Rio de Janeiro, Brazil – Monica Cunha felt she had to speak out. That’s why the activist joined a group of other mothers – all of whom lost children to Brazilian state violence over the past several years – to denounce the brutality of Rio de Janeiro’s most lethal police operation on record.
“We’re disgusted,” said Cunha, who still lives with the scars of losing her son in a police raid 15 years ago, about the violence in Jacarezinho favela last week. “Not in 15 years have I seen a protest on this scale for the killings of teenagers. These boys are human; they have a name and surname. We’re saying no to these killings.”
Holding banners reading, “Stop killing us!”, the mothers were among a crowd of about 100 activists who rallied at the entrance to Jacarezinho on Friday morning. Less than 24 hours earlier, the impoverished and sprawling favela had awakened to pops of gunfire.
Dozens of civil and federal police officers had stormed into the North Zone slum in an operation they said targeted drug traffickers. Residents reported feeling terrorised and trapped as grenades exploded on the streets and helicopters circled above their red-brick homes during an hours-long operation that resulted in 28 deaths – mostly young men.
Despite the raging COVID-19 pandemic, at nightfall on Friday thousands of human rights activists and youth took the metro to Jacarezinho, some 18km (11 miles) from Rio’s iconic Copacabana beach, to denounce the violence and demand an end to police impunity. The crowded streets were illuminated by candles. “Stop the massacre in favelas!” the crowd shouted.
After identifying a 48-year-old police officer killed during the operation, on Saturday Rio police publicly released the identities of the other 27 people killed. Rio de Janeiro state civil police and the state’s public ministry, the body responsible for police oversight, said the operation took place “without errors” after intelligence investigations revealed children and teenagers were being recruited to join the Comando Vermelho drug faction that dominates the favela.
The civil police force said in a note on Thursday that it had orders to imprison 21 “suspected criminals”.
The Human Rights Commission of Rio de Janeiro State (OAB-RJ), an independent and judiciary commission, told Al Jazeera that families from the favela had identified the bodies of 16 people killed during the police raid on Friday, before the police revealed the names of those killed. They were men aged between 18 and 34.
Commission President Alvaro Quintao said more bodies had arrived late on Friday afternoon.
“The police imprisoned and shot dead six young men on the list of suspects, but at least 13 of those killed were not related to the original investigation,” Quintao said. “We can already say for sure that not all were criminals. Some on the list had committed prior crimes but had already served a sentence.”
Photographs taken by residents and shared with Al Jazeera showed the police carrying away bodies. The office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights said on Friday that it had received “worrying reports that after the events, the police did not take steps to preserve evidence at the crime scene, which could hinder investigations into this lethal operation”.
Police have denied any wrongdoing or carrying out any “execution-style killings” – as human rights groups have alleged – during the operation in Jacarezinho. They say they were acting in self-defence.
Brazilian government officials, including Vice President Hamilton Mourao, have also insisted those killed were “all criminals” – without providing any evidence or detailing the crimes they allegedly committed. “Unfortunately, these drug trafficking gangs are real narco-guerillas, they have control over certain areas,” Mourao said on Friday.
Brazilian President Jair Bolsonaro, a former army captain who said last year that criminals should “die like cockroaches”, on Friday posted an image on social media of five rifles, a submachine gun, two shotguns and six grenades seized in the raid. He said anyone who defends criminals is a “vagabond”.
But residents, human rights activists and criminal lawyers say the delay in divulging the names of the victims suggested that the police were aware that not all those killed were criminals.
“There is no death penalty in Brazil. Even if they were suspects, the police can’t decide who lives and who dies. They still need to be judged,” said Renata Sousa, a deputy from the legislative assembly of Rio de Janeiro state (Alerj) who works on a special commission investigating extreme poverty.
The state’s Public Affairs Ministry said in a note on Thursday night that it would investigate any complaints of abuse and start a criminal investigation through the Rio de Janeiro prosecutor’s office. But the UN has demanded an independent investigation and criticised the “unnecessary and disproportionate” use of force in Rio police operations.
Bruno Fernandes, a criminal lawyer and professor at the State University of Rio de Janeiro, told Al Jazeera that the focus of the investigations is likely to be the context of the operations and which police officers were involved in the deaths.
Fernandes said deaths during police operations are considered justified if police or civilian lives are in imminent danger. But he said shooting people who are unarmed, or anyone who has not opened fire, is illegal.
Favela residents and local media have said many of those killed were trying to escape, were unarmed, had tried to surrender and were shot inside homes.
“Lots of residents said that some of the young men tried to negotiate and turn themselves in, but were shot anyway. Others were taken into families’ homes and shot. There were pools of blood. It was a massacre,” Sousa said.
Brazilian Supreme Court Judge Edson Fachin has also raised concerns about the violence.
In a letter to the public ministry director on Friday, Fachin said a video of the police operation appeared to show an “arbitrary execution”. The judge said he needs to remain informed of the investigation so that those responsible can be held accountable.
The deadly raid took place despite a decision by Fachin in June 2020, banning police operations in favelas during the COVID-19 pandemic. The prohibition includes a ban on the use of helicopters unless in “absolutely exceptional circumstances”.
According to a report from Ceni, a research group at Fluminense Federal University (UFF), favela raids plummeted by 70 percent in the first two months after Fachin’s order, but soared again in October.
Activists have blamed Rio de Janeiro state Governor Claudio Castro, who took office that month, for the increase after he appointed a new commissioner of Rio’s civil police. Allan Turnowski, in one of his first interviews, said he would not respect the ban and defended the use of tanks in the favelas.
For residents and activists, the bloody events in Jacarezinho are just one example of countless “invisible” deaths from raids by Rio’s police force – one of the most violent in the world.
Fogo Cruz, a tech company monitoring police violence, reported that more than 1,000 people were killed in 275 police raids in Rio de Janeiro state over the past five years. The Institute of Public Security, a state research body, also found that one death occurred as a result of police confrontations in the state every 10 hours since 1998, but that police are rarely held accountable.
A 2015 Amnesty International report that analysed 220 investigations into police killings in 2011 in Rio de Janeiro state found that 183 of those probes were still pending four years later.
Still, residents and activists hope that international pressure might provide justice for the young men’s families in Jacarezinho – and provide steps to confront Rio’s chronic violence and public security crisis.
“How can an operation that ends in the massacre of 28 people be considered a success,” asked Cunha, the local activist.