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

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Killings by police in Brazil’s Rio de Janeiro nearly doubled in January 2019 when compared to the previous month — suggesting that President Jair Bolsonaro’s and Governor Wilson Witzel’s promises of lethal action against criminal elements have been kept.

On February 22, Brazil’s Institute for Public Security said police killed 160 people in January, an 82 percent increase over December, Estadão reported. The alarming number of deaths in clashes with police coincides with the first month of Bolsonaro’s and Witzel’s terms. Both took office on January 1 and promised to implement shoot-to-kill policing tactics.

It was the second highest number of killings for the month of January since 1998.

Alongside this sharp spike in police killings, street crime such as muggings and robberies on public transport hit its highest level since 1991, with 11,230 cases reported.

This violence has continued unabated into February. One operation by military police in the communities of Morro do Fallet and Fogueteiro on February 8 saw 15 people killed in suspicious circumstances.

SEE ALSO: InDepth Coverage of Homicides

Families of the victims have alleged that a number of the young men were rounded up inside a house and massacred.

Others have filed complaints with public defenders saying that some of the victims were shot in the legs to prevent them from running away and then stabbed to death.

However, when asked about the operation in Morro do Fallet, Witzel dismissed the controversy and praised the actions by the military police.

“They work to defend us all. What happened in Morro do Fallet-Fogueteiro was a legitimate action by the military police,” he said.

Brazil’s Attorney General’s Office has opened an investigation into the case.

InSight Crime Analysis

In the run-up to Bolsonaro taking over the presidency, a few seemingly moderate cabinet picks led to hopes that he would temper his pledge to give police a license to kill.

But there was no sign of any wavering from Witzel, a former marine and hardliner who framed his and Bolsonaro’s fight against organized crime as a war against terrorists.

The police, who were staunchly behind Witzel’s candidacy for governor of Rio de Janeiro state, have recently spoken out about feeling unfettered and able to act as they see fit. One colonel in Rio’s military police told the press that “this atmosphere, created by a more permissive discourse (from officials), will lead to an increase in lethality.”

And while some hoped that Minister of Justice and Public Safety Sergio Moro would be a voice of restraint, his anti-crime proposals have actually broadened the circumstances in which police can claim to have acted in self-defense.

This harsh crackdown on crime has also been accompanied by the targeting of politicians who have spoken out against these heavy-handed tactics. The March 2018 murder of councilwoman and activist Marielle Franco remains unsolved, but her slaying has been linked to her outspoken criticism of a security crackdown in Rio.

Franco’s political mentor and a congressman from Rio, Jean Wyllys, fled Brazil in late January after receiving death threats.

Given Witzel’s sweeping victory in last year’s election, and the alignment between state and federal security policies, it seems these lethal confrontations are only set to continue.

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