UN rights body seeks independent inquiry into Rio police raid that left 25 dead

One policeman among those killed in operation targeting drug gang

The United Nations' human rights office has joined calls for an independent investigation into a police operation in a slum in Rio de Janeiro that left 25 people dead on Thursday.

Residents in the Jacarezinho favela accused officers of committing human rights abuses, including summary executions of people already in their custody during the operation, the most lethal police action ever undertaken in the city

Police described the 24 people they killed as criminal suspects who resisted their incursion into the community, which targeted a drug gang. Television footage showed one group of heavily armed men seeking to evade capture. One officer was killed after being shot in the head.

But eyewitnesses reported police carrying out summary executions and video shot on a mobile phone appeared to show efforts by residents to prevent the capture of at least one man cornered in a building lest he be executed.

Investigations hindered

Rio’s public defenders office said several locations where deaths occurred were tampered with before autopsies could be carried out, a common tactic used by Brazilian police to hinder investigations into alleged excessive use of force.

Brazilian human rights groups denounced Thursday’s operation as a “massacre” that will do nothing to combat the city’s drug trade and called for investigations into allegations of abuses.

"Even against criminal suspects, even if involved in illegalities, there is no legal mandate authorising police to hold trials and carry out the death penalty," said Carolina Ricardo of human rights group I'm For Peace, which focuses on public security policy.

Police have aggressively pushed back against accusations of summary executions. Within hours of the operation the head of the police department that is responsible for investigating the claims said the death of one police officer during it “was conclusive proof there were no executions”.

Drug trade

Rights groups have also demanded to know why police carried out the operation after Brazil’s supreme court prohibited such actions in the city during the pandemic except in cases of emergency. Police said they were seeking to arrest 21 suspects accused of grooming children for the drug trade. Home to more than 38,000 residents in the north of the city, Jacarezinho is controlled by the Comando Vermelho, the largest of Rio’s drug gangs.

Police operations head Rodrigo Oliveira said Thursday's action met the supreme court's requirements while criticising "judicial activism" which he claimed impeded police action in some of the city's neighbourhoods. The public defenders office says it will raise the case with the court.

Among the most heavily armed and lethal in the world, Rio's police have an extensive record of violent behaviour when carrying out operations in the city's slums and a well-documented history of killing suspects in their custody. Last year 1,245 people were killed by police in the state of Rio, which is home to 17 million inhabitants, more killings than in the whole of the United States.