The conflict dragged on for hours, as residents huddled inside their home, unable to leave. Images showed blood splashed across alleys and households, a room piled with bodies, and people scurrying across rooftops clutching rifles as black-clad police moved into the vast warren of squat brick houses.
By early afternoon, 25 people had been killed, including one police officer.
Even in a city long accustomed to extraordinary police violence, where authorities frequently wage warlike operations inside neighborhoods under the control of criminal organizations, the death toll was shocking, showing the enduring grip of violence on Latin America’s largest country.
“Really grim moment in Brazil,” said Robert Muggah, co-founder of the Igarapé Institute, a Rio-based think tank that tracks trends in violence. “These shootings are obviously routine in Rio de Janeiro, but this is unprecedented, in that it’s the operation that has generated the largest number of deaths, ever.”
He called it a “dangerous reminder of the persistence of police violence in Rio de Janeiro and Brazil.”
In a statement published to social media, police mourned the death of the officer, Andre Leonardo de Mello Frias. Police said the operation was launched based on “concrete intelligence information.”
“The criminals reacted forcefully,” police said in a statement. “Not only to flee, but with intent to kill. Unfortunately, the warlike scenario imposed by these criminal groups proved the importance of these operations so that they don’t grow stronger.”
Police violence and crime has in recent years been one of Brazil’s most polarizing political discussions. Police forces kill thousands of Brazilians every year, the overwhelming majority of whom are Black and poor. In 2019 alone, police killed some 5,800 people.
The violent operations have been encouraged by a cadre of political leaders who have won recent elections running on a message that warlike tactics are necessary to curb crime and regain control of territories lost to gangs. “A cop who doesn’t kill isn’t a cop,” President Jair Bolsonaro once said.
But Thursday’s death toll has left many in the country shocked and outraged. Some questioned whether police were flouting a court ruling last year that forbade them from storming favelas during the pandemic unless under “absolutely exceptional” circumstances. Others said the brief respite in police violence that held in the early months of the pandemic was largely over. And others still called it a large-scale execution.
“In this badly-planned operation a police officer was killed,” said Silvia Ramos, a social scientist at University Candido Mendes. “And this operation became one of revenge. And police simply killed more than 20 people.”
Renata Souza, a state representative raised in Complexo da Maré, a dangerous and large favela frequently targeted by police, called the liberalization of police violence a “policy of death.”
“Security police should be about justice and not vengeance,” she tweeted Thursday. “The governor of Rio is following in the steps of the president and is making genocide a state policy.”
Heloísa Traiano contributed to this report.