Police Violence In Rio’s Favelas

On Saturday 19 November, a police helicopter in Brazil’s capital of Rio de Janeiro crashed in the City of God favela. Four police officers were killed in the crash; however, the ensuing police raid into the favela caused another eleven casualties. The violence between drug gangs, militias, and police sparked by the crash has imperilled residents of the favela who were caught in the crossfire. The events that have transpired in the City of God favela represent a wider culture of violence in the city of Rio. While drug gangs and militias are also responsible for crime and violence in Rio’s favelas, the police are responsible for at least 15% of homicides in the city. If serious institutional reform within the police force is not pursued, residents of Rio’s favelas will continue to face disproportionate levels of police violence and suffer the consequences of systemic marginalization.

Senior researcher in Brazil for the Human Rights Watch, César Muñoz claims, “Rio is the most dangerous [policing] situation in Brazil, and it’s among the worst in Latin America.” Indeed, the heavy-handed approach by the police has fostered and entrenched mistrust within favela communities towards the police, who are meant to protect them. Maria Laura Canineu, the Brazil Director for Human Rights Watch states, “Police shoot at unarmed people. They shoot people in the back as they are fleeing. They execute people who have been detained with a bullet to the head. And then they try to cover up their crimes.” The police’s response to Saturday’s helicopter crash reflects the ongoing lethality of force against favela residents. According to Amnesty International, the deaths of eleven people during the ensuing police operation into the favela indicate the “highly militarized” nature of the Rio police force.

The continuation of violence within the favelas must end. Rio de Janeiro’s police force must adopt system-wide reforms that inform officers about human rights, life within favelas, and the unnecessary use of violence upon suspects. In addition, the Brazilian government must counter police collusion with gangs through the enforcement of anti-corruption measures and ensure that officers are held accountable for extrajudicial killings. Within the favelas, residents have formed collectives that initiate dialogues between the residents, police, and gangs, in the hope of establishing an inclusive solution that prioritizes the safety of favela residents. This has been a positive initiative, however, members of these networks have been threatened and/or killed by gangs and militias who see the former’s activities as collusion with the police. Furthermore, the installation of police pacification units within favelas across the city has resulted in a decreased level of violence. However, the lack of trust between residents and the police has stymied the pacification programs in favelas where violence is, again, on the rise. Substantial change must come from the Brazilian government and state of Rio, who wield the most power to reform the police force and curb crime within the favelas.

There are at least 1,000 favelas in the city of Rio. The City of God favela (Cidade de Deus) was formed in the 1960’s as a way to conceal the urban poor from tourists and the wealthy. The favelas of Rio are slums or shantytowns, and have disproportionate levels of crime and poverty affecting its residents. The favelas house around 1.5 million people who face marginalization and systemic abuse by the police. This alienation has disproportionately affected black populations within and without the favelas. Such systemic racism has compounded an already hostile relationship between Rio’s urban poor and the police.

The helicopter crash in the City of God has emphasised the ongoing tensions between favela communities and Rio’s police force. The unnecessary use of force against civilians is deplorable and reflects the structural inequalities plaguing Brazil. If serious improvement is to be sustained in the favelas of Rio, it must come with an assurance from the Brazilian government that the safety and well-being of all citizens will be upheld.

Caitlin Biddolph