Around 250 heavily armed police had invaded Jacarezinho, a dense labyrinth of tight alleys and concrete dwellings in Rio de Janeiro controlled by the powerful gang Red Command. Early on the morning of May 6, a cop had been killed around 100 yards from Sequeira’s house. Now police were waging what appeared to be a campaign of retribution. Sequeira had spent hours watching the toll rise in what would become the bloodiest police raid in Rio history: Twenty-eight dead.
Now the pounding was at her door. The hinges were coming loose. The police were here.
“Who are you hiding inside?” an officer demanded through the door.
Sequeira was afraid — afraid they would mistake her husband for a gang member, afraid she would be widowed at age 22 — but she was also surprised. The police weren’t even supposed to be here.
In June 2020, the Brazilian supreme court ordered Rio de Janeiro police to drastically restrict police raids that had come to resemble engagements of war. Police, encouraged by right-wing politicians who had won elections by calling for harsher tactics against criminal gangs, had in recent years sent armored cars, snipers and bulletproof helicopters into the favelas — and killed an astonishing number of people. In a state with a population of 16 million, police fatally shot 1,814 people in 2019 alone, according to government statistics, 80 percent more than police killed that year in all of the United States.
Last year, as an even deadlier force bore down on Brazil — a virus that has killed more people here than in any country outside the United States — the court told Rio police they could storm into gang strongholds only under “absolutely exceptional” circumstances. During the pandemic, they were to adopt “exceptional safeguards” to avoid “putting more of the population at risk.”
But in a country where right-wing officials increasingly clash with judges — where nationalist President Jair Bolsonaro has fanned calls to disband the supreme court — the order has failed to rein in police. In the first three months of 2021, as Brazil tipped into the darkest days of its outbreak, the police killed 453 people — a record for that period — in an urban onslaught that culminated with this month’s carnage in Jacarezinho.
“Police are flagrantly violating the court order,” said Daniel Hirata, a data scientist at the Federal Fluminense University who has been tracking trends in police killings. “They are saying everything is exceptional and making ‘exceptional’ the routine and daily, and that is the problem.”
At the request of The Washington Post, the Brazilian research institution Network of Security Observatories analyzed the explanations Rio police have given to justify the operations. The analysis did not explain the surge in raids. Many of the justifications police have used since the order are the same as those from before: to repress drug trafficking and execute arrest warrants.
Police say crime in Rio de Janeiro is perennially exceptional. Red Command and powerful militias have amassed military-grade weaponry and seized control of swaths of the city. They routinely extort and mug civilians.
“Criminals armed with rifles,” Rio Civil Police Chief Allan Turnowski told The Post. “Grenades exploding. A vehicle parked at a barricade that can shoot at people coming and going, even the police. If this isn’t exceptional, what will be exceptional?”
Turnowski described the raid as “surgical,” resulting in no casualties among innocents. The dead included the one police officer and 27 favela residents. Turnowski called the residents gang members with criminal records who had shot at police first.
A review of police records shows many of the charges against those killed were either minor or decades old. Eleven had been charged with only nonviolent crimes, including drug possession, pickpocketing or shoplifting. Two of those killed had no police records. One was a 16-year-old boy who had moved to Jacarezinho one month before.
Human rights advocates and attorneys have condemned the killings as a massacre, alleging summary executions by police.
Turnowski couldn’t say whether the cops had executed anyone, citing a pending investigation. But he didn’t regret their deaths. “When we talk about 27 dead criminals in a police raid,” he said, “I guarantee you that the city is safer without them.”
But Sequeira says she never felt less safe. An officer stood at the door. Bodies littered the streets outside. Her husband, wearing his janitor’s uniform, held out his employment card to show he wasn’t with a gang. The relief she had felt when the supreme court moved to restrict the police raids had been replaced by fear.
“They came to kill,” she said.
Then the officer, taking one last suspicious look, was gone, on to the next house.
‘In the battle between good and evil, I am good’
In Rio, 2020 was shaping up to be another bloody year for the police. Even as the coronavirus became a debilitating national crisis, police continued their raids, killing hundreds. For many residents of the favelas — poor neighborhoods often used by gangs as strongholds — the presence of the state was more acutely felt in spasms of police violence than in the distribution of needed supplies.
Health clinics in Maré halted operations to wait out a police raid. The distribution of food supplies in Jacarezinho was suspended. Then in a single week police operations led to the suspension of emergency food distribution in one favela, left 13 dead in another and resulted in the death of 14-year-old João Pedro Mattos in a third. Family members said he had been playing with friends when police burst into the house and sprayed it with 70 bullets.
The death “demonstrates the particular gravity of the Brazilian State’s failing,” supreme court justice Luiz Edson Fachin wrote. Given the coronavirus and growing need in many favelas, Fachin ordered police to restrict the raids to exceptional circumstances. Those conditions had to be submitted in writing to federal prosecutors in the Public Ministry beforehand.
“There is nothing that can justify a 14-year-old child being shot at 70 times,” Fachin wrote.
Police were stunned and confused. “The decision was opaque,” Turnowski said. “People didn’t get it. But I am the state — I’m not a criminal group. In the battle between good and evil, I am good. I need to follow the rules.”
The number of people killed by police plunged. But the drop was short-lived. In October, the police stormed back into the favelas. They killed 125 people that month as a new state governor promised to continue operations many Brazilians consider brutal but necessary.
“In my administration, there won’t be any place where the state can’t go,” Rio Gov. Cláudio Castro said in November.
The federal prosecutors’ office in Rio, which must be given notice of the police raids within 24 hours, said it has no power to impede them. “It’s not up to the Public Ministry to decide an operation or authorize it,” the agency said in an emailed response to questions. “There is no prior analysis. The question of exceptionality is always analyzed afterward.”
On May 6, Rio police embarked on another mission they described as exceptional. Riding in armored cars and bulletproof helicopters, the police set out to arrest 21 people suspected of trafficking drugs.
By dawn, they were at the entrance of Jacarezinho.
A day of searing violence
An officer was one of the first to die. At 6 a.m., police encountered cement barricades at the entrance of the favela, according to a police report. Several got out of their armored car and, taking fire, continued on foot. André Leonardo de Mello Frias was shot in the head. He fell to the ground. Another officer was hit.
“Even gravely wounded, the marginals didn’t stop shooting at André and those who were trying to give him first aid,” the report said.
As most of Jacarezinho’s 36,000 residents hid inside their homes, the violence dragged on outside for hours. Near an acrid canal that borders the community, eight people were killed in one shootout. Six more were gunned down at 10 a.m. In all, the police killed people in 10 locations. In claustrophobic alleys. On rooftops. Eight people inside houses. One person was shot and killed in the bedroom of an 8-year-old girl.
Joyce Cristina, 28, spent the day hiding in her bathroom with her 2-year-old daughter. When she thought it was safe, she stepped outside her home and saw three bodies, all young men. She’s haunted by the sight — remembering it now when she wheels her coffee cart down that street. It wouldn’t matter to her if they were gang members: “A crack addict takes out my trash for me,” she said. “When I’m out of gas, the gang helps.”
“I’m traumatized,” she said. “I’ve never seen anything like it.”
One of the dead was Isaac Pinheiro de Oliveira, 22. On social media, he gave himself the name “Disturbed.” In images, he brandished guns and bricks of marijuana. His death provoked little concern among the country’s top officials.
“All of them were criminals,” Vice President Hamilton Mourão said.
“Good work, Rio de Janeiro Civil Police!” Bolsonaro said.
But in the favela, Pinheiro de Oliveira’s aunt put her head in her hands and began to weep.
“They were humans,” Tatiane Teixeira said. “They had rights. They had the right to defend themselves and to surrender, but the police didn’t want to accept that.”
Heloísa Traiano contributed to this report.