RIO DE JANEIRO (AP) — A police operation Thursday targeting gang members in Rio de Janeiro’s largest complex of favelas, or low-income communities, left at least 18 people dead in one of the deadliest raids that the city has experienced recently and which has already made more criticism of police brutality.
Authorities in Rio said 16 suspected criminals were killed in clashes with police at Complexo do Alemao, along with a policeman and a woman. A police spokesman said the raid targeted a criminal group that stole cars and robbed banks, and invaded nearby neighborhoods.
Videos circulating on social media showed intense shootouts between criminals as well as a police helicopter flying low over the small brick houses. Rio police used helicopters to fire on targets, even in densely populated residential areas, and video showed shots fired from the favela at the plane.
At the raid site, Associated Press reporters saw residents carrying a dozen bodies as passers-by shouted, “We want peace!” Residents said those who tried to help the injured risked being arrested.
“It’s a massacre inside, which the police call an operation,” a woman told AP, speaking on condition of anonymity because she feared reprisals from the authorities. “They won’t let us help (the victims),” she added, claiming to have seen a man arrested for trying to do so.
A Rio police spokesman said some of the criminals wore uniforms to disguise themselves as police officers.
“I would have preferred that they (the suspects) had not reacted and then we could have arrested 15, 14. But unfortunately they chose to shoot our police officers,” said police investigator Ronaldo Oliveira from Rio.
Rio state governor Cláudio Castro said on Twitter that he mourned the police officer’s death.
“I will continue to fight crime with all my might. We will not back down from the mission of ensuring peace and security for the people of our state,” Castro said.
But many disagree with the government’s strategy to tackle violence and organized crime, an approach that regularly sees deadly police operations. A raid in Rio’s Vila Cruzeiro favela in May killed more than 20 people.
Thursday’s operation was aimed at locating and arresting criminal leaders, some from other states, police said in a statement.
“ENOUGH of this genocidal policy, Governor! Talíria Petrone, a federal lawmaker from Rio, said in response to the governor’s tweet. “This failed public safety policy leaves residents and police on the ground, in droves. It is no longer possible to continue to pile up black bodies and inhabitants of the favelas every day!
Alemao is a complex of 13 favelas north of Rio, home to around 70,000 people. Almost three-quarters of them are Afro-Brazilians, according to a July 2020 study published by the Brazilian Institute for Social and Economic Analysis.
Earlier this year, Brazil’s Supreme Court established a series of conditions for police to carry out raids in Rio’s favelas to reduce killings and human rights abuses by police. The court ordered that lethal force should only be used in situations where all other means have been exhausted and when necessary to protect life.
The decision came in response to a raid on the Jacarezinho favela in 2021 that left 28 people dead. As was the case on Thursday, an officer died during that raid, which some at the time believed was the cause of later abuses and summary executions.
Thursday’s operation began before dawn and ended around 4 p.m. local time, police said. Nearly 400 police were involved, including Rio’s tactical police unit, supported by four helicopters and 10 armored vehicles, according to the police statement.
In a video shared by Voz da Comunidade, a community media outlet focused on Rio’s favelas, residents can be seen calling for peace and waving white sheets from their windows and rooftops.
Fabrício Oliveira, one of the coordinators of the police raid, said authorities feared Friday could be another violent day at Complexo do Alemao.
“Our experience has taught us that after raids like these the police come under attack in every way,” Oliveira said.
____ AP journalist Mauricio Savarese contributed reporting from Sao Paulo.