As a rise in police killings plagues Rio de Janeiro, Wilson Witzel, the current far-right Governor, has claimed that the increase in his state in Brazil is “normal” and simply a consequence of confronting drug-trafficking groups, who he refers to as “terrorists.” Witzel has compared these drug dealers to Lebanon’s Hezbollah, saying that police will show no leniency to “terrorists.”
In the first five months of the year, police in Rio killed around 730 people – a staggering average of five a day. This marks a 20% increase compared to the same period last year. The Governor has claimed that the increase is simply due to police “hitting hard” at criminals, which he views as a positive thing. Not only has he claimed that the increase is “normal,” but he has also said the rate is likely to continue to increase during his time as governor. “We live in a situation of confrontation and the criminals are testing the limits of the police and the government,” Witzel told reporters during a meeting.
Witzel assumed the position of governor of Rio in January. He has since been known for his controversial comments and alignment with far-right Brazilian President Jair Bolsonaro. During the election, voters concerned by insecurity were drawn to his tough-on-crime stance, which further aligned him with Bolsonaro’s platform. The current president’s campaign focused strongly on law and order issues, such as easing restrictions on guns and giving police greater license to kill suspected criminals. Witzel was seen as an option that could give a “local version” of Bolsonaro’s national agenda. Both Bolsonaro and Witzel have faced backlash, with critics saying that more guns are not the solution to reducing violent crime in Brazil, where a record high of 63,880 homicides occurred in 2017 – roughly 45,000 of those cases involved firearms.
Witzel previously warned that Rio would “dig graves” for criminals under his watch, and pledged to “slaughter” criminals by using snipers to target and kill anyone carrying a rifle, even if it was not being shot or used as a threat. However, homicides by criminals have fallen by 24% this year, while policy lethality has reached its highest point in Rio since 2003 (when records began).
Human rights groups and NGOs have come out as alarmed and shocked at the numbers and Witzel’s normalization of them. Amnesty International slammed the increase in police violence in Rio as a continuation of bloodshed “stimulated by the state’s own policies” for decades. Jurema Werneck, Executive Director of Amnesty International Brazil, stated that “The repercussions of this inhumane approach are felt to this day. Instead of guiding the police to protect and preserve life, the state has reinforced the notion that the police’s role is to kill.”
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