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Soldiers in Brazil fired dozens of shots at her family, killing her husband. Will anyone be held accountable?

Luciana dos Santos Nogueira, the widow of Brazilian musician Evaldo Rosa dos Santos, mourns during his funeral in Rio de Janeiro in April. Twelve soldiers are accused of killing Santos, 46, and another man, endangering the community and failing to render aid to the victims. (Mauro Pimentel/AFP/Getty Images)

RIO DE JANEIRO — These are the numbers that haunt Luciana dos Santos Nogueira, the numbers she can neither forget nor — even months later — scarcely believe.

Two hundred fifty-seven shots soldiers fired in the direction of her family — an unexpected barrage of bullets still without any clear cause — as they were driving to a baby shower on a Sunday afternoon in April.

Sixty-two bullets pierced their Ford Ka, which was carrying her husband, stepfather and 7-year-old son.

Nine rounds hit her husband, several in the head, killing him.

Even in a country inured to extraordinary violence by security forces, where Rio state police have killed a record 1,686 people this year, the death of musician Evaldo Rosa dos Santos stands out for its apparent senselessness.

Now Brazilians will learn whether the state can hold itself to account. This month for the first time, the 12 men involved in the shooting offered testimony in military court. They’re accused of killing Santos, 46, and a nearby trash collector, endangering the community and failing to render aid to the victims. A trial date has not been set.

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The soldiers, who were policing a gang-plagued neighborhood in northern Rio, don’t deny shooting at the car. They said they thought it was empty. They’d been responding to a robbery, they said, and were acting in self-defense when the thief fired upon them — testimony at odds with earlier statements and evidence.

No guns were found at the scene. Witnesses said no one except the soldiers had fired. And shortly after the shooting, military officials said the soldiers shot at the Ford Ka because they’d mistaken it for a criminal’s car.

“Fanciful,” military prosecutor Najla Palma called the defendants’ story. “It’s a construction of the defense.”

In a state where critics say the police routinely kill without consequence, rights groups and attorneys are saying the inconsistencies, revisions of fact and claims of self-defense highlight endemic problems investigators face in holding police accountable.

“Impunity is the rule for police killings and in police abuse,” said Maria Laura Canineu, the Brazil director of Human Rights Watch. “This case seems to be following the pattern. The police claim [they were responding to] a shooting, and the people on the ground say there was never a shooting.”

Only 3.5 percent of investigations by the state prosecutor’s office into suspicious police killings in the past three years led to charges, according to an analysis of 1,379 cases by the Brazilian newspaper Globo. Between 2010 and 2015, a period during which 3,441 people were killed by police, less than half of 1 percent of the deaths led to charges, Human Rights Watch reported.

The widening chasm between the number of dead and the apparent lack of accountability brings into clarity the price Brazilians have been willing to impose as they try to quell violent crime.

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

As the number of homicides in Brazil hit a record 63,880 in 2017, officials took increasingly drastic steps. The military was dispatched to Rio state to help battle powerful criminal networks that had seized control of swaths of the cities. Voters elected a new wave of officials who promised, in increasingly strident language, to restore order to the country — no matter the cost.

Brazilian President Jair Bolsonaro has said he wants to see criminals “die in the streets like cockroaches.” Police who kill them “should be decorated, not prosecuted,” he has also said.

Rio state Gov. Wilson Witzel, who has dispatched snipers, helicopters and armored vehicles to the city’s dangerous neighborhoods to “neutralize” criminals, has assured the public that “police will do the correct thing: They will aim at the head and . . . fire!”

That type of rhetoric, critics say, has normalized extrajudicial killings, making it much more difficult to hold anyone accountable for wrongful deaths.

Silvia Ramos, a social scientist who studies violence at University Candido Mendes in Rio, called it the “culture of excessive use of force.” But it’s not only police and politicians who promote it, she said — it’s the wider community, too.

“In the large majority of these cases, people in the local community think it was part of the war on crime,” Ramos said. “It was normal and that they weren’t innocent, that they deserved it.

“This kind of thinking contributes more to the legitimization of the use of force.”

That means there’s little public pressure here to investigate police misconduct.

State prosecutor Paulo Roberto Mello Cunha has tried cases against police — and struggled with the challenges. Witnesses live in dangerous communities and are scared to talk. Crime scenes are tampered with. Some people think the victims deserved it.

“The victim needs to prove their innocence, even if there is nothing formally against it,” he said. “There is the idea that police should kill criminals and not arrest them. What people who believe this, however, lose sight of is that lack of control and police violence are the main factors that fuel police corruption.”

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When police investigators do take on a case, human rights investigators allege, their work is often so poor that it’s difficult to say what actually happened.

“Police investigators routinely fail to conduct even the most basic measures to make it possible for these people to be held accountable,” said Canineu, the Human Rights Watch official. The uncertainty “favors the police” narrative of self-defense.

The only time that doesn’t happen, critics say, is when a shooting is so outrageous that the public demands action. A child is caught in the crossfire. A massacre leaves 14 dead. A military force unloads dozens of bullets on a car carrying a young family.

There are so many things that Luciana dos Santos Nogueira still can’t bring herself to believe about that day. It was in the middle of the afternoon. It was a Sunday. Her stepfather and husband, whom she’d known since she was a child, were in the front seats. Nothing would hurt them.

Then came noise like they’d suddenly dropped into the middle of a war, and there was blood, and her stepfather was taking the wheel as it slipped from her husband’s hands.

“Be calm,” she told her husband. “Be calm.”

She got out of the car.

“Help us!” she yelled. “My husband is inside!”

A trash collector ran over, she said, but was gunned down.

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This week, she heard the soldiers offer a very different account. They said Luciano Macedo, the trash collector who ran to help the family, had robbed a car and fired at police. One said the mourners who gathered at the scene — mostly her husband’s family — were a “ruse of drug dealers.”

Now she was shaking her head, weeping.

Was it not enough for her to lose her husband? she asked. Now they had to defame her husband’s family?

She wanted to believe the system would work — that she’d get justice for all that she had lost. But she couldn’t shake her doubts.

“Justice here fails,” she said. “If they are not punished, I will die, too. I will die.”

Ana Paula Blower Passos contributed to this report.

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