Another fire is raging in Brazil — in Rio’s favelas

A police officer aims his weapon during a protest after student Gabriel Pereira Alves was killed by a stray bullet on his way to school in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil on Aug. 9. (Leo Correa/AP)
A police officer aims his weapon during a protest after student Gabriel Pereira Alves was killed by a stray bullet on his way to school in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil on Aug. 9. (Leo Correa/AP)

As the fires rage in Brazil’s Amazon, another fire burning in Brazil has received much less attention: the dramatic rise in police brutality against Rio de Janeiro’s “favelas”, or poor neighborhoods, where nearly a quarter of the city’s population resides. Since Brazilian President Jair Bolsonaro and his ally Rio Governor Wilson Witzel took office in January, a record 1,075 Rio de Janeiro residents have been killed by the police, accounting for 40 percent of all violent deaths in metropolitan Rio de Janeiro.

Just this week, a bricklayer was shot in the head by police after being mistaken for a drug trafficker during a policing operation in the Vila Kennedy favela. On the very same day, in the well-known Cidade de Deus (City of God) favela, residents videotaped the chaos ensuing after an armored vehicle plowed through shacks, as crowds screamed that children had been sleeping inside. This comes on the heels of another video by residents documenting what appeared to be a grenade being dropped from a police helicopter while heavily armed military police invaded the area in armored vehicles.

While the cause of Amazon’s blazes is still in dispute, the fires burning in Rio’s favelas are a direct result of Witzel’s harsh public security policies, which advocate constant and increasingly deadly invasions by heavily armed police into poor, mostly black and brown residential neighborhoods controlled by drug gangs. “If we don’t kill those armed with a rifle, they will kill innocent people”, claimed Witzel on Aug. 16 in defense of the bloodshed. He blamed activists for the deaths: “It’s on your backs, defenders of human rights, these cadavers are not in my lap, but in your laps, who don’t let the police do what needs to be done”. In June, he claimed he should have the right to launch missiles into Cidade de Deus to address the “state of terrorism” caused by local narco-traffickers.

While heavy-handed “mano-dura” policing that emphasizes direct and brutal confrontations with drug traffickers is not new to Rio, homicides by the city’s police in July of this year were the highest recorded in one month in 21 years. The trend is unmistakable.

But homicides only tell one piece of the story. Schools have been closed for 50 extra days this year in Cidade de Deus, a local leader told me. When children cannot get to school and parents cannot get to work safely, families slide into poverty, workers find it difficult to hold on to jobs, and people experience more mental and physical health problems. In fact, even before the latest outbreak of police violence, my colleagues and I surveyed hundreds of local residents in Cidade de Deus and found that more than 3 out of 4 households reported at least one mental or physical problem, including fear, despair, stress, high blood pressure and heart attacks.

There are also indirect deaths caused from brutal police operations: Last month, a father in Cidade de Deus was barred from taking his dying infant to the emergency room by police during an active operation. His son did not survive.

There is, unfortunately but perhaps not surprisingly, much support for extreme policing measures in Rio’s favelas. Wealthier (and whiter) urban residents, faced with chronic insecurity, believe that harsh interventions into favelas will curb armed drug gangs and restore a sense of safety. However, the long history of urban militarism across Latin America demonstrates that the inverse is true: Strong-arm policing actually pressures gangs to take up even more arms in self-defense. As a result, violence increases, people lose trust in police and the government, everyday life is thrown into chaos, and the urban fabric is unraveled.

We should all be concerned about the fires roaring in the Amazon, spreading miles of smoke and destroying livestock, communities and much-needed forestation. But we should not ignore the direct and intentional destruction of human lives and livelihoods executed by Witzel, with support from Bolsonaro.

As the violence rises, it is time for the world to take notice and stand with Rio de Janeiro’s activists against police violence. The Human Rights Commission of the Rio Legislative Assembly recently denounced Witzel’s security policies to the United Nations and the Organization of American States. Meanwhile, favela residents have taken to the streets and to social media in protest. Brazil has long had its eyes on becoming a superpower. The international community — particularly the Group of Seven, the United Nations, the U.S. government and any other body or country giving Brazil aid and support — must send a clear message to Bolsonaro and Witzel that their violent and destructive vision for Brazil’s growth is unacceptable. And if the governor is genuine in his commitment to curbing drug trafficking, he’d do much better strengthening education, employment and development in favelas, rather than more shootouts.

Anjuli Fahlberg is a full-time lecturer in the Department of Sociology at Tufts University.

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