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The most chilling word in Brazil

Father and pastor Leonardo Martins da Silva, far right, helps move the casket during the burial of his son Leonardo Martins da Silva Junior, 22, who was killed during a weekend police operation in the 'City of God' favela community on Nov. 22, 2016 in Rio de Janeiro. (Photo by Mario Tama/Getty Images)
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Last weekend, in the City of God community in Rio de Janeiro — the neighborhood made famous by the movie of the same name — a police helicopter crashed, killing four officers. Shortly thereafter, another news story broke: Seven bodies had been found in the forest nearby. To an outsider, the two events would have seemed unconnected, but among Brazilians a certain word — a frightening word — began to be spoken: chacina.

The word chacina derives from the killing of pigs in slaughterhouses, and it literally means slaughter or massacre.

But ask any Brazilian, and they will tell you that there is another, more disturbing meaning of that word.

“When you talk about chacina, you are really talking about various people killed at once by police violence,” said Julita Lemgruber, a former director of the Rio de Janeiro state prison system.

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Indeed, over the course of modern Brazilian history, the word chacina (sha-SEEN-ah) has come to refer to a massacre of locals in the wake of the death of a police officer. The implication is clear: A chacina is a revenge killing executed by police that is shocking in scale.

“Basically they are looking to give a response that in some way ‘compensates’ the ill caused by the police being killed or injured,” Lemgruber said.

By the end of the week, it was not clear whether the seven deaths in the City of God could in fact be classified as a chacina. The latest news pointed to a maintenance problem bringing the police chopper down, not gunfire from drug traffickers. And according to the police, some of the seven bodies showed signs of being shot at a distance, not the usual tactics in a chacina. But the fact that the deaths were quickly labeled a chacina suggested the deep roots of the practice in Brazilian society.

The list of chacinas in Brazil over the past two decades is horrifically long. In November 2014, a police officer was killed in the Amazonian capital of Belem; the next morning, 11 bodies were found. In November 2015, a police officer was killed in the northeastern capital of Fortaleza; the next morning, 11 bodies were discovered. In May of this year, a police officer was killed in the southeastern city of Londrina; over the next two days, 12 bodies were found.

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In many cases, those killed were alleged criminals. But often people who have no clear relationship with criminal gangs become the victims of chacinas. The most famous of these incidents took place in 1993 in the Vigário Geral neighborhood of Rio. Following the death of four police officers, 21 residents were killed, including a family of evangelical Christians whose house used to be the residence of known drug traffickers. The incident was one of the first chacinas in Brazil to create a social outcry. Nearly 50 police officers were accused of being involved in that chacina; in the end, six would be convicted, and only one is still in jail.

Following such killings, justice generally moves slowly, if at all.

Viviane Gonçalves’s husband was one of the seven men slain last weekend. Through tears, she admitted that her husband had been arrested twice in the past.

“But this is not a reason to kill him,” she said in an interview, sobbing. “Arrest him, put him in jail, but don’t execute him. How is that justice?”

Indeed, it is a cold fact that Gonçalves’ husband fit the profile of a chacina victim.

“It is important in these cases to note that in general those killed are young, poor, black men,” Lemgruber said. “This is a racist society, so there is very little interest in clarifying these deaths; it is as if these boys’ lives had no value, and as if the fact that they had been arrested before justifies the death.”

Paulo Storani, a former captain of Rio’s BOPE — the city’s SWAT team — has a different view on things.

“You call them boys? I call them traficantes that happen to be boys.” He added, “They could have been working or going to school, but instead they all have police records.”

Storani is clear that a chacina in these cases would be a “clear violation of the law,” but he believes the phenomenon of the chacina is a consequence of both the stress that police are under and the lack of a rigorous justice system that, he believes, would be better if it included the death penalty. Storani describes police work in drug-ravaged communities like City of God as being comparable to the state of war American soldiers experienced in Afghanistan — saying that police must go door to door, knowing that their targets have assault rifles and aim to kill. He said this stress, plus police frustration with a leaky justice system, “generates a search for a final solution, and a final end to the evil they confront every day.”

On Brazilian social media, the police are often applauded for a chacina. There is a common saying in Brazil: “A good bandit is a dead bandit.” For Lemgruber, it is this type of logic that permits chacinas to continue. She noted that a headline in the news this week said that the seven men killed in City of God had criminal backgrounds.

“This is a way of legitimizing their deaths,” she said, “and with this type of logic, this type of culture, I don't think the chacinas will stop.”

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