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By Cormac Whitney-Low In partnership with RioOnWatch

RIO DE JANEIRO BRAZIL – As the new coronavirus has swept Brazil, residents of Rio de Janeiro’s favelas experienced new spikes in a long history of police violence in April and May. In solidarity with the global Black Lives Matter movement, Brazilians across the country responded by taking to the streets to protest against structural racism and police violence.

During the same period, an ongoing legal challenge against police violence in Rio’s favelas produced a number of critical decisions in Brazil’s Supreme Court (STF) which saved lives in recent weeks, according to researchers. The lawsuit is known as the ADPF das Favelas, and representatives of the coalition behind it discussed their efforts at a June 25 online panel.


An Upward Trend in Police Killings

Official yearly totals of killings by police and other government officers in the state of Rio have been on an upward trend since 2013, when police were responsible for around 13 percent of the state’s homicides. In 2019, police killed 1,814 people under newly elected governor Wilson Witzel, who told police to “aim at the little heads” of criminal offenders and “fire.” Police killings accounted for almost 40 percent of homicides in the state that year. In the first half of 2019, 80 percent of people killed by police in the state of Rio were black or brown.

In April and through May 19th, police killings exceeded totals for the same months in 2019. May 2020 was also marked by a series of police killings of teenagers, including 14-year-old João Pedro Mattos Pinho in São Gonçalo and an operation which killed 13 people in Complexo do Alemão. Similar police operations had been regularly interrupting community Covid-19 relief efforts. “Now is the time to take care of people in need of basic food supplies,” said Eliene Vieira, an activist with Mothers of Manguinhos, “not for taking advantage of this time when everyone is inside their homes to [show off] military power.” Her collective is one of numerous networks of mothers who have lost their children to police violence in Rio.

Source: Instituto de Segurança Pública. Text: Historical Series for the Death Rate from Intercession by State Agents (per 100 thousand/inhabitants) in the State of Rio de Janeiro, from 1991 to 2019
Source: Instituto de Segurança Pública. Text: Historical Series for the Death Rate from Actions by State Agents (per 100 thousand/inhabitants) in the State of Rio de Janeiro, from 1991 to 2019

A Landmark Legal Challenge

In 2019, human rights lawyers partnered with a coalition of civil society groups to legally challenge the security policies of newly elected Rio governor Witzel with a Claim of Noncompliance with a Fundamental Precept (ADPF), an allegation that a government body has violated a fundamental element of the Brazilian Constitution.

This ADPF, number 635, recognises favela collectives as amici curiae (collaborators with the court based on their special expertise). Favela-based movements including the Network of Communities and Movements Against Violence, Coletivo Papo Reto, Redes da Maré, Coletivo Fala Akari, Mothers of Manguinhos, and the Right to Memory and Racial Justice Initiative are the first favela-based groups in history to participate in a lawsuit against the state of Rio de Janeiro in Brazil’s Supreme Court.

The subject of the lawsuit is “excessive and growing police lethality” in the state of Rio de Janeiro, “directed, above all, against the black and poor population of favelas.” The lawsuit calls for measures such as limiting police operations in the proximity of schools, day care and health centers, reducing sweeping warrants for forced police entry into homes, prohibiting shooting downward into residential areas from helicopters, ensuring first aid for people injured in police operations, preserving crime scenes after operations, improving external control over police actions by the state public prosecutor, and an end to government encouragement of police violence.

“When the [police] operations happen, the first to be hit [with bullets] are the children,” said Vieira, in reference to the increased threat because they cannot go to school during the pandemic. Consequently, activist Renata Trajano of Coletivo Papo Reto called for the Supreme Court to approve the ADPF das Favelas so that “young people can sit in the alley by their houses and have a chat […] without having to have a gun aimed at their heads the whole time.”

Photo: Luna Costa. Text: Black Lives Matter
Photo: Luna Costa. Text: Black Lives Matter

Impacts of the ADPF das Favelas

On April 17, Supreme Court Justice Edson Fachin voted in favor of enforcing several of the ADPF das Favelas’ petitions, but police violence continued. Analysis by the Network of Security Observatories (ROS) found that Rio police killed 57.9 percent more people in April 2020 than they did in April 2019, and by May 19, the police had killed 16.7% more people than they did in the same period in 2019.

Consequently, on June 5 Fachin granted an emergency temporary order, reserved for cases where rights are in immediate and serious danger, requested by the ADPF das Favelas team. The order suspended police operations in Rio’s favelas for the duration of the pandemic except in “absolutely exceptional” circumstances. Fachin made explicit reference to the death of Mattos Pinho: “nothing justifies a 14-year-old child being shot at more than 70 times. That fact alone indicates that given the current norms, nothing will be done to diminish police lethality, a state of affairs that in no way respects the Constitution.”

As a result, police killings in Rio fell from 129 in May to 34 in June. Between June 5 and June 19, there was a 75.5% reduction in deaths during police operations in comparison with averages for the same period between 2007 and 2019, according to analysis by gunfire watchdog platform Fogo Cruzado and the Group for the Study of New Illegalities at Fluminense Federal University (UFF). These reductions amount to 18 lives being saved in just 15 days, around 9 deaths per week. The groups estimate that if the ban on police operations were extended for a full year, around 468 lives would be saved.

Many behind the ADPF emphasize that its contributions—in addition to its immediate potential to save lives and forward-looking proposals for reform—also include the strength of its analysis on racism’s role in continued state violence. The amici curiae brief discusses “structural racism which permeates the history of the institutions of [Brazil and] created the bases that underlie the savagery promoted by the current public security policy in the state.” Brazil’s Civil and Military Police were created in the 19th century, it notes, “intimately linked to the installation of the Portuguese court in Rio de Janeiro and the guarantee of protecting a slaveholding elite.”

Favela residents have called for the enforcement of the ADPF das Favelas beyond the pandemic. “The [Supreme Court] thinks that now, because of the pandemic, that [police] operations shouldn’t happen. Operations should never happen,” said Trajano. She urged the court to approve the ADPF das Favelas in full, “so that our children don’t have to die, so that our young people don’t have to die, so that our women don’t have to carry our bodies, of our children, of our people, of our skin.”

Photo: Luna Costa. Text: Stop Killing Us
Photo: Luna Costa. Text: Stop Killing Us

Supreme Court Justice Fachin’s June 5 temporary order suspended police operations in Rio’s favelas for the duration of the coronavirus pandemic except in “absolutely exceptional” circumstances. The court’s ten other justices began deliberating the case on June 26. Due to a court recess in July, the proceedings will continue in the beginning of August.

This article is part of RioOnWatch’s 2020 reporting partnership with The Rio Times now focused on the impacts of coronavirus on Rio’s favelas.


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