Rio de Janeiro’s population watched in shock on August 20 as the state’s governor, Wilson Witzel celebrated the shooting by a sniper of a 20-year-old Black man who held 37 people hostage on a bus. The perpetrator had mental health problems, had never been in trouble with the police and had a plastic gun.
While Witzel’s tactics have been applauded, the politician’s merriment as he jumped from the safety of his helicopter to compliment the sniper, revealed the current security regime being enforced in the state.
According to Pablo Nunes, from the Research Centre for Safety and Citizenship (CESeC), Witzel’s excessive glee at the death of the young man — so obviously in need of mental health care — reveals the underlying focus of the governor’s security plans.
Witzel campaigned on a shoot-first-ask-questions-later policy and his “enforcement officers” are now known as the Rio de Janeiro death squads.
The policy has resulted in a high body count made up of almost entirely Black men.
Following the incident, Witzer boasted that “one dead hijacker is better than 37 dead hostages”.
Comparisons were also made on social media to a similar hostage situation involving a white abductor, whose fate was much more positive.
Days earlier, in Niteroi, a northern suburb of Rio de Janeiro, police drug raids resulted in the deaths of six young Black men, aged between 16–21 in less than 80 hours.
All victims were bystanders when shootouts with police broke out. None was involved in drug dealing, the reason for the raids.
Witzel refuted news reports of the deaths, claiming there was no proof his enforcement officers were responsible for the killings. He even suggested that drug dealers were deliberately shooting at the public to place blame on his officers.
Two days later, evidence came to light proving that several members of Witzel’s death squads had been taking bribes from drug dealers in exchange for tip-offs about police operations.
In retaliation for the Niteroi slaughter, photographs showing police and known drug traffickers together were forwarded to the media.
The body count in Rio under Witzel has broken all previous records. Police-related deaths, up to mid-August, surpassed 800 in Rio de Janeiro alone.
Since January, violent police encounters rose 25%, reaching 1452 or six shootouts per day. These figures include not only bystanders, but people stopped by police, suspects and known criminals.
So far though, drug trafficking has not been reduced, and the only outcomes have been a rising number of crimes, increased bloodshed and a massive loss of life.
In Brazil, Rio ranks highest in police-related deaths, at 8.9 in every 100.
People living in the poorer regions of Rio de Janeiro, known as the favelas, are calling the shootings “summary executions”, “extrajudicial killings” and an all-out “genocide” committed by police.
They are also calling the policy an “anti-poverty” package, aimed at annihilating poor and Black communities and the security plan has even been taken to the United Nations High Commission for Human Rights.
Witzel openly celebrated the slaying of Marielle Franco, a local councilor and Black, lesbian activist, during his political campaign. Franco was mowed down in her car on an avenue in Rio, after taking part in an event supporting Black youths.
Following Franco’s death, he was filmed on top of a truck, cheering on other politicians who tore up a street sign bearing Franco’s name. Not long after, he tried to save face by meeting with Franco’s family to apologise.
Witzel’s name has allegedly been associated with scandals involving dodgy judges, drug traffickers and white-collar criminals.
He has the backing of Brazil’s ultra-right-wing President Jair Bolsonaro and Justice Minister Sergio Moro.
Earlier this year, Witzel was interviewed in a helicopter, flying over the favelas, with snipers hanging from the aircraft. He explained he wanted to “enhance” his state security plan, instating snipers as a regular part of his squads, to “take out” supposed drug traffickers from the air.
Brazil’s new “anti-crime” package also acquits police officers who kill when under “violence-related stress”.
Witzel’s death squads and actions are not only immoral and disgusting, they are also unconstitutional.
It seems he is actually implementing his own extrajudicial cleansing of Rio state, with no need for arrest, questioning, investigation, no chance of legal representation or due process, or mental health assistance — all rights supported by Brazil’s constitution.