SÃO PAULO, BRAZIL — The video starts off with three highway police officers pinning a man to a dirt road in northeastern Brazil.
“Look at the man there, oh my God,” a voice from behind the camera says. “They’re killing him inside the car.”
Genivaldo de Jesus Santos, 38, was dead by the time police brought him to a hospital Wednesday, according to his relatives. He was unarmed and suffering from schizophrenia when Federal Highway Police (PRF) fatally gassed him on the side of the road, according to his nephew, who said he was at the scene.
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Even in a place long numbed by the prevalence of police killings, the video, shared widely on social media, sparked horror and outrage across Brazil.
“We told the police all the time that he had a heart problem, he had mental problems,” his nephew, Wallison de Jesus, told The Washington Post. “And they continued the torture, telling everyone to stay away.”
Brazil’s Federal Police released a statement Thursday that said they were investigating Santos’s death in the city of Umbaúba, in the northeastern state of Sergipe. In a separate statement, the Federal Highway Police also said it would cooperate with investigating authorities and had already suspended the officers involved in the incident.
The video has sparked protests in Santos’s hometown and calls for justice across Brazil, where police are notorious for warlike raids — encouraged by far-right Brazilian President Jair Bolsonaro as part of his crime-fighting agenda.
Bolsonaro told reporters Thursday that it was too soon for him to offer comment. “I don’t know what happened to give you a proper answer,” he said.
On Tuesday, the day before Santos’s death, at least 21 people died during a police operation in Rio de Janeiro. It was one of the deadliest raids in recent years, but only the latest in a long list of such operations.
Santos was Black, according to Brazilian news reports, and his death also ignited anger over the police’s history of discrimination and use of disproportionate force against Black men.
“There is no way out for Brazil that is not built on guaranteeing the life of the Black population,” said Douglas Belchior, a member of an activist group called the Brazilian Black Movement Delegation.
Lucas Rosario, a spokesperson for Sergipe’s Public Security Secretariat, which oversees the state’s police, declined to comment on the video’s veracity. He said Santos’s family members provided the video as evidence when they filed a police report Wednesday.
“The images are just shocking,” said Samira Bueno, executive director of the nongovernmental Brazilian Forum on Public Safety. “He’s a mentally disturbed person, and it’s the story of you using the vehicle as a gas chamber to immobilize a person.”
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Sergipe’s Institute of Forensic Medicine, which oversees autopsies, said Thursday that Santos died of asphyxia but that it could not determine the “immediate cause” of death.
Santos’s nephew told The Post that he saw police throw a tear gas grenade into the car.
Rosario said the source of the gas seen pouring from the vehicle was under investigation.
Eyewitnesses and police provided contrasting accounts.
Officers said Santos “actively resisted” police as they approached, according to a statement released Wednesday, and that he “fell ill” during his transfer to a police station.
De Jesus, the nephew, said police stopped his uncle, who was riding a motorcycle, and asked him to lift his shirt. Santos began to get nervous after police found packets of his medication on him. The nephew said he informed police officers about his uncle’s mental health condition and that he required this medication.
“Then the torture session began,” de Jesus said.
Police grabbed Santos’s arms, kicked his legs and knocked him to the ground, his nephew said. After beating him on the ground, officers tied his legs and threw him in the car along with the gas canister, de Jesus said.
Santos’s wife, Maria Fabiana dos Santos, told G1 that her husband had been living with schizophrenia for two decades but was never violent.
“I have lived with him for 17 years,” she said. “He never assaulted anyone, never did anything wrong, always doing the right thing. And at a moment like this, they caught him and did what they did.”
Ronaldo Cardoso da Silva, a local teacher and social worker, told The Washington Post that he had been Santos’s friend. He survived off social security benefits and the occasional odd jobs, sometimes driving a rickshaw and letting cash-strapped passengers ride free, Cardoso da Silva said.
Some 6,000 Brazilians died after being shot intentionally by on-duty police officers in 2020, according to data from the Monitor of Use of Lethal Force in Latin America, a consortium of researchers and academics from the region.
Bolsonaro has called for criminals to “die in the streets like cockroaches” and has said that police who kill criminals “should be decorated, not prosecuted.”
José Luiz Ratton, a professor of criminal studies at Brazil’s Federal University of Pernambuco, said the increase in violent raids in recent years targeting the “socially vulnerable” has been “fed by authorities … who encourage and reinforce violent, unregulated and uncontrolled police action in the name of ‘fighting crime.’ ”
This report has been updated.