In Rio de Janeiro, most favelas are controlled by gangs of drug traffickers, the most prominent one being the Comando Vermelho or the Red Command. The cartel started out committing low-level crimes in the 1970s but moved into the cocaine trade in the 1980s. Through the years, it gained control of the many poor neighborhoods in Rio de Janeiro. By 2005, the state's most violent areas were said to be controlled by Rio's top organized group, forcing the government to crack down on illegal operations.
Police operations and body bags are a common sight. Citizens living in the favelas have voiced their fears over the continuous incursions into their communities despite the COVID-19 shutdowns.
The Janeiro state has been riddled with a long history of police brutality and crime. According to a Times analysis, Brazilian law enforcement officers killed over 1,814 people in 2019. The report claims the officers shoot without restraints and are protected by politicians.
On May 15, a police operation reportedly left 13 people dead in the latest series of deadly police assaults in the country. The officers were reportedly seeking a gang leader hiding in the cluster of impoverished neighborhoods.
The authorities released a statement on Friday, claiming an elite unit encountered "multiple clashes" after entering the neighborhood where the drug kingpin was suspected of hiding. They were allegedly attacked with grenade and gunfire in the complex.
Leftwing congresswoman Renata Souza immediately demanded an investigation into what she deemed was a massacre. Homicide detectives will also "follow standard practice" to review the incident.
On April 27, the police also killed five men on a western community controlled by a criminal faction called the Red Command. Among the fatalities was a 17-year-old teenager. Three other victims were killed in the same area in an operation two weeks earlier.
According to the law, the police are allowed to use lethal force when they are confronted by an imminent threat. However, the analysis conducted by the Times showed at least half of the 48 victims of police killings were shot in the back at least once. Autopsy reports also revealed that in at least 20 of the cases, the victims were shot at least three times.
The report also claims only two officers sustained injuries during the operations. One of the officers allegedly shot himself with his rifle, while the other tripped and fell.
The Times study also examined officers who had previously been charged with murder. Half of the killings, it said, involved officers who had previously been implicated in a crime. The May 15 operation reportedly involved Sergeant Sergio Britto-an officer who is on trial for shooting another man in the neck at close range. The report also cited an officer who was previously pulled out from duty after supervisors discovered he fired more than 600 rounds of ammunition on duty within a year alone.
The spike in police killings has generated an overall drop in crime in Rio, a promise Brazilian President Jair Bolsonaro and Governor Wilson Witzel pledged to eradicate drugs and criminals in the country.
Bolsonaro's rise to power has spurred police officers in Rio who has been battling gangs and drug trafficking for decades. Officers who have killed would typically stop reporting for duty for a few days. Those who have been suspended are often asked to report back to duty.
Paulo Roberto Cunha, a prosecutor specializing in police violence, said the trend in police killings involving the battalion is disturbing.
"At the very least, this means the police force is prioritizing a form of action that increases the risk of confrontation, and with that, the number of deaths," he said.