Police Shootings Haunt Rio's Road to the Olympics, Human Rights Groups Say

Majority of police shooting victims in Rio are poor and black, advocates say.

ByABC News
August 2, 2016, 4:24 PM

— -- Human rights advocates are calling attention to what they say is an alarming rise in the number of killings by police in Rio de Janeiro, in the months leading up to the Olympics games beginning this week.

A spokesperson from the human rights group Amnesty International said that Rio police are "cleaning up" ahead of the events, which they believe is sparking the rise in deaths caused by police activity over the past few months.

Marselha Gonçalves Margerin, Advocacy Director for the Americas at Amnesty International USA, told ABC News that while police shootings in the city have long been a serious problem, disproportionately targeting poor and black residents, the organization believes the issue has become particularly heated as the 2016 Olympic Games approach.

According to government statistics for this year, she said, 35 police killings were reported in April, 40 in May, and 49 in June. Amnesty International has launched global protests to draw attention to the deaths by laying out body bags at places like the 2016 Local Organizing Committee building in Rio and in Brussels, Belgium.

PHOTO: People hold a banner reading "Securing the favelas: The Brazilian police killed 40 people in May" as they stand by white body bags during a demonstration by Amnesty International in Brussels, Aug. 2, 2016.
People hold a banner reading "Securing the favelas: The Brazilian police killed 40 people in May" as they stand by white body bags during a demonstration by Amnesty International in Brussels, Aug. 2, 2016.

Margerin said she believes the start of the games and the escalating number of police killings that have occurred in the city in recent months have coincided, implying that the government may be targeting residents in an effort to decrease crime on behalf of tourists and spectators. "They are likely related," she said.

“With the excuse of ‘cleaning up the city’ for the Olympic Games, Brazilian military police in Rio are violating the human rights of marginalized Brazilians without accountability,” Margerin told ABC News.

A press release issued by Amnesty International about the games states that since Rio was awarded the Olympic Games in 2009, "police have killed more than 2,600 people in the city." The release cites a 103 percent increase in police killings in Rio between April 2015 and June of 2016.

Human Rights Watch, another advocacy organization, has also expressed concern about police shootings in Rio. They noted in a report called "Good Cops Are Afraid" that "one fifth of all homicides in the city of Rio last year were police killings."

The organization said in their report that two police officers reported to them that they felt "pressured by superiors to participate in unlawful killings."

Brazil has a generally high murder rate, one that Margerin notes is not at the per capita rate of a country like Honduras, but is nevertheless extremely high, especially in terms of number of people killed.

In Rio, the city's famous favelas, or slums, are overrun by organized crime with a specific focus on the drug trade, she said. The majority of residents who live in favelas are poor.

In some cases, organized crime has "replaced government" because of problems with failing infrastructure in the city, Margerin added. The government has responded to the city's struggles with crime by employing a large, militarized police force, she said.

Brazil has both a military and civil police force active on the streets of Rio, which she described as a holdout from former dictatorships in the country from 1964 to 1985.

The modern day constitution of Brazil was enacted in 1988, but she believes the violent tactics of the dictatorship-era police force remain unchanged.

"What we have is a military police force committing extrajudicial killings," she said, which she defined as "killings directly or indirectly done on behalf of the government."

In a study of ten individual police killings, Amnesty International found nine of them to be "extrajudiciary" in nature, she said, meaning there was no court or justice process to determine if those killed had committed crimes.

Margerin also referred to "You Killed My Son," an Amnesty International report showing that the killings disproportionately affect black Brazilians, particularly if the victims are younger.

Earlier this month, Black Lives Matter, the American advocacy group focused on police shootings of black Americans, told The Huffington Post they would send a delegation to the Rio Olympics.

“Police brutality is global. And Brazil has its own form of ruthlessness,” Daunasia Yancey, the founder of Black Lives Matter’s Boston chapter, told the website.

Police unions in Brazil have noted, in response to Amnesty International, that the number of police who have been killed is also high, the BBC reported last year.