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Violence in Rio de Janeiro: black lives are lost in a racist war

October 21st, 2019
topics:Humans
by:Ellen Nemitz
located in:Brazil
tags:Brazil, human-rights, poverty, racism

Raull Santiago is a black man, born and raised in Complexo do Alemão, a huge slum — or favela — in Rio de Janeiro. He is the co-creator of a local media called Papo Reto and one of the main voices of poor and black people, the majority population in these slums.

In a racist country like Brazil, where 70% of violent deaths take black lives away and five young black people die every two hours, (according to the United Nations), being poor and black is dangerous. Even if you are a child, like Ágatha Vitória Sales Feliz, an 8 year-old girl killed in September — the suspicion is that the bullet came from a police officer’s gun, even though there is no conclusive report yet — or the other four children killed this year in Rio de Janeiro.

Santiago believes that the police violence was intensified since the beginning of 2019, when Wilson Witzel — politically ally of the president Jair Bolsonaro — assumed the  governorship of Rio de Janeiro. “I strongly believe that there were a recrudescence [of the violence], not only because of data indicating the number of children hit or shot dead, but by the whole context in which the operations are more violent, with the use of helicopters shooting and the direct police violence inside the favelas”, he says.

According to statistics from Public Security Institute, police officers killed 1,294 people only in the first eight months of 2019 in Rio de Janeiro. This is equivalent to five deaths per day. Maria Lucia Karam, a former judge and one of the leaders of the anti-prohibition movement in Brazil, compares this data to São Paulo’s, where 197 out of 581 violent deaths were due to police action. As the Instituto Sou da Paz [Peace Institute, in free translation] affirms: "These numbers are examples of the rising lethality provoked by state agents”. Karam believes that there is a type of political discourse inciting violence and that it is appreciated by parts of the population. Witzel was, by the way, filmed getting off an helicopter celebrating the shot of a bus kidnapper just some weeks ago.

Santiago agrees about the impact of speech that legitimises violence, especially against black and poor people. “[This type of speech/discourse] is an incitement to violence, but a violence directed at favelas and the periphery, criminalising the people who live in these regions”, Santiago analyses. According to the specialists interviewed by FairPlanet, the way of criminalising is the war on drugs. War on some drugs — the ones commercialised in the favelas, by black people. A war that, as all wars, kills. Kills innocent people, like Ágatha. “The war on drugs is the current tool to maintain racism and inequality in the country. Despite being called a ‘war on drugs’, we easily see that the ‘war’ idea has a specific territory in which it is carried out: the favelas and periphery. This, while drugs are everywhere. There is no ‘war' on drugs, but the violent exploitation of favelas and periphery to give the elites the false sensation of security. Meanwhile, we remain without school classes, without health care, sometimes without buses, kept hurt or without life”.

The war on drugs is not directed to all drugs. Alcohol, for example, is produced and sold under legalised conditions, and in in context there is no violence, as says Maria Lucia Karam. “By promoting violence, the ‘war on drugs’ has as preferential targets the most vulnerable among producers, traders and consumers of arbitrarily chosen illicit drugs. In Brazil, they are the pointed ‘drug dealers’ who develop retailer commerce inside the favelas. Hence, the ‘war on drugs’ serves as a pretext to the State to make violent incursions into those places of living, indiscriminately reaching the poor, not-white, marginalised, powerless that try to survive”, says the former judge.

Luciana Boiteux, professor of Criminal Law at Federal University of Rio de Janeiro and federal deputy surrogate for Rio de Janeiro, blames the State for the violence that hits poor and black people in the communities: “for whom is the war interesting?”, she asks, mentioning populists politicians.

One war, many victims

The ‘war on drugs’ has two armies: the police and the drug dealers. The soldiers of one side, the police officers, “are formal or informally authorised, taught, trained and stimulated to practice violence against the chosen ‘enemies’”, as explain Maria Lucia Karam. “Certainly these police officers also have their blood spilled in this war. These are naturalised deaths,” reminds Karam. The Human Rights’ defender Luciana Boiteux also mentions suicide as a cause of death among police officers, as they are submitted to high mental pressure: “they kill and they die, inside and out of service”, she affirms.

Karam summarises the situation involving police officers, drug dealers and the populations living and working in these spaces: “Deaths are always the same: on one side, the police officers; on the other, drug dealers. All easily replaced by the employers. Also innocent people die, slum dwellers, caught in the crossfire”. 

An international crime reported to United Nations

Luciana Boiteux tells that there are a movement, composed mainly of left-sided politicians, with a strong will to report to the United Nation what is being considered an international crime of inciting genocide, which violates several international treaties. “This is a genocide of minorities, of black and poor. It is the legitimation of institutional racism”, she affirms.

According to the professor, who also works as criminal expert, the assumption that the police will not be charged is a rhetoric that feeds this violent cycle. In the case of the girl Ágatha, this may be true. Until now, no one was arrested by the crime and only two officers accepted to be part of the crime reconstitution. “PSOL [Socialism and Liberty Party] is also requesting Public Prosecutor’s Office to investigate this case. They promised to do it, and we have to charge an answer”.

Is legalising all drugs the path to peace?

Maria Lucia Karam, Luciana Boiteux and many other specialists defend the legalising of all drugs as a path to curb the violence caused by war on drugs. “There is no way of being ‘war on drugs’ and public security at the same time. Real worries with public security require the end of prohibition”, Karam assures. “Naturally, this path requires the overcoming of many prejudices, which also reach the police officers, establishing a dialogue in which their experiences are properly considered and their voices are heard”, she adds.

Raull Santiago also highlights that there is no possibility of a real change in the public security idea while the violence is the main tool for dealing with violence. “It is necessary to build another way to deal with this situation. Enough genocide”, he claims. Meantime, Santiago does not believe in a miraculous legalisation. “It takes a lot more than that. We must talk about all problems that encompass the issue of drugs. Legalising, decriminalising and regulation are discussions we should do widely with the population in order to construct a public security policy which gives us security and no more violence”.

This is essential and urgent. Giving peace, security, education, health and dignity to people living in peripheries is giving them human rights. "Favelas and peripheries in Rio de Janeiro are places of productive, innovative, creative people, who live under a hard situation, facing racism and inequality. Favelas need perspective, real investments in things that transform people. Lives in favelas matter. For the end of violence”, claims Santiago.

Article written by:
WhatsApp Image 2019-07-19 at 22.26.02
Ellen Nemitz
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© Tomaz Silva/Agência Brasil
Raull Santiago, the co-creator of a local media called Papo Reto and one of the main voices of poor and black people, the majority population in the slums.
Raull Santiago, the co-creator of a local media called Papo Reto and one of the main voices of poor and black people, the majority population in the slums.
70% of violent deaths take black lives away and five young black people die every two hours, (according to the United Nations), being poor and black is dangerous.
Police officers killed 1,294 people only in the first eight months of 2019 in Rio de Janeiro.
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