Spurred by US protests, Brazil cracks down on deadly cops

Demonstrators protest against racism and hate crimes during a Black Lives Matter rally in Rio de Janeiro yesterday. (AP pic)

SAO GONCALO: The killing of another black teenager by Rio de Janeiro police last month was, based on the numbers, unremarkable – one of hundreds gunned down every year by some of the world’s deadliest cops.

But the fallout has surprised many.

Brazil’s Supreme Court last week banned raids by Rio police during the Covid-19 pandemic and Sunday saw nationwide marches against right-wing President Jair Bolsonaro, as US demonstrations and a global debate over racial violence by police has spurred a reckoning in Brazil.

A studious 14-year-old who talked of becoming a lawyer, Joao Pedro Matos Pinto spent the afternoon of May 18 playing with friends around his uncle’s backyard pool in Sao Goncalo, a gritty suburb of the Rio state capital.

When police helicopters began circling close overhead, the frightened boys rushed inside, Joao Pedro’s mother and uncle told Reuters. Heavily armed police stormed the home, throwing a grenade inside and spraying the structure with gunfire.

One of the bullets hit Joao Pedro in the torso, killing him.

“When you enter a community shooting, it’s as if everyone in the community is a criminal. It’s as if nobody good lives here,” said Rafaela Coutinho Matos, mother of the slain boy, in an interview.

Authorities told her family the death was an accident, she said. They said helicopters spotted a man they thought was the target of a police raid hopping over a fence near the pool.

In a statement, Rio state police said detectives had opened an investigation into the incident and three officers had been suspended. Brazil’s federal police, which also participated in the operation, did not respond to a request for comment.

Such tragedies are commonplace in Rio, where a notoriously violent police force killed 1,814 people last year, according to official statistics. They killed 606 more in the first four months of 2020.

Many killings of unarmed black men, or children, come and go with relatively little protest or media attention.

Yet anger at Joao Pedro’s death and other recent complaints of police brutality are boiling over in Brazil against a backdrop of widespread US demonstrations after the May 25 death of George Floyd in police custody.

Supreme Court order

Far-right Bolsonaro is under extreme pressure for encouraging police to kill more criminals. (AP pic)

On Friday, hundreds gathered outside the Sao Goncalo city hall, chanting “No justice, no peace!” in Portuguese.

Many focused their ire on Bolsonaro and Rio Governor Wilson Witzel, both far-right politicians that have encouraged police to kill more criminals. Witzel, a former judge, said a surge in police killings under his watch “isn’t difficult to justify”.

Also on Friday, Supreme Court Justice Edson Fachin issued an order prohibiting police raids in Rio’s cinderblock slums, known as favelas, until the worst of the Covid-19 outbreak subsides.

The order, which made reference to Joao Pedro’s death, allows raids only under “exceptional circumstances” with prior approval by state prosecutors.

On Sunday, anti-racism marches in major Brazilian cities brought out the largest crowds of anti-Bolsonaro protesters since the pandemic arrived in March.

In the capital Brasilia, demonstrators in masks carried “Black Lives Matter” banners emblazoned with Joao Pedro’s name.

Public safety expert Ignacio Cano said that such fallout from a police killing was unprecedented, suggesting that news from the US had heightened sensitivities in Brazil.

“It’s sad in a way that part of Brazilian society has to look at the US to realise that the problem exists at home,” said Cano, a professor at Rio de Janeiro State University.

“And the media is giving a lot more coverage now after the George Floyd case than they would otherwise give to the recurrent cases of executions in favelas.”

At Friday’s protest in Sao Goncalo, black college student Mykaella Moreira echoed demands for human rights that have taken centre stage in the US as well.

“We can’t accept this genocidal state, which thinks we can die for nothing,” Moreira said.

“We are also people. We also have a right to live.”

Sao Goncalo is patrolled by Rio’s 7th military police battalion, the state’s most deadly police force, public records show.

In October, Reuters published an investigation into the death of Brayan Mattos dos Santos, a 19-year-old who was also the unintended victim of a raid here.

This year, police in the area are set to break their own grim record, having killed 103 people in the district in the first four months of 2020. In March, police here set a monthly record, killing 33 people, according to public data.

Although whites make up half the population in Rio, they account for only 12% of police killings, according to data obtained by Reuters last year under a freedom of information request.

Joao Pedro was studious, devout and went nowhere without family, said his mother Rafaela.

On the day he was killed, Rafaela said the boy was visiting his cousin about a kilometre away to play by the pool.

She learned that Joao Pedro had been injured when her husband entered the family home in a panic, saying their son had been shot and taken to a hospital by helicopter. It was nearly a full day until she learned his fate.

“He was a loving boy,” said Rafaela.

“A boy who had dreams.”