The Fight to End State Violence Against Black People in Brazil

On April 7, 2019, Army personnel fired more than 80 shots at a car carrying a family in the western zone of Rio de Janeiro, Brazil. The driver, Evaldo Rosa dos Santos, died on the spot. His father-in-law and a man passing by the scene were wounded. Evaldo was Black, as is the case for most of the victims of state violence in Brazil.

Brazilian officials still deny this reality. "The Army didn't kill anybody, no, the Army is the People's Army. We cannot accuse the people of being murderers. There was an incident, there was a death, we lament the death of the honest, working, citizen, the responsibility [for the crime] is being investigated," far-right Brazilian President Jair Bolsonaro said on April 12, in reference to Santos’ murder.

Santos’ murder gained media attention for the immense violence involved, but it is far from an isolated case. Black people in Brazil constantly face persecution, disrespect, and violence.

Even though most of the state-sanctioned violence comes from the military police, the Army has done its fair share — particularly in Rio de Janeiro, where they have repeatedly occupied impoverished communities and several areas of the city during major events. In 2018, the federal government intervened in Rio de Janeiro, passing control of public security to the Army.

Brazil has the highest number of deaths by firearms in the world, with 43,200 victims in 2016 alone (71.5 percent were Black). There were 62,517 homicides in 2016, which grants Brazil the title of the country with the highest rate of homicide in the world. Brazil also has the third largest prison population in the world, in which Black people are over-represented and account for more than 60 percent of incarcerated people. Ninety-five percent of the country's imprisoned are impoverished, and two-thirds have not completed primary education. Data from the app Fogo Cruzado (Crossfire), which aggregates information on shootings based on user-submitted content, points to the staggering number of 16 shootings a day in 2017.

That extrapolates to 5,817 throughout the year, mostly in poor communities, which are disproportionately inhabited by Black and Brown people (who are generally counted as Black by the census and the Black movement). In 2018, the average increased to 22 shootings per day.

While Rio de Janeiro was shaken by mass protest that saw approximately 300,000 people take to the streets against government spending in June 2013, a young homeless man named Rafael Braga Vieira who was carrying two bottles of cleaning products was the only one who was arrested, even though he did not take part in the protests. He was convicted in connection to the mass demonstration and sentenced to five years for carrying two bottles of a local version of the cleaning product Pine-Sol, which experts said could be used to make Molotov cocktails. Braga remained in jail until December 2015 when he was allowed to serve the rest of his 5-year sentence with an electronic ankle monitor at his mother’s house, a favela (slum) in the Penha neighborhood of Rio. In January 2016, Braga left his mother’s house to go to a bakery when he was arrested and accused of drug trafficking for carrying 0.6 grams of marijuana and a firecracker, “the kind known to be used by drug traffickers to alert gangs when police officers enter the community,” the BBC reported. According to Braga and a witness, the drugs and a flare were planted by the police officers.

He was sentenced in April 2017 to 11 years and three months in prison, solely based on the conflicting testimonies of the five police officers involved in his arrest — and after, the judge refused to review video surveillance footage ruling it was “unnecessary to the conclusion of the case.” A study by the Center for the Study of Violence at the University of São Paulo (NEV/USP) found that 71 percent of drug-related sentences handed down between August 2014 and January 2016 used only arresting police officers as witnesses.

Braga was, as countless Brazilians, convicted on the basis of the controversial Drug Law 11.343, sanctioned in 2006 by former president Lula da Silva. While drug use has been decriminalized, police officers and judges make decisions on a case-by-case basis because the law does not offer clear distinctions between “use” and “trafficking.” As a result, the law heavily contributed to the increase in incarceration of Black and impoverished Brazilians.

Cláudia Silva Ferreira, a mother of four, was walking on the street of her favela in 2014 when she was shot during a police operation in the area. Military police officers threw her into the trunk of a police car, which ended up opening on the way to the closest hospital, and Ferreira's body was dragged along the asphalt for several yards. Military police officers responsible for dragging Ferreira's body were arrested the next day and soon released because “they did not commit any crime.” At the time of Ferreira's murder, Sub-lieutenant Adir Serrano Machado had been involved in 57 cases of suspects being killed in confrontations with the police (with 63 dead), while Sub-lieutenant Rodney Miguel Archanjo appeared in five cases that resulted in six deaths.

The police officers who commanded the operation, Lieutenant Rodrigo Medeiros Boaventura and Sergeant Zaqueu de Jesus Pereira Bueno, were indicted for Ferreira's murder but haven’t been tried. Boaventura was promoted to captain and, by 2018, had been involved in at least two other murders. Bueno was involved in an additional six homicides.

In 2013, Amarildo Dias de Souza was a resident of the Rocinha favela — the largest in Rio de Janeiro — when he left his home to buy seasoning for some freshly caught fish. On the way, he was stopped by police who supposedly took him to the nearest police station. His body was never found, and de Souza became another symbol of police abuse.

Thousands demonstrated online and in the streets of Rio de Janeiro to demand justice.

Five years after his disappearance, the government of the state of Rio de Janeiro was ordered to compensate de Souza's family for R$3.5 million (R$500,000 for each of his six sons and partner) plus a pension of one minimum wage per month for her. Campaigns raised money for his family, but the state has still not paid the indemnity due to de Souza’s family.

Although de Souza’s body was never found, 25 military police officers from the local Police Pacification Unit (UPP) were prosecuted, and 12 were convicted in 2016. They were sentenced to between nine and 13 years in prison for torture followed by death, concealment of a corpse, and procedural fraud. Four of the convicted officers were cleared in 2019.

The UPP program was created in November 2008 by Rio State Security Secretary José Mariano Beltrame. The UPPs, which patrol 38 favelas, were created under the guise of combating crime and high rates of violence. Shootings and violent deaths initially decreased, but reports of human rights abuses, torture, and disappearances — and, eventually, the return of high rates of shootings and deaths — soon pointed to the failure of the extremely violent UPP model which expands policing without investment in education, culture, leisure, or employment.

In the end, UPPs were yet another project to criminalize the population living in favelas and give a false image of security while a majority of Black and Brown people are exterminated.

Marcos Vinícius da Silva was 14 when he was shot in the stomach while walking home with a friend after taking refuge on their way to school from a gunfight between police and local drug traffickers in the Maré slum complex in June 2018. He died hours later in the hospital. A year before, Maria Eduarda, 13, was killed inside her school in the Pedreira neighborhood by shots fired by military police officer Fabio de Barros Dias in an exchange of fire with two criminals.

The common thread in these and many other deaths is that the victims were Black and residents of Rio’s favelas who live a constant state of vulnerability as preferential targets of police. Data reflects the lethality of the police, and a lack of structure or even concern for the development of favelas, whose population must find creative ways to survive. Not surprisingly, the culture of Rio de Janeiro was born and continues to flourish in favelas.

Despite, and perhaps because of, this violence and insecurity, the vulnerable population finds ways to celebrate life. They gave us samba, a rhythm that became the most recognizable face of Brazil all over the world. Today Rio's favelas export funk, a sensual and dancing rhythm that, although still criminalized and persecuted, became popular and is highlighted on TV and the Internet, generating money and bringing development to the poorest communities in the city. Black Brazilians living in favelas, despite all the violence they see on a daily basis, find ways to resist and make themselves heard.

About the Author

Raphael Tsavkko Garcia is a freelance journalist covering Brazil, Spain, and international politics, conflicts, and human rights. His work has appeared in Al Jazeera, World Politics Review, Foreign Policy, PRI, The Intercept and The Brazilian Report. He is also a PhD candidate in human rights with a focus on migration, diaspora, and online political mobilization of ethnic minorities at the University of Deusto (Basque Country). You can find him on Twitter: @Tsavkko_intl