After dozens die in deadly police raid, residents of Rio favelas call for justice

Activists gathered eyewitness accounts after a deadly police raid in the Jacarezinho favela, located to the north of Rio de Janeiro, Brazil on May 6, 2021.
Activists gathered eyewitness accounts after a deadly police raid in the Jacarezinho favela, located to the north of Rio de Janeiro, Brazil on May 6, 2021. © Lucas Louback / Rio de Paz.

At least 25 people, including a police officer, were killed on May 6, 2021 in the Jacarezinho favela located to the north of Rio de Janeiro during a police raid, one of the most deadly in the history of the Brazilian capital. In the wake of this massacre, locals have been calling for justice and an end to police impunity.

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For more than seven hours on May 6, 2021, police and drug dealers exchanged fire in Jacarezinho, one of the largest favelas located to the north of Rio de Janeiro. Witness accounts of the bloody fighting appeared online and in mainstream media, with some residents saying that police and dealers had entered their homes. Some residents reported that the police had confiscated their telephones, under the pretext that they might try to communicate with drug dealers.  

Photos that were posted online or shared directly with our team show streets and alleys littered with bullets and stained with blood. Other photos and videos show rooms turned upside down and also covered with blood stains after police entered people’s homes. Witnesses reported seeing the police take away the bodies of those they had killed and photos posted online show marks across the ground where police allegedly dragged the bodies.

WARNING: SOME READERS MAY FIND THESE IMAGES SHOCKING

The raid began at dawn on May 6, 2021. It took place even though the Supreme Court ordered the police to stop carrying out raids in the favelas during the pandemic, except in "absolutely exceptional circumstances”. 

The police were investigating the possible recruitment of minors by drug dealers in Jacarezinho, which is one of the headquarters of the 'Comando Vermelho' (the 'Red Commando'), one of Rio’s gangs. But the raid turned into a bloodbath. Police confirmed that 24 civilians had been killed alongside a police officer, who was shot in the head.

'Did the police respect protocols? Or was the goal of this operation to kill?'

Lucas Louback
Lucas Louback
Coordinateur de projets ONG Rio de Paz
Rio de Janeiro, Brésil

Lucas Louback is a project coordinator at an NGO called Rio de Paz, which works for the promotion of human rights and the reduction of violence and poverty in Rio de Janeiro. Louback was in Jacarezinho, at the NGO’s headquarters, while the raid was ongoing:

I went to the favela yesterday [Editor’s note: May 6, 2021], around 11am. We had planned to hand out vegetables to some of the poorest residents. When I got there, I was told that there was a police raid going on. 

People in the favela were terrified. We wondered if we should go ahead with the vegetable distribution. But families had come to our headquarters to pick up food, despite the ongoing raid. That’s the first thing that shocked me. That hunger pushed the locals to go out to get food even though there was a risk of being shot and killed. 

Translation: "We started distributing fruits and vegetables this morning in Jacarezinho. Listen to the helicopters. Despite their terror, people still came to get food."

An investigative unit of the police carried out the raid, which is unusual. They aren’t usually as repressive as the military police. 

I started moving around the favela, along with representatives of other local organisations, human rights activists and people from the “Public Defence” [Editor’s note: an institution that provides legal advice and promotes human rights]. We started to realise how serious this raid was – the many deaths, the businesses destroyed, lots of blood and bullets and, yet, no bodies [Editor’s note: locals reported that the police moved the bodies]. 

Some families told us that in the middle of the fighting, some people had tried to surrender and that there were executions. We can’t yet confirm these reports. 

'Where are the education and culture policies for these same children that we say we are protecting?'

The police claimed that they were investigating the recruitment of minors [Editor’s note: by dealers] but what shocks me is the number of children who were exposed to this violence during the raid.

My question is: the government has this public safety policy, but where are the policies for education and culture for these same children who we say we are protecting from organised crime?

This highlights the lack of real will from public officials to change the root causes of the violence in the city of Rio de Janeiro. 

And, finally, how can they justify such a high number of deaths? What was the strategy behind this operation? Did the police respect protocols? Or was the goal of this operation to kill?

Now fear is omnipresent in the favela — fear that the operation will continue and that other dealers will get involved in the conflict. Faced with the fact that this situation isn’t changing, people are distressed, there’s a feeling of revolt here. 

We will continue to listen to the stories of residents, to document human rights violations and to put pressure on decision-makers, so that they will put in place strategies of change, so they will make our public safety policies more efficient. 

In a statement published on May 6, 2021, human rights organisation Amnesty International condemned “the number of people killed in this operation” in Jacarezinho, a favela where the population is largely Black and living in poverty. The organisation called for "a prompt, exhaustive, independent, and effective investigation into these atrocities" to be carried out “impartially and autonomously by someone other than the Rio de Janeiro state police”.

"Even if the victims were suspected of criminal association, which has not been proven, summary executions of this kind are entirely unjustifiable," Amnesty International said. 

Human Rights Watch, for its part, said that police are not held accountable for the homicides they commit.

“As long as impunity for police abuses remains the norm, the bloodshed will continue,” Human Rights Watch wrote. 

According to the NGO "Fogo Cruzado", which documents gun violence in Brazil, this operation is the second most deadly in the history of the state of Rio de Janeiro. In 2005, 29 people were killed during a police raid in Baixada Fluminense in the northern part of the state.