The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Brazil’s politicians promised to get tough on crime. Now police in Rio are killing nearly 5 people per day

People react to the death of popular jujitsu teacher Jean Rodrigo da Silva, who was shot to death Tuesday during a police operation in Rio’s Alemão complex of favelas.
People react to the death of popular jujitsu teacher Jean Rodrigo da Silva, who was shot to death Tuesday during a police operation in Rio’s Alemão complex of favelas. (Ricardo Moraes/Reuters)
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Protests erupted in one of Rio de Janeiro’s largest slums after police allegedly shot a popular local jujitsu teacher to death amid an increasingly lethal crackdown on crime. Hundreds in the city’s poorest neighborhoods have been killed in police operations this year.

Jean Rodrigo da Silva was on his way to teach martial arts to children in the Alemão complex of favelas Tuesday in northern Rio when police fired into the neighborhood, witnesses said. He was struck in the head; photos that showed him lying in a pool of blood went viral.

A surge in violence that claimed a record 64,000 lives in 2017 has helped usher a new class of tough-on-crime politicians into office — and has led to a spike in police killings. Brazil’s president, the former army captain Jair Bolsonaro, ran on promises to crack down on violence, give police more authority to use lethal force and defend officers who have killed on the job.

“A police officer who does not kill is not a police officer,” Bolsonaro said last year.

Wilson Witzel, the governor of Rio state, has followed Bolsonaro’s example. The former marine is creating a team of snipers capable of shooting suspects six blocks away; he has promised to “immediately neutralize and slaughter anyone who has a rifle.”

Rio’s police have been invading slums and shooting suspects, residents say, with abandon.

The crackdown might be showing results. Rio’s homicide rate fell 24 percent in the first two months of the year, government figures show.

Police killings, meanwhile, have reached a 21-year high, according to Brazil’s Institute of Public Security. During the first three months of 2019, officers in Rio killed 432 people, according to the government-funded institute. That’s an average of 4.82 per day — up 18 percent from the same period last year.

Residents of Alemão say police mistook da Silva for a criminal. Police did not respond to a request for comment.

Shooting continued well into the evening, even as police ­investigated the scene of his death. Dozens of residents set garbage on fire and blocked access to protest rising police brutality.

“They send these jerks into our neighborhoods to kill,” said Sandra Mara, da Silva’s mother. “When are police going to stop killing my son, our sons? Ask Witzel!”

Witzel said da Silva’s death was “awful.”

“I want to express to his mother Sandra Maria [sic] my profound condolences for her loss,” he tweeted Wednesday. “This death will not go unpunished and will be investigated rigorously.”

Da Silva was preparing to compete in Brazil’s national jujitsu championship when he was killed.

Under Witzel, police in Rio have begun conducting operations aboard helicopters, shooting into slums at suspected criminals.

Some schools are now placing signs on their roofs asking officers not to shoot. Witzel was heavily criticized this month after he published a video of himself aboard a helicopter during an operation in which shots were fired at an evangelical prayer site.

In Rio’s impoverished neighborhoods, casualties are common. Soldiers patrolling the city last month fired 80 shots into a car with two children traveling to a baby shower. Two adults in the car were killed.

Police said the soldiers mistook the car for a similar vehicle used by gang members. 

The shooting caused an uproar and led to a federal investigation into the soldiers.

Critics say Witzel’s policies are making the streets of Rio’s affluent neighborhoods safer while wreaking havoc in the slums.

“Once again the police arrive shooting,” local human rights activist Raull Santiago tweeted after da Silva’s killing. “It is one more black, poor body on the ground, bleeding, its life ripped away for what this country calls ‘public safety.’ Not for us.”

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