any other country.
Already exasperated with the downturn and a far-reaching corruption scandal, voters swung sharply right, electing Bolsonaro and other populist conservatives last year. A former fringe congressman with little record as a lawmaker, Bolsonaro was best known for incendiary comments, including a 2015 quip in which he said police “should kill more.”
Witzel, a former judge, was unfamiliar to most of Rio’s electorate until he too outmanoeuvred veteran rivals with promises to purge crime.
After taking office in January, the two politicians embraced their law-and-order mandate. Witzel rode along with rifle-wielding police in a helicopter and posted the video online, promising to “bring peace back.” In an opinion piece in a local newspaper, he said the surge in police killings “isn’t difficult to justify.”
Some police say they felt invigorated. “It’s what we want to hear,” Salema, the former commander turned assemblyman, told Reuters.
On Salema’s old beat, police this year began struggling with an internecine war within the local branch of the Comando Vermelho, or CV, one of Brazil’s most powerful drug gangs. After one CV boss in April killed a rival, fighting between factions spilled onto the streets. Gun battles erupted across Sao Goncalo, and schools, hospitals and bus routes shut down.
The violence soon spread to other parts of Rio, prompting operations by police seeking to track down those responsible. In Mare, a slum near Rio’s international airport, a police helicopter on May 6 flew overhead and began shooting, according to local residents.
By the end of the operation, police had killed eight suspects, including four who had been surrounded after running into a home. A resident of the home told state prosecutors she hid in another room and heard the confrontation. A prosecutor, speaking on condition of anonymity, gave Reuters details of her account.
When police entered, the resident told prosecutors, two of the men gave up. But the officers rejected their surrender, according to the resident, replying, “our order is to kill.”
The police then shot the two men and, finding the other two suspects on the roof, shot them, too. Before a forensics team could arrive, the resident told prosecutors, the police dragged the four bodies outside.
The officers, the prosecutor said, told investigators they only fired after being shot at. Rio’s civil police force, which ordered and conducted the operation, said it is still carrying out its own investigation and couldn’t comment on specifics of the raid.
Eleven days later, in Sao Goncalo, officers from the 7th battalion conducted the raid that killed dos Santos. As part of their efforts to curb gang activity, police had targeted a point of sale for drugs in the Sao Goncalo slum of Chumbada.
Around 4:40 p.m., according to the police report reviewed by Reuters, at least four officers neared the drug stall and split into two teams. One team, Captain Renato de Souza and Sargent Andre Ricardo Mendes, took one path toward the stall. A second, Corporal Erik Ribeiro and Corporal Alex Dias, took another.
Reuters was unable to confirm the details of the police report independently. Police officials declined a request to speak with the officers.
As the operation got underway, dos Santos had gone to a shop in Chumbada to buy clothes for a party that evening, according to Mattos, his aunt. She showed Reuters a credit card receipt for the purchase, which she said came from dos Santos’ telephone, valued at 217.79 reais, or about $53.
“It’s expensive here,” dos Santos texted a friend in a message, seen by Reuters, about 10 minutes before the raid began.
According to statements the officers gave civil police investigators, Ribeiro and Dias were approaching the stall when gunfire burst from a group of about six people. It isn’t clear from the report who within that group is alleged to have fired.
The officers, carrying high-caliber rifles made by Imbel, a Brazilian state-owned manufacturer of military weaponry, said they returned fire. Ribeiro fired 23 times, Dias 31.
During the firefight, Ribeiro told investigators, one person fell to the ground “near a shop.” Two others fled on a Honda motorcycle; several more escaped on foot. Another man, his shirt stained by a bullet wound in the shoulder, put his hands up and dropped to the ground.
Ribeiro and Dias approached the drug stall as the other two officers pursued the motorcycle. The injured man, still prone and unarmed, told police he had gone there to buy marijuana. Several meters beyond the stall, on a residential street, lay dos Santos.
Renato Perez, a civil police chief in Sao Goncalo with knowledge of the raid, told Reuters he suspected dos Santos had gone there to buy marijuana. He offered no evidence or documentation to support that claim. Mattos, the aunt, denied the assertion, saying her nephew didn’t use drugs.
“They always have to invent something,” she said.
Mendes and de Souza, the officers who chased the motorcycle, caught up with the two suspects on a nearby street. According to the police report, one of the men carried 65.2 grams of marijuana and a 9 mm pistol with two bullets and its serial number scraped off. The other carried 49.7 grams of cocaine and a walkie-talkie.
The two were detained and charged with resisting arrest and possession of narcotics. They are awaiting trial, according to Rio’s public defenders’ office and state court filings. No other suspects were apprehended and no other weapons were found.
Danielle Costa, the civil police investigator who authored the report, concluded the officers had acted legitimately. They had “no other option,” she wrote, but to “use their firearms, in legitimate defence and to overcome resistance posed by lawbreakers.”
The civil police declined to make Costa available for an interview.
State prosecutors are probing the operation.
Andrea Amin, a Rio prosecutor who investigates police killings, in an interview told Reuters the law-and-order rhetoric risks legitimising excessive force and a lack of due process. “A rise in deaths can’t be seen as a successful public security policy,” she said.
Additional reporting by Anthony Boadle in Brasilia and Fabio Teixeira in Rio de Janeiro. Editing by Paulo Prada