The death of an eight-year-old girl from an impoverished community provoked outrage in Rio de Janeiro and across the country, as protesters question governor Wilson Witzel’s shoot-to-kill policies, arguing that it has done nothing but contribute to police brutality against Brazil’s poor black youth.
Ágatha Félix was shot in the back on Friday when she was returning home with her family in a van in the Complexo do Alemão slums, north side of Rio de Janeiro. The police say that they were reacting to an attack and exchanged fire with criminals, but local residents and witnesses say that a police officer fired at a motorcycle that was passing near the van where Ágatha’s family was.
The case and the hashtag #ACulpaÉdoWitzel (“It’s Witzel’s fault”) were the top topic on Twitter on Saturday in Brazil.
Ágatha is the fifth child shot dead in Rio de Janeiro this year, and the 16th to become a victim of armed violence in the state, according to the Fogo Cruzado platform. She was buried on Sunday amid protests and shouts of justice. Rallies in Rio and São Paulo are scheduled this week to protest the government policies that have been encouraging police brutality.
Episodes like this are the direct result of governor Wilson Witzel and other authorities’ policies and discourse that have been implicitly giving law enforcement agents permission to kill, sociologist Julita Tannuri Lemgruber argues.
“When you have authorities like [president Jair] Bolsonaro and Witzel, who advocate for legislation that allows police officers to kill and not be tried and punished for that, obviously the police feel that they have a license to kill,” says Lemgruber, who used to work for Rio’s prison system and the state’s police ombudsman office.
Professor Jacqueline Muniz, one of Rio’s biggest experts in public security, argues that Witzel has lost his authority over state security. “All governors who believe in the siren song of repression as an end in itself and the fallacy of a police that don’t enforce the law and only fires guns aimlessly became hostages of the political economy of the crime industry, of which the militias have been its electoral and economic expression for a long time,” the expert wrote.
Witzel was elected with a controversial public security platform. Experts, researchers, and human rights organizations have been consistently outcrying his policies. From January, when he took office, to July, nearly 30 percent of violent deaths recorded in the state were caused by law enforcement agents.
The Ágatha Félix case has sparked more controversy around a bill presented by Brazil’s Justice minister Sergio Moro known as “anti-crime package,” which is being reviewed by the country’s Congress. The bill includes mitigating factors for police officers, actually granting them the right not to be tried in cases of killings.
This “license to kill” can be expressed in numbers. Rio’s police killed at least five people a day in August, according to the state’s Public Security Institute. In the first six months of 2019 since Bolsonaro and Witzel took office, Rio’s police force killed 881 people, a 15-percent increase over the same period last year, when 769 people were reportedly killed by law enforcement agents. That’s 5.2 people killed per 100,000 inhabitants.
Most of these crimes committed by police officers – whether when they are on or off duty – are never investigated or taken to court.
*With reports by Geisa Marques, Guilherme Henrique, and Juca Guimarães
Edition: Aline Scátola