Police choppers a terrifying sight in Rio slums

Rio de Janeiro (AFP) –


For those who live in Rio de Janeiro's crime-wracked slums, danger and fear are not just around every corner -- they also come from the sky.

Police snipers in helicopters -- who fire off shots from above, sometimes in close proximity to day care centers and schools -- can make the favelas feel like a war zone.

"When they fly at low altitude, it feels like they are going to land right on our homes. The sound is deafening and the windows rattle," says 30-year-old Thais Custodio, who lives in a sprawling network of 16 favelas known as the Mare.

Located near the international airport serving Brazil's tourism capital, Mare is home to more than 140,000 people.

In the labyrinth of alleys, amid a tangle of electrical wires hanging every which way, youths armed with assault-style rifles are a common sight.

Mare is a high-risk zone -- there is even a thoroughfare, known as the "Gaza Strip," which separates territory controlled by two rival drug gangs.

Unlike some Rio favelas perched on steep hills, the ramshackle homes in Mare were built on a flat surface -- making it an easy target for police helicopter raids.

In 2009, one such chopper was shot down by drug traffickers shooting from a hill in the north of the city. Three people were killed in the incident, and it left a mark on the community.

A decade later, security forces are carrying out more and more air raids.

According to the local non-governmental organization Redes da Mare (Mare Networks), helicopters were used in eight of 21 police operations in the complex in the first half of the year.

Fifteen people died in the raids overall, 14 of them in the operations involving helicopters.

In comparison, choppers were used in only three operations there in all of 2018.

For Camila Barros, who leads research efforts and collects data on security for the NGO, it is impossible to know if the shots fired from the helicopters were the fatal ones.

Barros says the aircraft are most often used to pinpoint the location of suspected drug traffickers, and the shots are meant to hem them in.

"They fly very low, in circles, to corner suspects and drive them towards agents on the ground who are tasked with killing them," Barros claimed.

"In June, we went to the scene of an operation a few hours after the fact, and we counted more than 100 bullet impacts."

- 'Civil war' -

Silvia Ramos, a specialist at the Center for Research on Security and Citizenship (CESeC), said the increased use of helicopters in police raids is directly linked to the arrival in January of a new governor for Rio de Janeiro state, Wilson Witzel.

Witzel, a tough-on-crime politician in the vein of far-right President Jair Bolsonaro, made headlines in May when he appeared in a video aboard a helicopter as officers fired shots into a favela.

"Before, the use of helicopters was an exception, but it is becoming the rule under this government," Ramos said.

"We're seeing more and more deadly police operations that are wreaking havoc" in the favelas, she said, underscoring the damaging psychological effect of the raids on residents.

How can Rio police justify the use of force that seems more appropriate for a war zone? For some lawmakers, the favelas are just that.

"We are in a civil war," right-wing lawmaker Capitao Augusto, one of the leaders of the pro-weapons lobby in Brazil's legislature, told AFP.

"If a person is armed with an assault rifle, that person is a threat and should be neutralized -- it doesn't matter if the person is shot by a sniper, a drone or from a helicopter."

- 'Everyone is scared' -

Redes da Mare collected 1,500 drawings from children in August. In numerous cases, the kids had drawn helicopters -- and added dotted lines for the sprays of gunfire.

In one drawing, the child wrote "I don't like the helicopter because there are shots and people die."

"Everyone is scared, even the teachers who must remain calm to try to stay alive and keep their students alive," said Fernanda Viana Araujo, a 39-year-old resident of Mare and a mother of three.

"In Mare, the children don't see school as a safe place. They know they can be hit by a stray bullet at any time."

According to the Institute of Public Security (ISP), more than 1,400 people were killed in police-involved incidents from January to September of this year in Rio state.

That is an 18.5 percent increase as compared with last year.