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As police shootings in Rio rise, children are caught in the crossfire

Children show spent bullet casings and a bloodstained towel after a police operation in the Rio de Janeiro favela of Mangueira in 2017. (Fabio Teixeira/Anadolu Agency/Getty Images)

RIO DE JANEIRO — When she heard the gunshots, Simone Barros thought of her son.

At age 11, Kauã had just entered what Barros considered the most dangerous period of his life. He was old enough now to look like a threat, and every day she woke fearing it would be his last. The police would come, confuse him for a gang member and shoot him dead.

Now she ran from her small house in Rio’s Bangu neighborhood to find her community in upheaval. The police had arrived. Neighbors were screaming. One ran up to her.

“Kauã’s been hit!”

Years into a violent experiment to restore order to one of the world’s most dangerous cities, this is one grim consequence: dead children. As police have used greater force to reclaim swaths of Rio controlled by gangs, they’re killing more of the city’s young.

Between 2011 and 2017, the most recent year for which demographic data on police killings is available, the number of children and adolescents killed in a police shootout in Rio de Janeiro state more than tripled, from 55 to 193. In 2017, research shows, 1 in 4 teenage homicides was committed during a police operation.

Now posters bearing the names of children killed during police interventions ring the Rodrigo de Freitas Lagoon near Ipanema. Pictures showing children hiding from police inside their homes and schools have gone viral.

Each week seems to bring new deaths. On Friday, it was 8-year-old Ágatha Sales Félix, shot to death as she rode with her grandfather in a small bus in Complexo do Alemao, a network of favelas in Rio.

In a state where police killed nearly 1,250 people through August — more than five per day — her death was piercingly familiar. Protesters at her funeral carried signs that read “Stop killing us.”

And even as the overall homicide rate drops, there’s widespread fear across Rio’s poorest favelas that the number of dead children will continue to climb.

Rio is governed by politicians who won office by promising, in increasingly extreme language, to get tough on crime. Brazilian President Jair Bolsonaro said last month that he wanted to see criminals “die in the streets like cockroaches.” Rio state Gov. Wilson Witzel has donned military attire, ridden in tanks and deployed snipers in helicopters to “neutralize” suspected criminals from blocks away.

In Bangu in May, Simone Barros didn’t see a suspected criminal. She saw her fear realized: Kauã, shot in the back, lying at the feet of several police officers.

“My God, what happened?” Barros asked Kauã.

“Don’t worry, Mom,” he said. “I’m not in any pain. Just thirsty.”

Not knowing what else to do, she watched helplessly as the spreading blood soaked his shorts.

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

‘It shoots and people die’

Fear of violence dominates life in Rio. Most everyone talks about it all of the time. Who was robbed. Who was killed. The powerlessness people felt as a drug-fueled gang war raged in the favelas, and homicides across Rio state rose 30 percent from 2012 to 2017.

Officials responded with a level of force that better recalls military operations than community policing. Police arrived in caveirões — armored vehicles — or helicopters. And the number of killings by police in Rio state skyrocketed, from 419 in 2012 to a record 1,534 last year. The 1,249 shot dead through August have put police on a pace to kill still more this year.

Defenders of this militarized policing say it has caused homicides to fall — they’re now at a 16-year low. But critics say it has caused indiscriminate killing — and the deaths of innocent children. Some hit in the crossfire between police and drug traffickers, some mistaken for gang members.

One 12-year-old boy was out getting a snack in March when he was shot and killed by police.

“Things have gotten more aggressive,” said his mother, Luciana Pimenta. “They’ve become more secure in their cruelty and cowardliness.”

Another child, this one 14, was running late for school in June 2018 when he unwittingly charged into a shootout.

“He was wearing his school clothes with his school supplies,” said his mother, Bruna da Silva.

Police and government officials in Rio declined repeated interview requests. They didn’t respond to specific questions about Kauã’s death or general questions about whether the death of children is an acceptable price to pay to reduce crime.

After Ágatha’s death Friday, the state public ministry released a statement. “Inappropriate and extralegal use of lethal force by police . . . constitutes a public problem,” it said.

The Rio government tweeted that it “deeply regretted her death . . . as well as all innocent victims, during police actions.”

But on Monday, Witzel blamed recreational drug users.

“Those who use narcotics in a recreational way, think about it,” the governor tweeted. “You are responsible for the death of the girl Agatha: you who use marijuana and cocaine give money to genocides.”

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Parents, psychologists and activists say the police killings are remaking childhood in some of the city’s poorest communities. The favelas, which spill across Rio’s hillsides in hues of ash and orange, are largely pedestrian, with few cars and fewer strangers. The streets were once full of children playing. Some parents would leave kids unattended for hours while working in the city, trusting that neighbors would look after them.

“Kids would feel comfortable,” said Theresa Williamson, executive director of Catalytic Communities, an advocacy organization.

Now there are fewer children out on the streets. Parents schedule their days around when they think the cops might come.

The number of police shootings within 300 meters of schools and child-care facilities in metropolitan Rio increased more than 50 percent in the first five months of this year, according to the Rio-based think tank Cross Fire. In the favela of Mare, at least 10 school days have been canceled this year on account of police operations, matching the number from all of last year, according to the local group Networks of Mare.

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The organization, which is tracking the escalating police violence in its community, in August submitted 1,500 letters written by children to Rio state authorities.

“I don’t like helicopters,” one wrote, with a drawing of airborne snipers firing on his community. “It shoots and people die.”

“I hid behind a washing machine,” another wrote, during a recent police operation.

“I lost a cousin to a stray bullet,” wrote one more.

Silvia Ramos, a social scientist at University Candido Mendes, has been studying the effects of this violence.

“The life of the child in a favela . . . is a life of fear,” she said. “What is it like to wake up to the sound of a helicopter that can gun-blast your house or your bed from above, then to see an armored vehicle pass and blast the walls of your home?”

Monica Cunha started a support group for mothers of children killed by police after her own son was gunned down. “You raise kids who know what it is like to be imprisoned inside their house,” she said. “He can’t go out, play or socialize in the space where they live. Because at any given moment, the police can come by and start shooting.”

It was what Kauã was told hours before he was shot.

The boy was far too energetic

Kauã was acting out again. He had just wrecked the residents’ association garden, then arrived home in a brand-new pair of flip-flops he claimed to have “found.” Now Jocely do Rozario Junior was looking at his son and feeling scared.

Over the last few years, the number of police raids in Bangu, an area scarred by gang conflict, had surged. Drones were now flying over the community. Three men the neighborhood suspected of dealing drugs had been killed by police. A 3-year-old was nearly hit in the crossfire.

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But here his son was, seemingly oblivious to the danger, still far too energetic, which his parents loved around the house — “he couldn’t see a dirty dish,” his mother said — but terrified them when he was outside of it. He wouldn’t stop zigzagging his bike up and down the neighborhood’s main drag, no matter how many times they told him to stop.

“You need to start listening to your mother,” warned Rozario, 34. “This isn’t good for anyone.”

The father started to tick through what to do if the police came. Always be aware. Stop whatever you’re doing. Even if you’re scared, do not run.

“They’ll think you’re a drug dealer,” he said. “Everything to them is a drug dealer. They don’t see that there are workers here. There are families.”

Kauã promised he would do better. Rozario put him to bed on the mattress they shared and, in the morning, headed out for a day of fetching taxis for the wealthy people in the city.

It wasn’t until late when he returned. He found a community seething.

Around 1,000 human rights activists and residents of Rio de Janeiro's favelas protested May 26 against police violence. (Video: The Washington Post)

The police had come. Shots had been fired. A neighbor told him he needed to get home.

When he got there, he discovered a crowd. There were dozens of people. Not one of them was Kauã.

‘It’s not a childhood’

Another child was dead. And what would have been a national scandal in the United States — the name Kauã becoming another Tamir or Trayvon — passed here with little notice.

Police said Kauã had been hit by a stray bullet. The family organized an online fundraiser to pay for his burial. It raised $25.

Barros and Rozario now sat in Rozario’s living room, beneath a giant picture of Kauã, discussing whether they could forgive — both the police, and themselves.

It’s a question Rozario can’t shake. When he comes home and sees his son’s bike, when he looks at his kites hanging on a nearby wall: What sort of father can’t protect his son? What kind of man lets a violent death go unpunished?

“I wasn’t there in the moment when he most needed me, and I’m going to have to carry that for the rest of my life,” he said. “If I had been there, I would have either stopped it or died with him.”

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Their younger son, Kayo, 9, went to the sink, now cluttered with dirty dishes that Kauã would have cleaned and neatly stored, and came back with fruit to pass around. Rozario and Barros looked at him, wondering how to keep him safe.

“He’s very angry at the police, so we’re trying to talk him out of it,” said Barros, crying now. “I’m scared of everything. I’m scared even when [the police] look at us.”

They won’t allow Kayo to go out anywhere alone, not even to the nearby bakery, willing to sacrifice his childhood if it means saving his life. The new rules: No playing on the street. No flying kites. No riding bicycles. No running.

Rozario doesn’t know if Kayo’s rules will ever change. He’d seen cops come into the favela recently wearing masks, which convinced him they were no longer interested in policing, but in terrorizing. Another day, he saw officers huddled around a motionless form, and when they left, there was only a pool of blood and a single white flip-flop.

He looked at Kayo, sitting inside, playing video games on his phone.

“It’s not a childhood,” Rozario said.

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