Brazil Halts Police Raids in Favelas

It is only temporary—and poorly enforced—but the move does represent a first step in overcoming decades of brutality.

A man paints a sign during a protest against the killing of Black people during police operations in favelas in Rio de Janeiro on May 31.
A man paints a sign during a protest against the killing of Black people during police operations in favelas in Rio de Janeiro on May 31. Mauro Pimentel/AFP/Getty Images

It hardly ever makes news when poor, usually Black people living in the sprawling favelas of Rio de Janeiro or São Paulo are killed. But that changed on May 18, when 14-year-old João Pedro Mattos Pinto was shot by police in Rio while at his cousin’s house.

Over 70 bullets marked the inner walls of the small room where the children had been playing. The police had entered the wrong property while in search of drug traffickers. After João Pedro was shot, officers whisked his body away without informing his family where they were taking him. His family, with the help of a social media campaign, finally tracked him down to a police forensic institute the next day.

If the world’s attention had not already been tuned to police brutality in the wake of the police killing of George Floyd in Minneapolis, then João Pedro’s death would have been just another strike in the tally of thousands gunned down by police every year in the outskirts of Brazil’s cities. But this time, when people from the favelas took to the streets to condemn police brutality—as they have done countless times before—it caught the world’s attention. Soon, newspapers and protesters around the world were taking note.

In the face of unwanted international attention last month, for the first time in the history of modern Brazil, Brazil’s Supreme Court banned police raids in the favelas during the coronavirus pandemic, “except in absolutely exceptional cases,” which must be preapproved by the state prosecutor’s office.

The decision was certainly a step in the right direction. But it is provisional and can be retracted at any moment. Even more worrying, bloodshed at the hands of police has continued despite the June 5 order. In fact, the day after it was issued, officers fired guns in the Complexo do Alemão favela, the same neighborhood where police shot dead 13 people in the space of a few hours during a single operation in May.

Brazilian police are among the world’s deadliest. Last year, they killed at least 5,804 people in the whole country, 1,810 in the state of Rio de Janeiro alone. For comparison, U.S. police forces, which are also criticized for an outsized number of shootings, are estimated to have killed around 1,000 people in the past year. This year, the numbers of deaths in Brazil look set to rise even higher. April alone saw a 43 percent increase in Rio de Janeiro compared to the same month in 2019, according to official statistics. (Analysis from outside groups estimate that the rise was even greater—almost 60 percent—for the same period.) The military and civil police forces of the city, meanwhile, had already killed 606 people in the first four months of 2020. Studies show that the victims of police killings are predominantly young Black men, who account for up to 80 percent of those deaths.

Beyond the terrible physical trauma—across all favelas, the life expectancy is well over a decade lower than the national average—police raids are a constant interruption to life. In 2019, police raids in the favela of Maré, where I grew up, made students miss up to 12 percent of school days and led to the cancellation of about 15,000 health care appointments according to internal calculations. A minuscule percentage of young people from Maré manage to go to university.

The large numbers of police actions are the result of Brazil’s historical disregard for poor Black residents of the favelas. Without equal treatment, opportunity, or security in those areas, civilian armed groups stepped into the vacuum. Soon, organized crime, including drug trafficking and gun trafficking, was taking off. And so, the stage was set for turf wars and police raids. The raids, though, do little to stop or prevent organized crimes. And police aggression is a constant fear, causing major damage to the country’s civil society.

For nongovernmental organization workers like myself, who spend long days delivering food and hygiene supplies or trying to set up university preparation courses for people in favelas, the constant police violence makes work nearly impossible. And the utter lack of public security, financial security, and opportunities keep generations of Brazilians in poverty.

Brazil needs a real shift in how the police operate in the favelas. The groundwork for that will be a reexamination of the relationship between the state and peripheral communities. These communities must be guaranteed the same basic rights as other civilians. Today, the state sees all favela residents as criminals. It doesn’t distinguish between residents and criminal groups. That could be changed with a universal declaration that acknowledges that the security is a public service for everyone, including those in favelas. Meanwhile, the police should be restructured so that there is less reliance on guns and more emphasis on protecting lives.

The struggle now is to maintain this season’s momentum for reform in a country where more than half the population is Black or biracial and where state violence is an everyday reality for peripheral communities. Last September, hundreds of protesters took to the streets when 8-year-old Ágatha Sales, who was travelling with her mother in a public transport van, was shot in the back by the police. Police shrugged the death off as collateral damage in their fight against drug gangs. No one was prosecuted or suspended from the force. That cannot happen again.

This time, the campaigns and protests must stay steady in their push for reforms. In Brazil, violence and police brutality are so common that citizens believe they are normal. It is also important for the justice system to commit to addressing police abuse in a serious way. The halt on police raids issued during the pandemic should be extended and enforced.

Favela-based residents are doing their part to raise awareness of the abyss that separates their communities from the middle- and upper-class areas in Rio. But it will take interest and courage from every citizen to demand effective public policies that guarantee the same rights to every Brazilian, regardless of where they live. Historical inequality and invisibility have normalized living lives on borrowed time. Brazil can’t let that continue.

Eliana Sousa Silva is a human rights activist in Brazil who set up and ran the NGO Redes da Maré (Maré Networks) for over 20 years.