Rio de Janeiro governor Wilson Witzel’s recent expansion of aggressive policing has resulted in a surge of military-style raids into predominantly Afro-Brazilian neighborhoods, prompting the state human rights commissioner to blame Witzel for a 20-year high in police killings. This epidemic of shootout deaths—a phenomenon that has long contributed to high rates of extrajudicial executions in Brazil—is a retrogressive, unlawful approach to security that reinforces institutional racism in the police and is unlikely to break Rio’s cycle of violence in the long term.
Witzel has openly embraced the expansion of police raids that result in high death counts. On May 4, the governor posted a video from a police helicopter, boasting about his hardline approach to crime. A former judge and a member of President Jair Bolsonaro’s far-right party, Witzel was recently elected under a campaign promise centered on using sharpshooters to kill anyone “suspected of carrying a weapon.” Brazilian and international human rights groups and defenders have strongly criticized Witzel’s tactics, as his encouragement of police excessive use of force already seems to be leading to a rise in what were already deadly levels of violence.
A May 6 operation saw eight people killed during a police raid that reportedly involved police sharpshooters in helicopters firing down into densely populated, low-income neighborhoods below. An image circulated by media collective Maré Vive shows children in school uniforms purportedly fleeing the gunfire. Rio police are increasingly using sharpshooters in helicopters during raids and patrols; under Brazilian law, helicopter gunfire should only be used in extreme circumstances of self-defense, but community residents say this is not what’s happening.
Rio de Janeiro’s military police are infamously known to “kill the most and to be the ones who are most killed.” The force previously registered its deadliest year ever in 2018, killing on average one civilian every six hours. Now things are getting worse. Official data shows that Rio de Janeiro police killed 434 people during clashes in the first three months of 2019, a 20-year record. Other recent cases involving excessive use of force—such as the killing of a musician in a Rio suburb, after the military fired 80 shots into his car—have put a spotlight on the conduct of the security forces under Witzel.
The improper, disproportionate, and illegal use of force by police against Rio de Janeiro’s low-income and marginalized residents, many of them Afro-Brazilian, represent an abhorrent assault on due process and other human rights. Such measures are morally unacceptable and counterproductive to effectively fighting crime in the long term; they undermine the judicial system, and they form part of a package of unlawful, racist approaches to addressing insecurity that are based on racial and economic profiling of underprivileged communities.
It is essential that the U.S. Congress and the State Department immediately demand an independent investigation into the role of Governor Witzel’s security policies in leading to extrajudicial executions by the police. Recently, 54 Members of Congress wrote Secretary of State Mike Pompeo to say that “human rights protections for indigenous people, Afro-Brazilians and all sectors of civil society must be at the forefront of United States’ relations with Brazil.” While President Trump said recently that he and President Bolsonaro “have many views that are similar, “ U.S. lawmakers should make clear that they oppose the hardline, often openly racist rhetoric espoused by Bolsonaro and echoed by political allies like Witzel, which is creating a climate that enables abuses to take place.