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Amidst Pandemic, Another Police Operation Leaves Youth Dead in City of God

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An 18-year-old was shot dead in a police operation in the early evening of May 20 in the Rio de Janeiro favela of City of God, in the city’s West Zone. João Vitor Gomes da Rocha was taken from the scene by police and placed inside an armored truck known as a caveirão. An hour later, Rocha was pronounced dead at Lourenço Jorge Municipal Hospital in the neighborhood of Barra da Tijuca. In less than a week, Rio police have absconded and killed two other youth: João Pedro Pinto Matos and Iago César dos Reis Gonzaga.

The Frente CDD community group had just finished distributing 200 food parcels in the Pantanal area of City of God when a firefight broke out. Fleeing the shootout, the group sheltered inside a nearby resident’s house. The food parcel distribution undertaken by the group is one of countless actions organized by favela residents to mitigate the effects of the Covid-19 pandemic in their communities. No member of Frente CDD was shot.

City of God resident, guardianship councilor, and member of Frente CDD Jota Marques had scheduled a Facebook Live class for 6pm called “Nós Por Nós: Ações de Solidariedade em Tempos de Pandemia” (Us for Us: Actions of Solidarity During the Pandemic). Instead, at 5:56pm he would tell followers that he had begun a different live transmission: “I’m LIVE ON INSTAGRAM @jotamarquesrj,” he posted to Twitter. Recording himself, he began denouncing police violence around him amid the Covid-19 pandemic.

“Police operation in City of God during a @frentecdd action. Sharing this for our protection.”

As Marques transmits his Live to Instagram, he and other members of the Frente CDD team carefully venture out into the street in the middle of the police operation. Outraged, one team member yells “They’re genocidal! They come in killing!”  Another team member responds, attempting to calm his friend’s indignation. “They are genocidal, and we are the target of the State,” he yells back. “We’re black, bro! We’re black! You just distributed 200 food parcels. I’m not going to lose you, bro!” The tragic scene was published in a video on Frente CDD’s Facebook page.

“They are genocidal, and we are the target of the State. We’re black, bro! We’re black! You just distributed 200 food parcels. I’m not going to lose you, bro!”

Today, we were in Pantanal to distribute 200 food parcels, and at the end a police operation began. 7pm, lots of people still in the street and we found ourselves in the middle of a shootout! We sought shelter in the homes of residents that took us in (we’re grateful for the help).

We give out food parcels, doing the work that is the responsibility of the State, bringing food to families, and we still run the risk of becoming a statistic.

This is what the State does: police operations in the middle of the pandemic and during a mission to deliver food parcels to the favela of City of God, RJ.

We just want peace for the favelas. Is that too much to ask?

As a caveirão rumbles by, the group learns that they are carrying a wounded resident. The team takes to a member’s car and follows the armored truck, first to the 41st Civil Police Station and then to Lourenço Jorge Hospital in Barra da Tijuca. Minutes later, they learn that the young man, 18-year-old João Vitor da Rocha, has passed away. According to Rocha’s father, he had ventured into the street to buy a kite. 

In the Instagram Live, Marques, shaking, turns his head down to his screen. “I am tired of just surviving,” he says. “We don’t have the right to life. We don’t have the right to deliver food. We don’t have any rights at all.”

He goes on: “It doesn’t matter to me what he was. What I care about is that he won’t have any chance to continue being anything or to try to be anything. This boy could have been one of my students, he could have been someone from my family, he could have been…” Marques ends the live stream moments later.

The recording of the police action and its result were followed on Instagram and Twitter by residents and activists from across the favelas. Outraged, they retweeted Marques’ posts, denouncing the State’s necropolitics.

Between May 10 and May 19 alone, the Fogo Cruzado monitoring platform registered police operations in the favelas of Complexo do Alemão, Manguinhos, Vidigal, Chapadão, São Carlos, Fallet, Mineira, Coroa, City of God, Acari, Vila Aliança, Vila Vintém, Vila Kennedy, Morro do Engenho, Morro do Juramento, Mangueira, and Morro da Cachoeira Grande, and Complexo do Salgueiro, in São Gonçalo. Residents of Complexo do Alemão, Acari, and City of God had denounced earlier this month that food parcel distributions for favela residents had been interrupted by gunfire.

Days earlier, on May 18, 14-year-old João Pedro Matos Pinto was at a relative’s house in Complexo do Salgueiro when the house was invaded during a police operation. He was shot in the stomach and taken in a Civil Police helicopter. The family, which took to Twitter to denounce the adolescent’s disappearance, would only find his body a day later at a police morgue in São Gonçalo.

FOR THE LOVE OF GOD HELP ME. THIS IS MY COUSIN JOÃO PEDRO MATOS PINTO. HE IS 14 YEARS OLD AND AROUND 4PM TODAY HE WAS AT HOME IN (PRAIA DA LUZ) SÃO GONÇALO RJ. IN A POLICE OPERATION THE TRAFFICKERS ENTERED THE HOUSE AND THE POLICE STARTED FIRING AND HIT HIM IN THE STOMACH.

That same day, family members used social media to search for 21-year-old Iago César dos Reis Gonzaga. He had disappeared on May 18 following a police operation by Rio’s SWAT-like Special Operations Battalion (BOPE) in the favela of Acari. According to relatives, police tortured Gonzaga with a knife and suffocated him with a plastic bag before taking him away in a police car. The family split up to scour police departments, hospitals, and police morgues in search of the youth. He was found dead at a police morgue on May 19.

Favela Activists Respond

In notes to RioOnWatch, Rio favela communicators and activists sent in their responses to the State’s security policy.

“The policy that we have always had in the favela is the policy of death. Even faced with a pandemic, the favela is unable to give priority to the basic conditions necessary to avoid being infected by the virus, because defending and caring for black and favela lives is not the priority of the government. 

Their priority is to continue killing, just as has happened every day. Just this week we have had youth shot and killed in Acari, São Gonçalo, and now in City of God. We want the end of police operations. We want the right to life!” — Gizele MartinsFrente de Mobilização da Maré, Complexo da Maré

“I am 23 years old and I face the police force every day, just in different ways. A force, established by a political group, that seeks to maintain its electoral and commercial power in the mechanisms of society. This force, today, has, on a great scale, participated in the deaths of these youths over the last several days. We know that this force arrived in the houses of power and dominated the reins of politics.

Now, at home, it bathes our living rooms in our own blood. Our kids can no longer fly kites for they will be hit. Our houses with pools are confused for drug islands owned by local traffickers. It is all a tactic. An old tactic of war: exterminate the enemy at its roots. A total, and if possible, brutal cleansing. This is the political project of this force and it will drown us in our own blood if we do nothing.

We must take power. We must have our own arrive at this same level of power and change the game. These are my words to the family of yet another João. My blessings to the movements, collectives, and subjects that make such a difference in society. These aren’t just food parcel deliveries, they are acts in opposition to the planning of our death.”— Rafael Oliveira, Coordinator, Coletivo Favela Vertical, Gardênia Azul

“We are living through a global pandemic, where residents of the favelas suffer from a highly transmissible infection, made worse by all the demands that we already know exist in the territories: decent and structured housing, basic sanitation, adequate trash collection points. Adding this to the intentional gutting of the public health apparatus, we see an enormous portion of the population abandoned to their own luck.

As if all of this violence weren’t enough, the State makes itself present in peripheral and favela territories through its armed branch. This is an age-old project. The State even takes advantage of delicate moments to perfect its tactics of oppression against black and poor people. Rio de Janeiro is a city on display, but even so, not everything gets the exposure it deserves. When the police system of the empire was founded, one of its goals was to hunt down rebel and fugitive slaves. Another obligation was the defense of private property (enslaved peoples were taken to be property as well). We can affirm that these activities continue to be exercised in contemporary society.

This project of the extermination of our people, attacking us at our roots, reaching our children and youth, is nothing new. The two-year-old boy Maicon was killed by police in 1996, here in the favela of Acari. And the police alleged that they shot in defense. Of the 11 of the victims of the Acari massacre, all died too young. And history continues to tragically repeat itself. I feel as though I were on a giant wheel, dripping the blood of my people, turning and turning, and always seeing the same scene. Saying the same things. Demanding the same things. Like a scratched record.

It was just recently that the police launched an operation because they thought that a donation truck used by the Alemão Covid-19 Crisis Response Cabinet was a stolen vehicle. At the beginning of this month, part of the Complexo de Acari Against Covid group was surprised by a caveirão at the door of the Fala Akari Collective cultural center, where we store donations. There were gunshots and people running, carrying food parcels. And now, there is this event in City of God where our friends from City of God’s Front Against Covid-19 were trapped by a caveirão.

It seems as though death is closer and closer to us, at the very moment that we are trying to keep our own from dying.”— Buba Aguiar, pathologist and sociologist, Coletivo Fala Akari, Favela de Acari


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