The Deadliest Police Operations in Brazil’s History

May 20, 2021
4:00 PM

Activists and victims’ relatives light candles and hold the Portuguese message: “Stop killing us” the day after a deadly police operation in the Jacarezinho favela of Rio de Janeiro, Brazil, Friday, May 7, 2021. (AP Photo/Silvia Izquierdo)

At around 6 a.m. on Thursday, May 6, Rio de Janeiro was waking up to yet another massacre. Twenty-seven residents of the Jacarezinho favela in Rio’s North Zone were killed during an operation with over 200 police officers, armored vehicles and two helicopters that ended with photos and videos of a bloodbath.

Bodies scattered in various parts of the favela, blood everywhere while locals tried to hide, children crying and houses unceremoniously invaded by police officers armed to the teeth and in rage after one of their colleagues was killed once the operation was starting—making a total of 28 dead in Rio de Janeiro’s largest massacre amid a police operation and the second-largest massacre as a whole in the state.

Not that massacres, known in Portuguese as chacinas, are uncommon. Cecília Olliveira, executive director of the Fogo Cruzado Institute, a data lab on armed violence, explained that “In the last 5 years, there has been one massacre per week in Greater Rio de Janeiro.”

In the Jacarezinho favela, Olliveira added, “there was one massacre per year since 2016.”

Pablo Nunes, assistant coordinator at the Center for Studies in Public Security and Citizenship, noted that “in the first four months of 2021 alone we had more than 20 massacres, that is, any event or police operation that results in three or more deaths.”

If massacres are common, the degree of violence shown by the Civil Police was amplified by the apparent need to avenge their fallen colleague. A study by the Federal Fluminense university (UFF) points out that the third highest cause of death in police actions is revenge—police officers acting with greater violence after a colleague is killed in an operation or during routine actions and patrols.

And the logic of such massacres can be explained and maintained, Olliveira said, “By a series of factors, ranging from the racism that structures public policies, to the fragility of democracy and the very high social inequality in the country, which does not see specific citizens —Black people, poor people and those living in favelas— as full citizens.”

In addition, there is the feeling of impunity. According to Nunes, “We take the history of the police and it is forged on pillars of violence and social control of minorities and of the poor population, especially Black people. There is a history that sustains this violence and makes it last.”

In fact, the two closest massacres to the one that took place in Jacarezinho were those of Baixada in 2005 and Vigário Geral in 1993. In both cases, there are severe doubts whether justice was indeed served. In 2005, an execution group formed by police officers killed 29 people in the cities of Nova Iguaçu and Quiemados, in the region known as Baixada Fluminense, a region bordering the city of Rio de Janeiro. Of the 11 police officers accused of being responsible for the chacina, only five were convicted.

In Vigário Geral, another extermination group formed by 36 police officers invaded the favela of Vigário Geral and killed 21 people. Fifty-one police officers were accused of direct or indirect participation in the massacre, but only seven were formally charged and sent to jail. In a second trial, three of these seven were acquitted in what became known as one of the greatest examples of impunity in Brazilian history.

In addition to this historical and cultural context, Nunes said that “There is also the omission of those who should carry out the external control of the police, the Public Prosecutor’s Office.”

“One thing that prevails in Rio’s Public Security is the certainty of impunity on the part of the agents and this is the explanation why more violence can happen, since the police officer is certain of impunity,” Nunes added.

In fact, there are few cases in which massacres in favelas are properly investigated and their perpetrators convicted.

This leads activists to seek international courts, such as the Inter-American Court of Human Rights (IACHR), an autonomous judicial institution of the Organization of American States (OAS), to find justice when it doesn’t seem to exist in Brazil.

In May 2017, Brazil was condemned by the IACHR to reopen investigations and compensate the families of the victims of two police operation in the favela of Nova Brasília, in the Alemão favela complex, northern zone of Rio de Janeiro in which 13 young people were killed in each operation —along with allegations of torture and rape— in 1994 and 1995.

Nunes believes that internationalization is the way forward when Brazilian institutions fail or are designed to ensure the impunity of public officials. However, there’s a lot to be done at home as well: The election of Jair Bolsonaro as Brazil’s president and of Wilson Witzel as Rio’s governor show that there is broad popular support for the violent and exterminating discourse that is seen to take place in the favelas.

According to Nunes, the Bolsonaro family has known links to armed militias, groups formed by retired and on duty police officers and firefighters who take control of favelas from drug traffickers, but who control the commerce and lives of the local population with an iron fist, often acting as violently as the criminals who previously dominated the area.

In addition to the president, the Bolsonaro family includes a senator, a federal congressman and a city councilor in Rio de Janeiro who “have become notable for their defense of militias that use violence to maintain control over territories and also maintain control over commerce and other services,” Nunes notes.

Witzel ended up suffering an impeachment and losing his mandate recently, but his discourse remains. Shortly after being elected, in November 2018, he declared that “The correct thing to do is to kill the bandit who is carrying a rifle. The police will do the right thing: they will aim at the[ir] little head[s] and… fire! So there’s no mistake,” reinforcing the discourse that the state is only capable of acting with violence against favela dwellers that are often treated as bandits and murdered before any questions are asked.

And, Olliveira recalled, “Approval of the new governor on social networks increased post-massacre. One day before the massacre, only 12% of quotes about the governor were considered positive. On the day of the slaughter, the percentage jumped to 41%, and negative quotes fell from 50% to 41%, while neutral ones went from 38% to 18%.”

As such, criticizing police violence ends up being understood by part of the population as a defense of crime and criminals, creating a logic of war. In a video recorded after the violent police action in Jacarezinho, lawyer Joel Luiz Costa, founder of the Institute for the Defense of the Black Population, which operates in the favela, vented his frustration: “It’s disheartening, it makes you think there is no solution, a feeling of impotence, of total lack of control.”

And it is hard to change such reality. Both Nunes and Olliveira agree that not much can be expected from the state, however, Nunes said, you have to keep pushing.

For Olliveira, “What we, the civil society, can do now is to create mechanisms for external control of the damage, producing data that reiterate the failure of these actions, call for transparency in management and public spending and have a better ability to communicate about it. Because without bringing society into this debate, communicating clearly and effectively, we will not break this cycle.”


Raphael Tsavkko Garcia is a journalist with a Ph.D in Human Rights (focused on migration and diaspora). His portfolio is here. Twitter: @Tsavkko.