RIO DE JANEIRO -- A police officer fired the shot that killed an 8-year-old girl in Rio de Janeiro this year, authorities said Tuesday, a finding that bolstered complaints by activists that the collateral damage of a crackdown on crime is too high.
Ágatha Sales Félix was inside a van Sept. 20 when she was shot in the back. The incident took place in the Complexo do Alemao favela, a vast working-class community in the northern part of Rio.
The girl’s death struck a chord in a city where police violence is on the rise and there is little accountability.
Rio’s officers, as in the case of Ágatha, almost always justify on-duty killings by claiming self-defense in the face of armed criminals. The investigation provides a rare example of authorities saying an officer misrepresented events to avoid punishment and it recommends he be charged with murder.
"This police officer lied,” said Marcus Drucker, who led the investigation.
The officer initially reported using his gun to target an armed suspect on a motorcycle, authorities said. The investigation discredited his claim, saying neither the driver nor passenger of the motorcycle possessed a weapon, according to some 10 witnesses.
President Jair Bolsonaro won the 2018 election vowing to tackle endemic crime in Brazil, saying police officers who kill bandits should be decorated, not prosecuted. Rio state Gov. Wilson Witzel, a former marine, likewise pledged a crackdown, and his policies include sending snipers on helicopters to shoot criminals armed with rifles. Their proposals have coincided with a drop in crime, but been subject to criticism for increasing police violence in the favelas.
Ágatha’s family members, residents and human rights activists staged several protests after her death. Her uncle, Danilo Lima Félix, told The Associated Press that the case generated such large outrage because she was so young, making it impossible for anyone to reasonably claim she had been involved with drug trafficking.
“If she had been a teenager, they would have said she was a criminal,” Lima Félix said. “Black people in favelas don’t have much to defend themselves with.”
Still, many of those who voted for Bolsonaro and Witzel point to better crime data as proof their policies are working. The number of homicides in Brazil plunged 37% from January to September, to 23,383 victims, according to data from the justice ministry. In Rio, homicides fell 21%, official data show.
Meanwhile, deaths at the hands of Rio security officers have surged to levels unseen since the late 1990s, the Brazilian think tank Igarape Institute said. The 1,400 victims between January and September were up 18.5% from the prior year, official data shows.
Children have not been spared.
Ágatha was one of six children killed by stray bullets in Rio’s metropolitan area so far this year, whether by police or criminals, according to the nonprofit group Rio de Paz. There were 10 children killed by stray bullets in each of the three years from 2016 to 2018.
The latest victim was Ketellen Umbelino de Oliveira Gomes, 5, killed on her way to school Nov. 12. Rio de Paz is organizing a December protest.
"Brazilian society, public power, need to answer a central question: How many fingers pulled the trigger of the gun that killed Ágatha Felix?” asked Antônio Carlos Costa, president of Rio de Paz.
Costa argued the police are not the only culprit for Brazil’s “warlike culture” and its “shoot first, find out who it is afterward” culture.
The heated debate crept into Congress on Tuesday, when a lawmaker from the conservative PSL party that brought Bolsonaro to power, destroyed a banner denouncing police violence against the country’s black population.
The large illustration was titled “Genocide of the black population” and depicted a black man lying dead on the ground, his hands cuffed behind his back, and a white policeman walking away, a smoking gun in his hand.
Victims of police violence are often black, poor and living in favelas, where the government’s reach is weaker.
Wednesday is Black Consciousness Day in Brazil, a bank holiday in several cities.
The officer who shot Ágatha is no longer patrolling the streets, the police said in an email. The investigation was sent to the state prosecutor’s office Tuesday, and a judge will examine the case.
“What we want is justice, that this police officer pays for what he has done,” said Lima Félix, the girl’s uncle.