Human rights activists and public security experts have expressed outrage after the newly elected governor of Rio de Janeiro state confirmed plans to implement shoot-to-kill policing tactics in the crime-ridden region.
Wilson Witzel, a former federal judge who unexpectedly won the governorship in October, said in radio interview on Thursday that Rio security forces were authorized to use lethal force against suspects.
Later on the same day, he said that Rio needed its own version of Guantánamo Bay prison camp to free society of criminals who he described as “terrorists”.
Witzel came to office on the wave of far-right, tough-on-crime rhetoric unleashed by Jair Bolsonaro. The president, who took office on Monday, has often defended giving a carte blanche to security forces and pledged to deploy the military on the streets of Brazilian cities if congress and governors gave him permission.
In his own inauguration speech on Tuesday, Witzel promised confrontation with gangs.
“Those who pick up guns and call for war will get a war,” he said. “Organized crime can no longer have the freedom to carry weapons of war and be treated romantically as people who didn’t have opportunities.”
However, many fear such proposals could be disastrous for Rio’s already precarious security situation.
“What he’s saying is illegal and unconstitutional,” said Ignacio Cano, a public security researcher at the Rio State University, pointing out that Brazil does not have the death penalty.
“His discourse is as if sternness were the issue, when the real issues are corruption and a lack of efficiency and intelligence in investigations.” Cano said that threatening drug traffickers with death is unlikely to discourage them, as most know they are already heading for a violent end.
“Rio security forces have always been violent and had low accountability, but he’s trying to sell this hard line as a new tactic,” said Cano. “We already know it doesn’t work and ramping up this kind of policy could have dire consequences.”
Rio’s security forces had their deadliest year on record in 2018, with 1,444 police killings – an average of one every five and a half hours. During most of that period, Brazil’s military was in charge of security in Rio, under a federally mandated “intervention”. Security forces are rarely indicted on homicide charges.
Rio is frequently described as being “at war” and many residents are exasperated by crime. Wars between competing gangs and the police result in daily shootings and armed robberies on the streets are common.
For many voters in last year’s elections, crime was the principal motive for many to support hardline candidates such as Bolsonaro and Witzel.
Mônica Fuchshuber, a graphic designer from Rio, said she had voted for Witzel because of his security policies. “I like how he has total intolerance for organized crime,” she said. “Rio is dominated by drug traffickers. We need to be taking more drastic measures.”
After the election, Witzel promised to “slaughter” criminals by employing helicopter-borne snipers to kill anyone carrying a rifle, even if they were not engaging their weapons.
His security policies will mostly affect Rio’s favelas – poor neighborhoods where drug traffickers often operate, but where the majority of residents are law-abiding citizens.
Renata Souza, a recently elected state representative who lives in one of Rio’s most dangerous favelas, pointed to a recent case in which a resident was killed by police who mistook his umbrella for a rifle.
“We already live in an alarming, insecure situation and now we have a governor who’s saying to kill freely in favelas without any accountability. It’s practically giving a death penalty for the favela.”
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