Catholic activists in Brazil are demanding an independent investigation into the most lethal police operation in the history of Rio de Janeiro, which resulted in the deaths of 28 people in Jacarezinho slum on May 6.

The anti-drug raid began early in the morning on May 6 in the city’s Jacarezinho slum. Police said they were trying to arrest 21 drug traffickers after a 10-month investigation.

However, only three of the targets were arrested during the operation, with three others killed in the operation. All the other fatalities had no direct connection to the inquiry, although 24 of them were suspected members of the drug gang. The other person killed was a police officer.

Five people, including two policemen and two subway passengers hit by bullets inside a train were injured.

According to lawyer Joel Luiz Costa, who coordinates the Institute of Defense of the Black Population, police officer André de Mello Frias was killed at the beginning of the operation, which he said affected the rest of the operation.

A woman holds a sign that reads in Portuguese: “The war on drugs is an excuse to kill black and poor people” after a deadly police operation in the Jacarezinho favela of Rio de Janeiro, Brazil, Friday, May 7, 2021. (Silvia Izquierdo/AP via Crux)

“In Rio, the so-called ‘revenge operations’ are common. If a police officer is killed, the subsequent raid is three or four times more lethal than the average. In Jacarezinho, what happened after the policeman’s killing looks like a series of executions,” Costa, a Jacarezinho resident, told Crux.

Rio de Janeiro’s civil police state secretary Allan Turnowski said the day after the raid that the officers had been received with extreme violence by the criminals as they arrived in the slum.

“Everybody who knows a little bit how these operations work [know that] the drug traffickers, the criminals shoot in order to escape when we enter a community. Yesterday they were shooting to keep their positions, to kill,” he told the press, according to the Brazilian news website G1.

Rio de Janeiro State governor Cláudio Castro also stood by the police operation, saying that his “government is the most interested party in finding out the circumstances of the events.”

In June of 2020, Justice Edson Fachin of the Supreme Court decided that the Rio de Janeiro State police could not run raids in favelas – the Brazilian term for the slums in large cities – during the COVID-19 pandemic, except in exceptional cases and with the previous permission from a prosecutor. Castro’s administration claims that the Jacarezinho raid was an “exceptional case.”

According to witnesses, several of those killed had been shot in an execution style.

“When my son was going to surrender [to the police] at the Caboclo ally along with others, everybody was killed,” said the mother of Marlon Santana, a 23-year-old suspect who was shot dead in the operation. She was speaking to the website UOL.

Police conduct an operation against alleged drug traffickers in the Jacarezinho favela of Rio de Janeiro, Brazil, Thursday, May 6, 2021. (Silvia Izquierdo/AP via Crux)

Costa said that one suspect was killed inside the bedroom of 9-year-old girl. “As he was escaping, he got into a house and hid in a room. The girl had her back to him but heard when he was shot dead. She immediately called her father and told him not to come home, fearing he would be killed too,” he said. His organization is giving support to the girl’s family.

Father David Santos, a longtime Black activist and founder of the organization Educafro, signed a statement in the aftermath of the raid issued by the Human Rights Observatory of the National Justice Council, the regulatory agency of the Brazilian judiciary system.

The group repudiated the killings, demanded a broad investigation of the case, and called for compensation to be paid to the families of the victims.

“Direct killing of surrendered subjects, invasion of residences without legal permission, alterations of crime scene, disproportionate use of force, and [acts of] torture don’t conform with the Rule of Law and bring the police officers’ actions close to those you would expect from outlaws,” the document read.

According to Santos, he and Educafro are shocked by the attitude taken by Castro, especially since the governor is a longtime member of the Charismatic Catholic Renewal movement and a singer of Christian songs.

“Educafro considers that the Rio de Janeiro governor needs to be faithful to the gospel. The gospel condemns any kind of torture,” the priest said.

“When he says that all the killed suspects were criminals, he’s denying his baptism and his true Catholic nature,” Santos added.

Father Luis Antônio Pereira Lopes, coordinator of the Archdiocese of Rio de Janeiro’s pastoral commission for the favelas, told Crux that the atmosphere in Jacarezinho after the massacre is one of “sadness and suffering.”

“People there have a feeling of impotence now,” he said.

Lopes said the Brazilian State keeps committing the same errors.

“Instead of taking to the favelas public services as education, healthcare, culture, and sports, the State makes itself present there only with the police,” he said.

In the absence of the government, other institutions, like the Church, offer a few public services in Jacarezinho, the priest added.

“The Salesian priests have a school in the favela. But the necessities are too great,” he said.

Several commissions of the Brazilian bishops’ conference and Catholic movements issued a joint statement with the National Council of Christian Churches on May 7 in order to denounce the police operation.

The document emphasized that most of the men killed were young, Black favela residents and that the scenes of the raid recorded by witnesses recalled the behavior of a “paramilitary group.”

A woman light candles near a sign that reads “Genocide” the day after a deadly police operation in the Jacarezinho favela of Rio de Janeiro, Brazil, Friday, May 7, 2021. (Silvia Izquierdo/AP via Crux)

“It’s not possible to go on with an institutional racism which kills Black people. The radical violence exerted by State agents, in accordance with their superiors, creates a demand from society for the government to urgently revise its public security policy,” the letter said.

A police report released in 2020 showed that crime mafias dominate 1,413 favelas in the city of Rio de Janeiro. Nineteen percent of them are so-called militias – crime gangs formed by police officers and members of the armed forces. Violent anti-drug police incursions in slums have been a daily reality in the city for decades, often resulting in civilian casualties.

“We historically live with lethal police operations. In the 1990s things were more visible, with some raids resulting in piles of bodies. That operation in Jacarezinho was much like those ones, but the bodies were taken out by the police before been photographed,” Costa said.

For Lopes, that kind of massacre will only end when society finally starts to deal with the favelas as an integral part of the urban ecosystem.

“Every neighborhood in Rio has a favela in it,” he noted.