“You made a terrible mistake. We will relentlessly get rid of you; I am not afraid of using these words. I’m not scared of human rights. It’s not going to stop. We will always be there. Friday was just the beginning; that will be our day-to-day routine.”
These were the words residents of Jacarezinho, and the greater North Zone region, received with terror already several days into a lengthy police operation in their community. Military Police Delegate Marcus Vinicius Amim Fernandes was sending a message to Red Command traffickers who were allegedly responsible for the killing of fellow police officer Bruno Guimarães Buhler during a shoot-out that happened in the middle of a drug-busting operation. After 11 days of police and Armed Forces occupation, the community of Jacarezinho was left reeling with at least seven dead and several more wounded; residents of other communities nearby also felt at a loss during the massive operation that took a turn for the worst on Friday, August 11.
With the State Police force boasting around 40 suspects captured and approximately $R1 million worth of contraband found, the operation has been lauded by politicians and police officers across the country. However, mere days after the operation’s end, Rio de Janeiro’s Public Defender’s Office has sent an official letter demanding information into possible breaches in protocol and illegal action taken by the State Police and Armed Forces. The operation, which was already underway when officer Guimarães Buhler was fatally shot in the chest, became notably more violent in the 11 days following with many residents of the area declaring it a ‘vengeance’ operation. In light of Military Police Delegate Amim Fernandes’ strong words, this declaration seems spot on with the nature of police killings occurring in Jacarezinho. All of this while the operation went on in other communities across the region without fatalities. After over a week of police occupation, residents of the area held a march for peace on Sunday, August 20, through the streets of Manguinhos. The next day, things got worse. “At 4 in the morning, we started getting news from neighbors and friends. Women had been violated, women had to put their kids on the ground to place their hands on the military tank to be searched. The schools weren’t working, the health clinics weren’t working. There were around eleven military tanks. There were jeeps and military trucks. I am talking about just one street. One day we ask for peace, the next day we have the Army declaring war,” related Patricia Evangelista, president of the Women of Attitude Organization in Manguinhos.
It is easy to call this a “war,” to say that it was a dangerous drug bust that is bound to have innocent victims. Doing so, however, is to ignore the facts, forget the constitutional responsibility the city and state government have to protect all people, and promote a conversation that makes it easy for massacres like this to happen again. Instead, this situation must be heavily scrutinized not only by favela residents but by all Brazilian citizens. Allowing operations like these which terrorize favela residents day in and day out to continue without strong criticism from all parts of society not only sets a dangerous precedent for all citizens of Rio de Janeiro, but sends a strong message to the government and State police forces that they will be met with complacency when committing human rights violations and atrocities like those in Jacarezinho.
Problems with the Legality of the Operation
The police began their operation with a legal collective search warrant; something that in theory seems normal yet in practice is anything but. Before the massive operation, the Military Police sent out ‘wanted’ posters online asking for cooperation in finding traffickers. In theory, the investigation done beforehand should have been thorough enough to allow for precise search warrants. A collective search warrant, instead, which allows for police to enter any house in the community, was requested; Jacarezinho has approximately 90,000 residents. As you can imagine, the result isn’t very effective. “A search warrant should be specific, determined. This is what the law says. However in the communities (favelas) with a collective search warrant, they ask for, in a certain way, the authorization for the police to enter any house. It is generic,” states Djefferson Amadeus, lawyer currently working at Fiocruz, Brazil’s national health institute next door to the community, who was very active defending the community during the operation. “Doors were broken down. The girls that were cursed at and violated, the women that were brutally searched were just residents of the favela,” recalls Patricia Evangelista.
While police found five guns, 300 kg (660 lbs) of marijuana, and 10 kg (22 lbs) of cocaine, one has to ask if the collective search warrant was necessary or worth it. In fact, only two of the list of original suspects were even from Jacarezinho and during the operation, a third suspect was found not in Rio de Janeiro but in the state of Goias, where he had been leading the trafficking in the community from afar. Djefferson Amadeus added: “It should be done like this: is if they are looking for someone that they already know, then they should do some investigation work and go in with a determined location; not go out entering the house of any person.” This issue is compounded upon, as many favela residents regularly attest to, by the reality that police officers most often do not find anything. In these cases, if residents believe they were treated unfairly or violently, they have the right to complain through the proper channels. “They enter the house of the person first, and then the problem arises, because if they enter the house and don’t find weapons or drugs, they will have to justify their entrance. What do they do? They end up planting drugs,” Amadeus added.
The situation is complicated, but ignoring the law or treating these operations as special circumstances leave favela residents vulnerable to daily physical and mental abuse by authorities. While drug traffickers may indeed have weapons and drugs stashed away in houses in some communities, the collective search warrant in effect strips favela residents of their right to protection under the law. “You would never imagine a situation like this, for example, in Ipanema. If you can’t imagine the police entering Ipanema with a collective search warrant then why does this happen in these communities?” asks Amadeus.
Djefferson was also there when police arrested and brought in a young journalist reporting on the situation for community newspaper Fala Manguinhos. “He was arrested and taken to the police office. I was there defending another person who had also been violated. It is interesting because he arrived there first according to the testimony of the Army personnel as a participant in the crime of homicide. The Army doesn’t have the preparation to handle this type of situation. They are prepared for war.” While the police boasted capturing approximately 40 suspects, after digging into the details of the situation, interesting truth is uncovered: many, if not most, were not involved in trafficking or violent crime at all. The community had been beaten down relentlessly for almost two weeks with little to show for it. “When we looked into this, the majority were people late paying child support payments, they weren’t the people responsible for the trafficking in those areas. And the ones paying for it are the good women, good men, good young ones, that aren’t involved in trafficking,” lamented Evangelista.
As Djefferson mentioned, these are the legal tightropes walked when the Armed Forces are called into communities across Rio de Janeiro. Not only does the extra firepower and machinery lead to extra violence and a movie set-like scenario, but legal boundaries are pushed and even broken without much recourse. Djefferson continued, “There is a serious situation in Brazil that is the following: if a police officer or public agent arrests someone, a situation in the courts is created that the word of the police officer has a presumption of truthfulness. For example, it is possible that if a police officer were to approach us and say that we had drugs, we could be arrested based only on the word of that police officer. There is a guideline [or] norm that legitimizes this conduct of police officers. In the communities they are condemned daily on the basis of these issues.”
Several days into the operation in Jacarezinho, Extra, a widely-read newspaper linked to mega-media conglomerate O Globo, broke their normal coverage over the crimes of Rio to talk about war; not war in the Middle East, but war in Rio. In fact, they made the decision, in the heat of the action, to become the only national newspaper covering “war” outside of an official war zone with the creation of their “War in Rio” editorial line. Their move was quickly supported on Twitter by the Rio de Janeiro State Military Police. It is common to hear Rio residents calling the violence taking place across the city “war,” often favela residents also refer to violence in their communities as “war” and especially “genocide.” However, while casual talk of the day-to-day violence takes on a tone similar to that of an official war, many were quick to denounce Extra’s announcement.
“The very officer responsible for the operation came to the public and said that the war that would occur in Jacarezinho would only end when they found the ones responsible for the crime [of killing the officer] had run or were killed by police. Once a police officer comes to the public and says that there is going to be a war and that it’s only going to end when they find the ones responsible for the supposed crime, well first we have a problem that a police officer cannot declare a war. This is only possible through the president with authorization from the National Congress. So this officer usurped the power of the president of the Republic to come to the public and declare ‘a war,’” commented Amadeus.
This is where Extra’s use of words become dangerous territory. The Intercept quickly published an editorial claiming that calling the operations war “endorses a failed State security policy.” André Fernandes, founder of the Favelas News Agency, had this to say: “Creating an editorial that claims that we are at war only helps to justify what the police have always done, but with the support of the press itself: shoot first, ask later. It is so in a war, there is permission to kill–even if implicit, because in a war, all the worst atrocities become justifiable by a ‘greater good,’ so that such a ‘war’ can be won.”
Extra is not alone. Well-known international media sources like BBC News have also latched onto the rhetoric of war. As the war bandwagon becomes increasingly full, Igarapé Institute‘s Robert Muggah had months back encouraged a reflection on whether the use of this word is appropriate or not. In his April 2017 article entitled “Rio de Janeiro: A War by Any Other Name,” he laid out the implications for declaring a conflict a war, saying “It may precipitate militarized responses, including the deployment of the armed forces. It could lead the introduction of emergencies and the suspension of civil liberties.” Essentially, calling something war long enough, and in Rio’s case by not only media outlets, but politicians and police officers, can drastically influence how armed conflicts are fought. This can be easily seen in the operation that took place in Jacarezinho. The Armed Forces were deployed days into the operation with seemingly little effect other than to increase the lethality of the bust. Emergencies were declared and thousands upon thousands of students went without classes for days upon end. Arguably, civil liberties of favela residents were suspended with unlawful arrests and the collective search warrant. While Extra received a couple days more hype than usual, the victims of state-sanctioned violence in Jacarezinho will now be lost among the flurry of articles all to be archived in the “War” section.
Politics and Police Policy
“I want to congratulate the National Security Force, Army, Federal Police, Federal Highway Police, Civil Police, and the Military Police that are undertaking a large-scale operation in communities, without a single shot. We have been asking for intelligent operations for weeks, that don’t risk the lives of people who live in the communities, and most importantly the children that go to school in the areas,” Rio Mayor Marcelo Crivella said in a Facebook post during the operation. Seven people were killed, various others wounded, and tens of thousands of school children went without classes because of dangerous situations near their schools. Success is in the eye of the beholder.
The simple truth is that these situations are messy and politicians end up having to answer for them at the end of the day. Sadly, the appearance of success, being tough on crime, and eradicating drugs from the city all take precedence over the lives and needs of favela residents. “It makes me sad when a public authority like the mayor comes to the public to congratulate an operation where there was from the beginning a collective search warrant that was granted in the early morning making it possible for police officers to enter people’s houses. Overall, it doesn’t make sense. For example, they say that an operation that each day costs around a million reais resulted in, if I’m not mistaken, seven guns, not even a major weapon, 40 suspects detained, and in that group I can comment on three–one was a journalist, another was a woman that was physically handicapped, and the other was a boy walking around with a cell phone. I keep asking myself, who were the other people? The expense of the operation, I don’t like to talk about economics, but it doesn’t make sense,” reflected Amadeus, who was formally a lawyer of Crivella himself.
In the midst of the operation in Jacarezinho, a small article was published with some big information: the era of the UPP was coming to an end. Ex-UPP Commander Robson Rodrigues admitted that with a change in policy, thousands of UPP officers were to be sent out into the streets, all with no real public announcement. “This measure is quite significant. We will abandon one of the most revolutionary public safety programs in the world, a clear alternative to the War on Drugs, to return to brute force,” he stated. With this announcement, the necessity to scrutinize the next phase of police policy becomes even greater. Perhaps the operation in Jacarezinho, among other communities regularly affected by these violent busts, will serve as a daunting vision of the future of policing in the state of Rio de Janeiro. There are many “new” factors taking a toll: the Armed Forces are planned to be stationed in Rio until the end of 2018 and the State of Rio is hurting from huge Games spending and corrupt politician payouts. On the other hand, maybe things have just slowly come out of the shadows without the watchful eye of the international Olympic community and the funds to mask it over. Either way, it will be important to keep tabs on the city and State police policy and it’s tug of war with the law. Some of Rio’s most vulnerable communities hang in the balance.
Unfortunately, for many favela residents, this operation was business as usual. Police came in vengeful and violent. Neighbors, friends, and family members’ rights were violated without a second thought. The community was left mourning, and the media frenzy eventually left as fast as it came. Yet, they are not done fighting. In a town hall meeting held on Friday, August 25, calls from community leaders to organize and stand together were heard loud and clear. The March for Peace in Manguinhos, Sunday during the operation, was a clear demonstration. As Evangelista recalled, “It’s an event that we do reaffirming that the favela isn’t just violence, it’s not just shooting, it’s not just trafficking. The favela has culture, it has sports, it has services, it has good people.”