Death From Above: The Use of Police Helicopters in Rio de Janeiro

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Rio de Janeiro police are increasingly using helicopters to fire on suspected criminals in what is another representation of the governor’s hardline crime policies.

A recent report by Globo has highlighted the increased use of the “caveirão voador” (flying skull) by Rio police. The caveirão voador is the nickname given to armored helicopters used by the police for monitoring and increasingly, as airborne platforms to fire into favelas.

Helicopters have been used 86 times in the past year, a more than 200 percent increase over 2017. A large portion of these flights, 38 percent, occurred in the north of the city, mainly focusing on the favelas of Maré and Pedreira. Another major area targeted was the Western Zone of the city, accounting for 25 percent of the flights.

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On June 20, 2018, a stray bullet killed a teenager during a police raid. While a police investigation concluded that the fatal shot did not come from the helicopter in use at the time, the state secretary of security issued an order prohibiting police from firing from helicopters.

The ban was later lifted and eyewitnesses and local non-governmental organizations state that the practice continues. In the first three months of 2019, there were at least seven instances of police helicopters firing into neighborhoods.

InSight Crime Analysis

Past use of the helicopters as observation platforms could be defended as part of coordinated police action. But their current use points to them being used to shoot suspects rather than bring them to justice. The risk of killing local citizens also rises significantly, especially as snipers are less accurate when firing from moving helicopters.

Local residents have become used to firefights between local gangs and police officers but the helicopters create another dimension of fear. One resident told Brazilian investigative news publication, Pública, that, because of the helicopters, there is “nowhere to hide, [I] could only duck down and pray. With this flying skull, [I feel] like I’m in a jungle and they are hunting beasts. I feel like an animal trapped in my own home.”

SEE ALSO: Police Exercise License to Kill in Brazil’s Rio de Janeiro

The increased use of the helicopter is only one facet of a “tough on crime” approach favored by both President Jair Bolsonaro and the right-wing governor of Rio, Wilson Witzel. In the past, Witzel has advocated for a “shoot on sight” policy for criminals seen carrying weapons.

In March, Witzel confirmed that police were utilizing sniper rifles to fire from the helicopters and stated that the increasing number of police killings did not concern him. Witzel was criticized for tweeting a video of himself accompanying Rio police on an aerial operation. During that video, police officers were seen firing from the aircraft, which was roundly denounced as illegal by government officials, community leaders and lawyers.

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