Favela Lives Don’t Matter in Brazil

. May 23, 2020
favela lives matter brazil rio de janeiro Police operation at the Nova Holanda favela, in Rio de Janeiro. Photo: Tomaz Silva/ABr

Fourteen-year-old João Pedro was playing at his cousin’s home in the favela complex of Salgueiro — in São Gonçalo, a low-income municipality on the outskirts of Rio de Janeiro — when a bullet hit him in the stomach during a  police operation in the favela. Cops stormed the house and carried his body into a helicopter, without giving any information to — or getting authorization from — any member of the boy’s family. His whereabouts would only be known by his father, 40-year-old informal worker Nelson Pinto, 17 long hours later. But it would be too late. João Pedro’s dead body was lying lifeless in a coroner’s office bed.


cops&#8217; first version of the events said that they reacted to a shooting started by criminals, but the police have since issued a statement admitting that João Pedro is innocent and has no ties to organized crime whatsoever. A forensic report found that the bullet which killed him is of the same caliber used by the police — and three officers involved in the operation were put on <a href="">temporary leave</a>.</p> <p>While shocking, João Pedro&#8217;s case is hardly an outlier. Young males living in favelas —&nbsp;especially <em>black</em> young males&nbsp;—&nbsp;are often the victims of a lethal force: the Rio de Janeiro Military Police. With the blessing of the federal government and the state governor, cops have taken a shoot-first-ask-later policy to new heights. In 2019 alone, 1,814 police killings were officially recorded, an all-time record.</p> <p>As someone who lives in the favela and as a social activist, I have seen enough cases like João Pedro&#8217;s to stop calling it a &#8220;fatality&#8221; and started referring to the killing of black youths as a &#8220;designed project.&#8221; How come the police manage to apprehend large quantities of cash or guns in high-income areas without ever shooting a single bullet — but when operations are in favelas, innocents are so often victimized? We only see the police using intelligence tactics when money and power are involved. For peripheral populations, brute force is the only modus operandi.</p> <p>Meanwhile, the federal government tries to protect officers who kill in the line of duty in cases of “excusable fear, surprise or violent emotion.” Many organizations have called it a de facto license to kill.</p> <h2>Violence in the favela: a deliberate effort</h2> <p>Data from the State&#8217;s Public Defender&#8217;s Office shows that, between August 2018 and May 2019, there were at least 931 reports of police brutality — both&nbsp;physical and psychological —, an average of three cases of torture per day. And that is not even counting for the massive underreporting, as victims of the police often silence themselves for fear of retaliation. In most cases, the violations were perpetrated by police officers at the moment of an arrest. And the victims fit the same profile: young, poorly-educated black males.</p> <p>According to public defender Fábio Amado, who commented on the report to news agency <em>Estado</em>, the numbers show a &#8220;naturalization&#8221; of torture as a common resort. Most of the victims who came forward to cite kicks and punches as the most common form of violence —&nbsp;followed by death threats and rifle butts.</p> <p>For Rio de Janeiro Governor Wilson Witzel, however, police brutality is not a problem —&nbsp;but rather <em>the</em> way to fight criminals. When naming a new State Police Chief, on January 3, 2019, the governor — who had promised to &#8220;dig graves&#8221; in a crackdown on gangs —&nbsp;said Rio needs its own version of the Guantanamo Bay Prison, a facility <a href="">described</a> by Human Rights Watch as a &#8220;symbol of torture, rendition, and indefinite detention without charge or trial.&#8221;&nbsp;</p> <p>&#8220;Those holding rifles in their hands are terrorists&nbsp;and should be treated as such. An antiterror law would impose 50-year sentences in prisons away from civilization. We need our own Guantanamo,&#8221; he said.</p> <p>As Brazil marches towards becoming the world&#8217;s Covid-19 epicenter, actions to control the spread of the pandemic in favelas remain scarce. In São Paulo, residents of the Paraisópolis community have themselves <a href="">hired health professionals</a> to compensate for the lack of support from authorities. Not even the worst pandemic in a century is capable of raising public officials&#8217; awareness about the conditions of millions of people living in the favelas.</p> <p>Not even the pandemic has slowed the police down. In April 2020, operations rose 28 percent — and police killings were up 58 percent. And while João Pedro&#8217;s killing is under investigation and the officers responsible for it face prosecution for executing the boy and evidence tampering, history shows that we should not keep our hopes up that the police will thoroughly investigate its own ranks. The logic of the status quo tends to sweep the dirt under the rug every time.</p> <p>Many artists and sectors of society are trying to raise the pressure, but it is more likely than not that João Pedro becomes just another number — as so many others have before him.

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Bruno Rico

Bruno Rico is a writer, entrepreneur, and an activist for social and racial causes in Brazil. He lives in Rio de Janeiro.

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