Maria Diva do Nascimento was worried as she set off for her job at one of Rio de Janeiro’s biggest hospitals wearing a face mask she hoped would keep her alive.
It had been two days since she had heard from her son Allyson, a 20-year-old drug trafficker whose job made social isolation impossible.
Nascimento knew the risks of Covid-19 well: four days earlier it had killed a friend and fellow security guard at the hospital. More than half of her co-workers had been infected.
But when the 42-year-old reached work on Friday, she received news of another, even more immediate threat to her child.Covid-19 cases in Brazil surpass Italy amid surge in Latin America
Armed police were sweeping into the Complexo do Alemão, the vast favela where Allyson worked for Brazil’s oldest drug faction, the Red Command. Helicopters soared overhead.
“Where are you???” Allyson’s panicked mother asked him on WhatsApp at 6.39am. “I’m on my way home,” he answered. But that was the last message he sent her.
By lunchtime, Nascimento would learn her son was dead – one of more than 2,000 mostly young Brazilians gunned down by Rio police since the start of last year.
Maria Diva do Nascimento with Allyson in one of their last photos together. Photograph: Family Handout
“I brought him into this world,” she said on Saturday, crying as she prepared to say farewell. “No one had the right to take him away.”
Police operations and body bags are nothing new to Rio, where state police killed a record 1,810 people last year, nearly five a day.
But with the city now in partial shutdown because of Covid-19, and citizens under orders to stay indoors, favela residents are voicing outrage that the police’s terrifying incursions into their communities have not been halted.
Friday’s operation – which left 13 people dead, including Allyson – was the latest in a series of deadly police assaults which have continued despite the quarantine imposed by Rio’s hardline governor, Wilson Witzel, in mid-March.
“Instead of sending doctors and nurses to protect residents from Covid-19, the government sends police, bullet-proof vehicles and helicopters to kill us,” said Bruno Itan, a photographer from the Complexo do Alemão who documented Friday’s raid in a series of photos that show police officers in anti-coronavirus face masks standing over corpses covered in sheets. “We are tired.”
Renata Souza, a leftwing congresswoman, demanded an inquiry into what she called a “massacre”.
“People should be getting help, not getting shot at,” complained Souza, who said it was inhumane for such operations to continue during the pandemic.Brazil gangs impose strict curfews to slow coronavirus spread
Friday’s raid was not the first since Rio – which has suffered more than 2,400 of Brazil’s 16,000 Covid-19 deaths – went into shutdown two months ago.
Two weeks earlier three were killed in the same area, named after the US president John F Kennedy during the 1960s because of a US-funded development program designed to counter communism in Latin America.
Residents remove bodies from Rio’s Complexo do Alemão favela on Friday after the police operation. Photograph: Bruno Itan/The Guardian
But the incursion into Alemão – an immense and densely populated community with more inhabitants than 97% of Brazilian cities – was by far the bloodiest.
Residents described scenes of terror as black-clad security forces and armoured personnel carriers streamed into the favela to a soundtrack of gunfire and explosions.Coronavirus: the week explained - sign up for our email newsletter
Houses and walls were destroyed in the ensuing gun battles, water tanks exploded and the power network was wrecked, leaving thousands without electricity.
By the time the shooting stopped, nearly six hours later, police bullets had killed exactly the same number of people as Covid-19 in the Complexo do Alemão: 13.
“We were afraid of the pandemic, but this is even worse,” said Itan. “There were so many bodies it was hard to believe.”
Allyson’s corpse was one of five found inside a half-built house where locals suspect they were tortured before being shot – something police deny. “Their bodies were dumped one on top of the other. We had to carry them out of the community,” said one man who helped remove the victims with his bare hands.
Families mourn in Rio’s Complexo do Alemão on Friday. Photograph: Bruno Itan/The GuardianLockdowns leave poor Latin Americans with impossible choice: stay home or feed families
The operation’s commanding officer, Marcus Amim, told journalists it had been legitimate and successful: police returned to base having seized eight rifles and 85 hand grenades.
“Of course more than a dozen deaths doesn’t make anyone happy. But we didn’t choose this outcome,” Amim said, blaming the bloodshed on the resistance of heavily armed gang members.
Among those reportedly killed was a wanted gang leader called Leonardo Serpa de Jesus.
But Dandara Tinoco, a public policy researcher at Brazil’s security-focused Igarapé Institute, said police had no right to play judge and jury by eliminating suspects. “Brazil doesn’t have the death penalty. It’s the courts that convict. Those who commit crimes should be held to account in a proportional manner.”
As favela residents faced up to the double threat of conflict and Covid, Nascimento was getting ready to bury her son, who began his short life of crime at the age of 17.
“I always taught him to lead an honest life, I worked and tried to set an example … Unfortunately, it didn’t work,” said Nascimento. Her partner is a refuse collector, and for both of them, stay-at-home rules are a fantasy.
Nascimento said she drew comfort from the daily text messages she exchanged with her only child. Last weekend, on Brazil’s Mothering Sunday, he wrote: “I know I’m not a good son but I want you to know that without you I’m nothing. I love you so much.”
“Everyone deserves a second chance,” Nascimento said on Saturday, on the eve of his funeral. “Arrest them – but don’t kill them.”
Hours later she laid him to rest at a cemetery in northern Rio. “No mother raises her child for it to end like this.”