Rio police suspected of using snipers in favela


Rio de Janeiro (AFP)

Rio de Janeiro's favelas are known for high crime. But in one of the city's poor neighborhoods, rights groups say residents face a new threat: police snipers.

According to an investigation by human rights organizations, at least five people were shot dead between October and January from a police tower in the northern Manguinhos favela.

That has set off alarm bells, as experts fear rising police brutality, fueled by President Jair Bolsonaro's "zero tolerance" on crime -- rhetoric that is echoed by Rio governor Wilson Witzel.

Carlos Lontra, 27, was shot dead in a Manguinhos plaza on January 25. Four days later, 37-year-old Romulo da Silva was shot dead as he rode his motorcycle in the same place. Another 22-year-old was shot on January 29 in similar circumstances, but he survived.

"Residents said the victims posed no threat to anybody when they were shot," Maria Laura Canineu, director of Human Rights Watch in Brazil, told AFP.

"That makes these accusations extremely serious because they represent, if proved, totally illegal and excessive actions by the police," she added.

Shootings are commonplace in Rio's favelas, where stray bullets have claimed many lives.

But witnesses in Manguinhos say the recent deaths were different: this was isolated gunfire, with bullets that came from a tower at a police station 250 meters away.

"There was no police operation or exchange of gunfire (when the deaths occurred)," Pedro Strozenberg, ombudsman of Rio's public defender's officer, told AFP.

- Summary executions? -

The reports add to another case that shocked Rio on February 8: a police operation in a favela in the touristy Santa Teresa neighborhood left 13 dead, sparking accusations of summary executions.

During campaigning for last year's election, Witzel promised to deploy snipers to combat armed civilians -- even if they posed no immediate risk to officers.

And for Strozenberg, what has happened in Manguinhos "is a materialization of declarations that seemed abstract during the election campaign."

"It is worrying, because the hypothesis is that the shots came from a Rio de Janeiro police unit and randomly hit residents passing through the area," he added.

On the other hand, Canineu thinks it is too early to make the link between Witzel's statements and Manguinhos -- branded by authorities a "red zone" overwhelmed by drug trafficking.

But, she added, "logically, Witzel's positions in favor of hardline security policies create an environment more disposed to excessive policing."

- Self-defense -

Official figures say over 1,500 people were killed during police interventions in Rio last year.

"We know that many of these murders result from confrontations, but our historical work in Rio de Janeiro state indicates that many others are executions, that is to say, serious human rights violations committed by police," said Canineu.

Now, Justice Minister Sergio Moro is pushing for legislation that would allow police who intervene "during an armed conflict" or where "risk of imminent armed conflict" exists to claim self-defense.

But for human rights advocates, that gives police free reign to execute suspects -- in a country that already is one of the most violent in the world, with 63,000 murders per year.